End of road for modern highwaymen

A GANG of modern-day highwaymen held a 12-month reign of terror over the territory's roads. They rammed cars off highways, pistol-whipped their victims and stole their valuables.

During their 40-robbery spree, the gang roamed the roads looking for unwary prey. As their attacks became increasingly violent, they began using firearms and are believed to have been responsible for one man's death. But the syndicate was finally smashedwhen the ringleader was caught after a police investigation which covered Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

Gang leader Li Kwok has just begun an 18-year sentence for his part in a series of robberies in which thieves targeted Rolex watches and jewellery worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

High Court judge Justice Duffy branded Li an ''armed bandit that terrorised highways'' and said a well-ordered, civilised society such as Hong Kong could not tolerate such attacks.

''Never has the territory witnessed so many attacks of this nature,'' Inspector Chan Wai-man said.

''This gang would pick out a victim because of their expensive jewellery or watches, tail their car and then pounce.'' At first the robbers would set up a mock crash, forcing their victims to stop. The car's windows would be smashed and the victims would be cracked on the head with the butt of a pistol or punched in the face.

The car would then be driven away to a quiet location and the victims robbed of their possessions.

''Towards the end of their reign the gang changed their MO [modus operandi ],'' Inspector Chan said.

''Instead of being careful they would just ram into victims' cars, forcing them off the road.'' As the raids increased, so did the violence. It is thought the gang may have been responsible for the death of a 50-year-old businessmen who died from head injuries after his car was forced off the road by bandits. Lack of evidence meant police could notpress charges.

In September 1990, Li and an accomplice committed two robberies within hours, one in which a driver was injured when accidentally shot by police. Li then fled to Taiwan, but was deported a year ago.

His accomplice, Pang Chun-wai, was sentenced to life in jail in 1991, but the sentence was reduced on appeal to 18 years.

It was late at night on September 10, 1990, when Li and members of his gang deliberately drove their car into a Mercedes Benz at Sha Tin. When the driver, Tam Ka-hei, and his wife, Katalina Yiu, got out to inspect the damage, two men from Li's vehicle threatened them with pistols and forced them back into their car.

The couple was robbed of valuables and $7,000 in cash and when the gang learned Mr Tam owned a restaurant in Wan Chai, they demanded $10,000 for his release.

After the money was handed over, the victims were dumped in North Point.

Li and Pang later used the victims' car to commit a similar holdup in Lion Rock Tunnel Road on another Mercedes driven by chauffeur Wong Hon-ping.

While the robbery was in progress, two policemen approached Mr Wong's car and heard shots being fired. They saw a man get out of the back seat and open fire on them.

After an exchange of fire, the attackers escaped, but Mr Wong was found with a bullet wound to the groin after being accidentally shot by police.

But it was a parking ticket which led to the downfall of the gang. A hire car they were picking up at a Tsing Yi car park had left without payment of a parking fee. Police were waiting when it returned and Li and Pang were arrested.

As the two arrived at the police station, Li escaped on foot. Two handguns and 15 rounds of ammunition were later found in the boot of the hire car. On examination, it was discovered one of the guns had been fired.

Li spent the next year in hiding after fleeing to Macau and then to Taiwan, where he was arrested and brought back to the territory.

''These men used violence consistently - it was a great relief to us when they were caught,'' Inspector Chan said.

''They were striking at a rate of nearly one a week all over the territory.''