The Killings at Stillwell Road
In January 2011, two men were stabbed to death at a $2 million mansion in Mt Albert. What happened that morning in the house on the hill?
First published September 2013. Additional reporting by Jeremy Olds.
Last month a jury in the High Court at Auckland reached a curious verdict in the double-murder trial of Cheng Qi “Chris” Wang, 53, a small, lithe fellow with a shrewd face and thinning hair, accused of stabbing two men to death. It was his third trial. The first, in March 2012, had been abandoned very late in the piece. The jury was already down to 11 — a juror withdrew after she realised she knew a witness — when the prosecution called its final witness, a cheerful pathologist from Vermont.
He was asked, “Did you identify a large number of stab wounds?”
“Yes,” said the American.
“Did they in fact total 23?”
He went on to explain that to accurately measure the length of a wound, you press the edges of the skin together; skin has tremendous elasticity. The jury stared at him, and bent their heads to study a death booklet — images from the autopsy, pale bodies on a white sheet. One of the two dead men had his eyes open. An afternoon tea break was called. Suddenly, the jury was reduced to 10 — an ambulance shrieked to the side entrance of the High Court on Parliament St, and a juror was taken to hospital for emergency surgery on a ruptured bowel.
The second trial, held six months later, went the whole way. And then it got nowhere: the jury was unable to deliver a verdict. They had signalled to the judge that they were “very close” to reaching a majority verdict of 11-1, but couldn’t go any further. It was assumed there were two obstinate jurors. Had they prevented a verdict of guilty? Family of the victims wept bitter tears.
The third trial was held over three weeks in June and July. It was a kind of re-enactment, the same evidence, most of the same witnesses. It was held upstairs in courtroom 14, with views of the museum through the window. Three weeks of rain, and storms; on the opening day of the 15-day trial, a bottle of Landscape merlot had been smashed on the front steps, and broken glass lay among wet leaves.
Jury selection, held downstairs next to the criminal office with its soft toys and All Black flags, resulted in a woman foreperson. She wore rather confident outfits, including a matching green jacket, skirt, and shoes. The other jurors included a tired man with a ponytail, a couple of callow youths, and a woman who wore blue-rimmed glasses, her hair in a bun, and an expression of furious distaste.
But there was one person missing that morning: the accused. The proper release forms hadn’t been filled out, and Wang remained in his cell in Paremoremo prison. The jury weren’t aware that there had been two previous trials, and neither could they be told that Wang had recently been sentenced to two years and nine months’ imprisonment for money laundering and fraud.
Calls were made to the prison. The trial finally began after lunch. Wang stood in the dock, once again in his usual tunic — a collarless jacket, with a horizontal pinstripe, its cuffs unbuttoned to reveal a tartan lining. Was it all he owned? His tan shoes looked old. Wang, too, was worn; in the year since his last appearance in the High Court, his face had lost some of its vitality.
A tragedy was told about two men who were chopped up and killed on a summer’s morning two years ago at one of the most amazing addresses in Auckland.
Justice Geoffrey Venning welcomed the jury. Crown prosecutor Kevin Glubb, a stately individual with a deep, throbbing voice, which he kept moist with furtive handfuls of Eclipse mints, gave his opening address. For the third time, a tragedy was told about two men who were chopped up and killed on a summer’s morning two years ago at one of the most amazing addresses in Auckland.
Police photographs of the crime scene show bright sunlight falling through the upstairs windows at 23 Stilwell Rd, Mt Albert, a grand old mansion with a glass elevator, an indoor spa pool, chickens out the back, and a trail of blood leading to the body of Zhuo “Michael” Wu, 44, who collapsed and bled to death at the bottom of the stairs. His friend Yishan “Tom” Zhong, 53, had also tried to escape the slaughter. He made it outside. Drops of his blood led past a white fountain and down the front steps onto the driveway; he collapsed and bled to death in a clump of leaves.
“Michael”, “Tom”, “Chris” — the made-up names signal the otherness of Asian life in Auckland. The three men got to know each other through the Chinese community, conducted business in Mandarin and broken English, flew in and out of Beijing. Witnesses talked of yum char and karaoke; Michael Wu’s widow quoted an old saying: “You can get rid of the monk, but you still will not get rid of the temple.”
