The hunt for Britain's most wanted man

The hunt for Britain's Chinese fugitive accused of murdering business partner and his family was finally tracked down a year later and 1,900 kilometres away

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 March, 2013, 3:02am

When the police chief of Tangier came face-to-face with a suspected illegal immigrant, little did he know he had in his custody Britain's most wanted man.

Back in April 2011, Abdallah Bellahfid quizzed the balding businessman, who called himself Li Ming and claimed to be from Taiwan, for several hours.

He gave them no other details and held no documentation, so officers contacted the Chinese embassy in Morocco, but drew a blank. Finally he was released because they could not determine his identity or nationality.

Five days earlier and 1,900 kilometres away, university lecturer Ding Jifeng, his wife Helen, and their two daughters 18-year-old Xing and Alice, 12, had been brutally stabbed to death at their home in the village of Wootton, near Northampton in England.

Police took the unusual step of naming Helen's former business partner Du Anxiang as the man they believed was the murderer. What they didn't do was release details about the 54 year-old suspect - a British citizen since 2004 - to foreign police.

Fifteen months later Bellahfid sat across from the same man in the same interview room. This time he knew who the man in his custody was.

Now after almost two years, British police have finally brought their man home to face justice. The fugitive landed back in Britain on Wednesday last week, and has since appeared in court ahead of his trial later this year.

While the details of the case cannot be reported until then, the story of how Britain's most wanted man evaded arrest by fleeing to another continent, living rough and scavenging food can be told.

It was the day of Prince William's wedding to Kate Middleton when Du is believed to have travelled from his home in Coventry to his herbal medicine shop in Birmingham, then on to the Ding's luxury detached home.

Inside the house, the Ding family were slaughtered. Crucially, the bodies were not found until 48 hours later. In that time, Du had left the country.

Du had moved to Britain in 1999, where his wife, Dr Can Chen, was already living. Neither spoke much English.

The couple met Hangzhou-born science lecturer Ding, known as Jeff, and his chemical engineer wife, who friends called Helen.

She had grown up in Shanghai where she was known as Ge Chui. Together, they ran two herbal medicine shops in the West Midlands of England.

So close were the families that Jeff and his wife supported Du's application for residency.

But the relationship broke down with both sides accusing the other of financial discrepancies over their business dealings.

A string of court proceedings culminated in Du's assets being frozen on the evening of April 28, 2011. Hours later the family were dead.

Tragically call centre staff "abandoned" a call, made by Ding Xing as her family were being murdered downstairs.

Later, the call was incorrectly traced to an address near a golf club and was then wrongly downgraded in importance.

Northamptonshire Police apologised for the incident and admitted the mistake could have potentially cost officers a vital chance to catch the murderer before he fled the town.

The killer had driven away in Ding's hire car. The trail took detectives to London after the car was found abandoned in a street.

As detectives frantically played catch-up, CCTV footage was discovered of Du walking close to Edgware Road in London the day after the murders.

He then boarded a bus at London's Victoria station, shortly after the Ding family were found dead at their home.

Du is known to have travelled to Paris, then on through France and Spain, before catching a ferry from the port of Algeciras to the Moroccan city of Tangier.

His life there was very different from his comfortable existence with his family back in Britain, where he was known to locals as a friendly man who was often seen walking his dog.

His early movements are unclear, apart from his arrest as a suspected illegal immigrant in the city of Oujda, near the Algerian border, in early May 2011.

At that time, British detectives had no idea Du had fled abroad and had not issued his photo to Interpol.

"We could find nothing about him," said Bellahfid. "We had no choice but to let him go."

Du went underground and began sleeping rough in a building site in the Beni Makada suburb of Tangier, four miles outside of the city centre, sheltering on the floor of a draughty room in a partly-built block of flats.

One builder said: "His bed was made of bricks and wooden planks and he used a small gas burner to cook his meals.

"He acted as a night watchman then slept through the day. Fellow workers took pity on him and gave him food parcels."

In July last year, 14 months after the killings, he was arrested. During that time he remained on top of Britain's most-wanted list.

Meanwhile, in April of last year a team of "specialist detectives" spent three weeks in China investigating the case. Officers went to Hangzhou to visit the victim's family, and spoke to the suspect's associates.

Du was finally apprehended when the owner of the building site saw his wanted photo in a local newspaper and called the police. "When I saw his photo I said: 'That is the Chinese man on my workforce'," he said. "I could not believe it, so I called police."

The end came when three armed detectives crept into the half-built flats and pounced as Du slept. They pinned him to the ground and handcuffed him.

Then, by a strange coincidence, more than a year after their first meeting Du found himself facing the same Moroccan police chief he had given the slip to.

Bellahfid recognised him immediately and this time knew he was wanted in Britain.

"I knew he was the man the British police had been searching for." Bellahfid said. "His first words were: 'I'm innocent. I'm not the killer'."

Now that denial of guilt is to be put to the test in a court of law. All that is left for the grieving relatives of the Ding family is the hope that justice will be done.