Wu and Zhong drove to Wang’s house on a Friday morning, January 14, 2011. They opened the front door and walked straight in. Did the two men — and this was the question which haunted three juries, became the central riddle they tried to solve — step into the kitchen and grab a knife? Wang was in his bedroom. In a doorway at the top of the stairs in the house on the hill on Stilwell Rd, there was a fight to the death.
Wang claimed self-defence. He said the two men had come to kill him. He gave a four-hour interview at the Avondale police station that afternoon and demonstrated his miraculous escape. He was, he explained, expert at kung fu.
In broad daylight, 23 Stilwell Rd is magnificent to behold, as big as the sky. From the Herald’s homes section, when the mansion was put on the market in 2007: “You approach the house through an arbour draped with bougainvillea… The formal dining room… The elegant leadlighting… Breathtaking deck views stretching from Waterview, across to the Waitakeres and around to the Chelsea Sugar Refinery… A ladder pulls down to take you up to a secret door, which leads onto an even higher deck. Here the view widens to include Huia, Rangitoto, the city and Mt Eden.”
Nice. All of Stilwell Rd has a gentle, soothing quality; the pulse slows, the struggle and narrowness of life is elsewhere. The trees are so pretty. There are the cedars and conifers planted in the 1930s by the Reverend Thomas Joughlin, a Methodist minister who lived at 7 Stilwell Rd. There are the wonderful palms, grown from seed in the 1970s by botanist Alan Esler, who lives at number 7 to this day.
Stilwell Rd is within the “golden triangle”, property sales blather for the three most expensive and desirable streets in Mt Albert. The other two streets are Sadgrove Terrace and Summit Drive. The swimming pools, the ornamental gardens, the grassy slopes of the volcano… Real estate agent Anne Duncan listed three recent sales on Stilwell Rd. One went for $1,400,000, another for $1,660,000, and the highest for $2,450,000. “All,” she said, “to nice families attending local schools.”
The epicentre of this happy, well-educated colony of the rich is 23 Stilwell Rd. More from the sales pitch in the Herald: “Hollywood glamour meets genteel colonialism… Park-like grounds, a colonnade entry, sculpted fountain…”
The first owner was Maria Cossey, who passed herself off as the Princess Marie-Jeanne de Guise.
It was built in 1929 for a fantasist. The first owner was Maria Cossey, who passed herself off as the Princess Marie-Jeanne de Guise. She claimed direct ancestry with the royal House of Guise in France. The family line included Mary of Guise, Queen of Scotland, and mother of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Maria of Mt Albert’s grandson is Andrew Hunter, who lives in France, and demands to be known as the Prince de Guise. The Baronage Press reports, “We have full particulars of Andrew Hunter’s ancestry, which show his claims to be a total fantasy… It is presumably his grandmother’s fantasies that he has adopted.”
Her faux palace in the Antipodes sold to a knight. Sir David Henry emigrated from Scotland to New Zealand in 1907 when he was 19. He found work as a farm labourer. Clever and ambitious, he rose to become New Zealand’s pre-eminent industrialist as the head of NZ Forest Products, building Kinleith pulp and paper mill. “Past-president Auckland Rotary. Past-president Auckland YMCA… Recreation: bowls and golf.” Former cabinet minister Michael Bassett, who lived on Stilwell Rd for 37 years, read out loud from his copy of Who’s Who in New Zealand, the sixth edition, published in 1956. He noted of Sir David, “He probably would have been in the seventh edition, gone by the eighth.”
He had created fabulous wealth, made a profound difference to the New Zealand economy, but a cold and joyless rage lingers over his name.
Sir David put in an elevator for his wife, Mary, a paraplegic. A year after her death, he married her younger sister, Dorothy. He had created fabulous wealth, made a profound difference to the New Zealand economy, but a cold and joyless rage lingers over his name. In his history of NZ Forest Products, Brian Healy wrote, “Sir David lacked warmth and humour in his working relations and tended to be abrupt and demanding with his subordinates.” Sydney Shep of Victoria University wrote in a research paper on the Kinleith mill, “Business contemporaries found him stiff, sombre, intense, driven, and dictatorial.” Michael Roche, writing Sir David’s entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, noted his subject’s “erratic behaviour” in later years. “Many meetings were held in his Mt Albert home, during which he repeatedly lashed out verbally.”
He died in 1963. The house went on the market after Lady Dorothy died in 1979. Michael Bassett attended the auction. He said, “Every sticky beak in the neighbourhood had a look at the place. The rooms were large, the kitchen had Terrazzo benches — they were all the rage in the 1930s. We had one at home. The only trouble was that whenever any lemon juice got anywhere near it, your Terrazzo would end up by being all pitted. Anyway, it had Terrazzo benches, it had a lift that went up, it was dingy, dark, old.
“Nonetheless, at the auction, it went for the staggering sum of $155,000, which had everybody gasping and nobody could work out who had actually bought the place.
“Up steps this guy in short pants and a singlet. He slaps this woman next to him and says, ‘Meet my de facto!’ And then, ‘Ho-ho-ho, keeps you young!’ His name was Barrie Cardon.”
The house loomed white and wonderful, gleaming in the sun. Inside, Michael Wu’s body lay face down at the foot of the stairs.
The first witness called by the prosecution took the jury on a guided tour through 23 Stilwell Rd. It was a strange kind of open home. Jason Barr, a forensic technician at the ESR, who wore a tight black suit and a hipster’s full-strength beard, had used specialised camera equipment that allowed viewers to walk through 22 locations. A screen was set up in court. Barr loaded a DVD. It played moving images of the approach to the house — the driveway in sunshine and shadow, Tom Zhong’s body with one foot poking out beneath a sheet, wisteria in the courtyard, a gas barbecue on the front porch.
The house loomed white and wonderful, gleaming in the sun. Inside, Michael Wu’s body lay face down at the foot of the stairs. His white iPhone was nearby. He made his last call as he staggered down the stairs, dying. The number he called belonged to Zhong. It went unanswered. Zhong had already staggered down the stairs; his phone probably rang when he was outside, dying. Was it a call for help?
The ESR film delved into the basement, went up the stairs, looked over the balcony. And throughout, one thing jarred, kept intruding on the guided tour of a beautiful old house with lovely wood panelling and delicate leadlight: a sense of cheapness. It was there in the plastic clotheshorses in the front room and the upstairs lounge. It was there in the full-length mirror merely propped up against a wall in the hallway. It was also there in the absences. There wasn’t anything on the walls. There was a glass cabinet, and the only thing in it was a chamberpot. There was a bedroom with a cot, empty bags of potato chips, a flat-screen TV on top of a sideboard. There were cardboard boxes in the hallway. There were wet towels flopped over the bath. It was as though the occupants were passing through; it looked like a hotel which had seen better days.
Auckland businessman Dermot Nottingham discussed property investments with Wang, and visited him at Stilwell Rd numerous times in 2009 and 2010. He said Wang claimed to own several properties, and a $2 million duck farm.
He said, “There was always an undercurrent with Chris that he needed money. He was driving around in a small car, which was quite strange because most affluent Chinese show off their wealth. The grass wasn’t kept, it had different layers of grass in the various gardens. It gave me the feeling there was something wrong financially.
“I’d go around and it wasn’t unusual for Chris to be out in his kitchen, because when you live like a pauper, you live in the kitchen. There were hardly any furnishings in the house. The kitchen didn’t have a table and chairs in it. It was a large kitchen, and it was a kitchen you’d normally dine in. He did have large knives in the kitchen, very large knives, like cleavers. I put that down to him owning duck farms and maybe taking a couple of ducks home and killing them…”
It took a full day in court to screen the ESR scientist’s silent movie. His cameras moved around Wang’s bedroom, showed a telescope on the balcony, $5.50 in change and a knife sheath on a round table. In the next-door lounge, there were two knives in a pool of blood on the carpet, one pointing left, one pointing right.
The knives were the trial’s two most significant objects. They contained the meaning to what happened, were at the centre of everything. They were displayed in court on a low table beneath the witness stand. They had remained so sharp that Justice Venning fussed for two days about whether to allow the jury to handle them. The risk of someone cutting themselves was high. “Not on my watch,” he fretted, before settling on the use of a protective tape.
Crown prosecutor Kevin Glubb picked one up with his long fingers and waved it in the air. It caught the light, and there was a flash of silver in the courtroom. It was the hunting knife that belonged to Wang. “It’s a very beautiful knife,” Wang said in his police interview.
It was a heavy weapon, with a ridged blade, and an image of a baying wolf on it — it was referred to in court exhibits as WILD WOLF KNIFE.
It was a heavy weapon, with a ridged blade, and an image of a baying wolf on it — it was referred to in court exhibits as WILD WOLF KNIFE. A fingerprint expert, a black man from Durban in South Africa, said the last person to hold the knife was Chris Wang. Wang kept it in a bedroom drawer. It was plunged with such force into Zhong’s back that it broke through two ribs and pierced his right lung. It killed him; he coughed blood on the stairwell walls, and died curled up against a fence, frothing at the mouth.
But all eyes at the trial were fixed on the other knife found in the pool of blood — a Galaxy knife with a stainless-steel blade. In essence, the trial was about the mystery of the second knife. A tenant at Stilwell Rd bought it for $3 at the Made in Japan bargain shop on Queen St. (The knife was actually made in China.) It was kept in the kitchen at Stilwell Rd. The night before the killings, it was used in the kitchen to slice a pizza.
Glubb asked the jury, “How did it get upstairs?” But his answer was useless: “We may never know.” Somehow, he said, it was placed next to the hunting knife. Its presence was staged.
Wang’s lawyer, Tom Sutcliffe, asked the jury, “How did it get upstairs? Who put it there, and why?” Sutcliffe, an earnest, thoughtful Mormon from Hamilton, supplied an exact answer. “Michael brought it. He upped the ante. They had visited before. They knew where the kitchen was. This was a premeditated plan to locate and confront him.”
With the knife came Wang’s plea of self-defence. He told police the two men came at him with the knife, and he did everything he could to protect himself. His actions included scampering into his bedroom and unsheathing his own knife, the WILD WOLF. The three men rolled on the floor.
Wang told police that Michael Wu got hold of the hunting knife, but he managed to turn it around, and point it at his attacker. Tom Zhong, he said, pressed Wu onto the knife — in effect, impaling his own friend, and causing the fatal wounds. Then, he said, he grabbed Zhong and used him as a human shield; as far as he could tell, in the confusion and terror, Wu stabbed his own friend in the back.
“Ridiculous… bizarre… outlandish,” Glubb told the jury. “If we’re to believe this, it’s not just one of the most ineffectual attacks ever mounted, it was suicidal.” He said that Wang simply went at Michael, and then stabbed Tom in the back while he was trying to run away.
Sutcliffe told the jury, “Chris Wang believed he was going to die. He used every ounce of his physical strength and mental will to survive.”
The fatal struggle lasted only three or four minutes. Wang walked down the stairs and called 111. The despatcher wanted to know where he lived.
He screeched, “People want come and kill me!”
She said, “Can you stop talking when I’m talking? I need your address, mate.”
He shouted, “Ambah-lance! Hurry up!”
“Tell me,” sighed the despatcher, “your address.”
Barrie Cardon lived at 23 Stilwell Rd until his mysterious death in 2005, when he fell off the upstairs balcony. He was a happy, lively property developer who owned a row of buildings on Karangahape Rd. His tenants ran massage parlours and strip clubs. Cardon collected their rents in cash.
“I was married at Stilwell Rd,” said his daughter Deena. “I got into my bridal dress, came down the front steps and hopped in the Mustang — we had Mustangs for the wedding cars. Dad collected Mustangs. He loved classic cars in general, but he had five Mustangs.”
She said the house was rundown when her father bought it from Sir David Henry’s widow. “I remember a huge renovation going on. He gutted it completely and put in the flash kitchen and the wonderful stairs out the front. Dad just absolutely loved his garden and he was quite obsessive about his roses. There was a massive garden — most of the property was manicured garden beds, just little circular garden beds.
“And there were servants’ quarters! Dad made it into the spa room. It had a tongue and groove ceiling like an upturned boat’s hull. It had the Axminster carpet as well, and mirrors… It was just beautiful, the spa room.
“He absolutely loved the house. There was no expense spared when he did things to it. He was excited when, for example, the carpet he selected was the same as in Westminster Abbey. It’s got a really intricate design woven into it.”
Her memories of the house were of its charm and elegance, and the enjoyment it gave her father. But it ended in tragedy.
In about 2002, Barrie Cardon began to develop Alzheimer’s. “He went downhill very quickly, and we realised he was going to need live-in care.” He’d already hired a Tongan woman to live at the address as his housekeeper. “Funnily enough she used to be his tenant many years ago. They bumped into each other at the shops one day. He wasn’t sick at the time but he realised that he was getting older and was looking at getting someone to look after the house. It was becoming too much for him.”
The woman had worked at the mental health unit at Carrington. With the onset of his Alzheimer’s, it was decided she would become his caregiver.
Deena: “And then Dad fell off the balcony onto the concrete pavement down below. He was found in the early hours of the morning.”
His caregiver discovered him. “She was sleeping in the bed with him at the time. Apparently she heard his cries for help.”
“By the time we finally got in, most of his stuff was gone.”
He died in hospital about eight weeks later. The day of the funeral, she said, papers were filed which excluded his family from the house. The Tongan woman claimed matrimonial property rights, and asserted she had been in a relationship with Cardon.
“My sister and I were excluded from the home for 18 months. We weren’t even allowed to take a photo or a T-shirt or anything that belonged to Dad. By the time we finally got in, most of his stuff was gone. We did get photos and stuff but as far as his furniture, his clothing, all his personal belongings were pretty much gone.”
Her father, she said, was an extraordinary man. “Definitely eccentric. He walked around in a singlet and shorts and bare feet 24 hours a day, summer or winter. You’d see a guy you’d think was homeless step out of a Mustang — that was Dad to a T. Extremely generous, caring, would often take people into the home that might be going through a rough patch and help them get on their feet.”
The last time she saw 23 Stilwell Rd was on the TV news on the night of the murders. “The way it was portrayed was like, ‘A house marred with tragedy.’ It instantly took us back to what happened with Dad. He would’ve been horrified to know what happened in his beautiful house.”
In his police interview on the afternoon of the killings, Wang drew stick figures to illustrate what happened at the house that morning. He gave them names. His spoken English came and went; his written English was hit and miss. Next to his drawing of Michael Wu, he wrote, “Maccl.” He identified another figure, “Gall.” He meant ‘girl’ — Soo Jin Ahn, a young Korean woman who started an affair with Wang that week, and was a witness to the killings.
She wore black nail polish and a snug jersey when she appeared in court as a prosecution witness. She described a kind of summer romance. Wang took her to a restaurant on Tuesday night, and she stayed the night at Stilwell Rd. He made porridge in the morning and brought it to her in bed. They met again on Thursday night. They ate pizza in his downstairs kitchen. She sliced it with the Galaxy knife.
Wang went fishing at Waiwera with friends. She went to bed. He came back at about 4.30am. She woke at 7am, had a shower, and read the paper in the lounge. Wang woke up, and she opened the balcony doors. “It’s my habit,” she told the court. “When I get up I want to bring fresh air in.”
The gorgeous summer morning, the curtains of the balcony moving in a light breeze. Ahn was barefoot, and wore a pink tracksuit. She sat on a couch and opened her laptop.
Glubb asked her, “While you were sitting there, what happened?”
She said, “I felt some indication of human being so I lift my head.”
Michael Wu and Tom Zhong were at the top of the stairs.
They asked for Wang. She went into the bedroom, and said to him, “You have visitors.”
Michael Wu was a friendly, laid-back kind of guy. His second wife, a pretty nurse, gave birth to their son in late 2010. Michael spoke good English, unlike Tom Zhong. Tom had worked for 30 years in China as a pharmacist, restaurant manager, and prison guard, and qualified for a pension. He took his daughter Jade to live in Auckland. Like Michael, he became friends with Chris Wang.
Michael’s widow, Maggie, told the court about a glamorous outdoor party Wang gave in Kaukakakapa: “Music and food and also I saw somebody is riding the horse.”
Michael and Tom went into business with Wang and got burnt. Both said they’d loaned Wang money — $125,000 from Michael, $30,000 from Tom — and he hadn’t paid it back.
All three had grievances. The question on their lips was: what do you do with a problem called Chris?
Their frustrations led them to Wang’s ex-wife, Michelle. All three had grievances. The question on their lips was: what do you do with a problem called Chris? She told him that Wang had taken over her four properties in Auckland — 75 College Rd in Northcote, 55 and 57 Morningside Drive in St Lukes, and the Stilwell Rd mansion — and ordered tenants to pay rent to him, in cash. Her mortgage payments fell behind. She was under increasing pressure from the banks. In an effort to hold off on mortgagee sales, she engaged Michael to act as her representative. He travelled to her home town in China to discuss a plan of action.
Michael and Tom met with a lawyer, David Snedden, who prepared trespass notices against Wang, and documents authorising them to divert rents back to Michelle’s account. The two men went to Stilwell Rd that Friday morning to advise the tenants that their rent had to be paid to Michelle.
They took documents. Police photos show the papers where the men left them: in the back seat of their car. Why didn’t they bring them to the house? Why did they simply walk in the door and traipse up the stairs? “Whether they knocked,” Glubb told the jury, “we will never know.”
What had they discussed when they met at Tom’s house the previous night? Or did they decide on a course of action that morning in the car? Sutcliffe reminded the jury that the documents were left in the car, and said, “They weren’t going there to serve papers. There was something else going on here.”
It was a compelling argument. Were the two obstinate jurors in the second trial the only ones, in fact, who held out for a murder verdict? Had they prevented Wang from hearing the sweet words, “Not guilty?”
Soo Jin was the prosecution’s star witness. She described the three men rolling around the floor, “like a tangled one-piece”, a beast with three backs. She said the fight broke out seconds after she stepped out onto the balcony. Glubb took this as evidence that Wang simply exploded, saw red, snapped, grabbed his WILD WOLF knife and went berserk.
But her evidence also played in Wang’s favour. She said that when Wang saw the two men, one of them silently gestured to him by raising his arm and beckoning him to come closer with his index finger. She told the court, “I thought the visitors were upset or angry. The reason was because Asian people do not call people like that.”
No one calls people like that unless they want a fight. “Upset, angry”; were they armed? The man in front had nothing in his hands, but she couldn’t see the man standing behind him. Was he holding the Galaxy? Or was their “home invasion”, their “attack”, a case of the knife that wasn’t there?
Detective Sergeant Joe Aumua said, “During our inquiries, we kept hearing from the Chinese community that they thought this guy Chris Wang was untouchable. And to some extent, he was.”
It may be regarded as incredible that Wang had only ever been held in custody for about six weeks after his arrest on two charges of murder. His former lawyer, David Jones, QC, successfully applied for Wang to be released on bail. The police appealed, wanted him kept banged up until he came to trial, but got nowhere.
When the first trial was abandoned, the man accused of butchering two people with a hunting knife left the court, and drove home.
Chris Wang said the next day, “I live good quality.” We met at his house on Salisbury Rd in St Lukes. “Here, you can see.” He waved his hand in a broad gesture, taking in the oak table, the faux Victorian chairs, the pompous grandfather clock. They looked very expensive. “Of course! I never live poor quality. I always live very nice quality.”
I met Chris Wang at his home in St Lukes. He was vain, trim, small, muscled, nimble, shrill, fit and very courteous.
He was vain, trim, small, muscled, nimble, fit, shrill, and very courteous. A handsome man, with a kind of regal bearing. His hair was cut short. He had a nice smile. He talked a lot. He was likeable, a good host, quite charming. He stayed on the move; there wasn’t anything languid about him. It was hard not to stare at his hands.
We drank green tea, and sat at his kitchen table. An old lady who didn’t speak a word of English watered a potplant. The clock bonged. It was a dark house, dimly lit — bizarrely, Wang was arrested four months after the killings, accused of stealing $164.96 of light switches from Bunnings in Mt Roskill. No doubt they were quality switches.
Wang talked about arriving in New Zealand from Shanghai with only $50 in his pocket. “I do everything. Mow lawn, cut the tree, do the painting, the plumbing, the carpentry. Then I bought a house for $10,000 in Beachhaven and sell it for $150,000. I think I’m very clever! I think, ‘Oh, I’m rich!’ New Zealand give me everything.”
He loved it here, he said. Fishing, and hunting, and bush walks. “But very bad memories here. I will probably move back to China.”
First, though, there was the matter of his criminal trial for double-murder. Was he worried he’d be found guilty? He said, “Worried? Why you think I worried? I tell the truth. The evidence tells the truth.”
The story he told about the killings on Stilwell Rd began with his claim that Michael Wu and Tom Zhong had threatened him for months, demanding repayments, and blithely walking in and taking his furniture.
“I say to Michael, ‘I can get your money back, but give me a bit of time.’ I scared. I want to keep him away. He play rugby. He very strong. He say, ‘Chris, you start from nothing to now you have plenty. I can make you nothing again.’
“They just come into my home, my gate all broken, it happen all the time. Yes, they take furniture! Of course! All the time! Michael take one container — all the nice furniture. Beautiful, much better than that!” He waved a hand again at the sombre grandfather clock. “I always get nice furniture. The best. I pay millions of dollar. Michael take and say, ‘Oh, got anything else?’ And reach out and grab things. Just like that!”
“We meet in China. At that time she so nice to me. So nice! Even I put my shoes on, I never need to — she will kneel down and do it. Just like that…”
He told another story. He said he came home one day and found Tom having sex with his wife in the movie room. “I was quite angry with that. At that time Tom was quite good friends with me. I tell Tom, ‘We never ever be friends. You just out.’ I angry with my wife. I say, ‘You are so bad! Why you do that?’ She think she divorce me, she get the lot. She have no money! Poor! She from very poor family. I pay everything. We meet in China. At that time she so nice to me. So nice! Even I put my shoes on, I never need to — she will kneel down and do it. Just like that…”
But his wife owned four houses in Auckland, including Stilwell Rd. They were in her name.
He explained what happened on the morning of January 14, 2011. Michael and Tom simply appeared at the top of the stairs. Michael attacked him with a knife. “I push the knife away. Because I learn kung fu a long time ago. No one know.” He ran and grabbed his WILD WOLF. “I scared. In shock. I in my pyjama.” There was a struggle. Michael was impaled on the knife. “He get two cuts. They [the prosecution] say 23 cuts. But the others just scratch. Real cuts, just two.”
The maths is wrong. The post-mortem carried out on Michael identified a stab wound above the hip which entered the peritoneal cavity, a stab wound to the back which cut the kidney, a stab wound through the rib cage, and a stab wound cutting the liver. Four “real cuts”.
Wang said he didn’t see Tom being stabbed, just heard him yell, “Fuck!”, and run away. “I thought he was going to get a knife or a gun. I was worried about that.”
Earlier, when he talked about the two men coming to Stilwell Rd and taking his furniture, he said, “Never they take shoes off inside the house. Final time they come into my house, it’s with the shoes.”
Why go on about the shoes? Was it really that important?
He said, “Of course! It my house. People come into my house never with the shoes. No one with the shoes come in. No, no, no. I got a new carpet. Nice house.”
To gaze upon 23 Stilwell Rd is to see it as a big old luxury liner, splendid and gleaming, a fantasy of wealth and success. Possible, too, to think of it sailing through a history of Auckland, taking onboard an essence of the city over successive generations. Built by a woman who invented herself as a royal in a young colony making itself up as it went along. Taken over by a seething capitalist who helped build a nation. Passed into the hands of a gadfly who thrived on the city’s long-established sex district. Then, in about 2007, owned by new New Zealanders, an Asian couple (Michael Bassett recalled a neighbour who called Wang “Chop Suey”), who kept to themselves.
The house Mr and Mrs Wang bought for $2.3 million was sold to them by property developer Greer Stevenson. He’d carried out extensive renovations, and employed a neighbour, university student Chris Williams, to do oddjobs around the house. “Greer paid me really well and like bought me heaps of beer which was awesome,” Williams said.
He remembered an unusual indoor spa. “It had like a pole, and a mirrored ceiling… Greer took all that out.”
The next occupants were a Tongan family. This time, the South Pacific had come onboard Stilwell Rd.
Williams worked over summer. “They’d put down a ready-lawn that grows through cardboard, and it has to be kept wet, so I stood out there for like three or four hours a day just watering… I also chopped heaps of trees down, and I painted the green fence all the way down the driveway. It’s quite a big fence.” It was where Tom Zhong rested against when he died.
After the murders, Wang left the house. The next occupants were a Tongan family. This time, the South Pacific had come onboard Stilwell Rd.
Williams said, “The Rugby World Cup was on. They had this massive bamboo pole and stuck it right at the top of the house with this huge Tongan flag. There were all these kids running around.
There was rubbish outside everywhere, and skateboards and old BMX bikes kind of just like chucked in the garden and left there…”
Michael Bassett said, “When it was for sale, well, you can imagine a potential buyer of a grand place like this, turning up and finding a whole load of bloody Tongans wrapped up in blankets lying around the floor, not exactly being a come-on.
“And they hadn’t cleaned the property up properly. The carpet by the front door had great big blood stains over it, and the wallpaper up the sides had splats of blood everywhere. Can you imagine it? It’s bizarre.”
Real estate agent Anne Duncan went through the house. “I was very disappointed at the presentation,” she said. “It was still like it was at the bloody murder scene. On the front door there was still the fingerprinting dust, there was blood on the front doorstep.”
Chris Williams wondered whether the Tongans were something to do with Barrie Cardon’s caregiver. They weren’t.
Police visited the property and spoke to the tenants. They said their landlord was Chris Wang.
“I think it’s the most vicious attack I’ve ever seen,” said Detective Sergeant Joe Aumua.
The jury took their seats in courtroom 14 to announce their verdict at 4.10pm on July 5. It was a cold Friday afternoon and the sky was already dark. They had been sent out the previous day at 10.40am. It had been a long wait — not just for this trial to end, but all three trials, the years of justice delayed.
Like so many left-handed people, the side of Kevin Glubb’s palm was smudged with ink. He sat at a bare desk. Court staff and counsel had tidied up. The knives were taken away.
The police hoped for a guilty verdict. Detective Sergeant Joe Aumua, one of the first officers at the crime scene, came to court every day. “He’s a dangerous man,” he said of Wang.
He saw the bodies that day. “I think it’s the most vicious attack I’ve ever seen.” He credited Wang with having the presence of mind to immediately concoct a story to explain why two people had died of multiple stab wounds.
Wang was smart, but was he that smart? To be able to stage two knives and choreograph a fight to the death suggests a kind of criminal mastermind. Was he really able to think on his feet that quickly?
The families of the victims hoped for a guilty verdict. Aumua said, “They’ve invested all their trust and faith these past three years not only in the police, but in our justice system.”
But were they mourning two unarmed men, or two men who made the fatal mistake of choosing to fuck with the wrong guy?
On the day of the verdict, Michael Wu’s young widow, Maggie, played outside the High Court with their son. She held him in her arms as he reached out and touched a parking meter. He was round and small, fatherless.
Ruth Money of the Sensible Sentencing Trust hoped for a guilty verdict. In her view, he was “a bad, bad man”.
She dealt with a Chinese couple who bought Michelle Wang’s two houses in St Lukes. They told the tenants to move out. “But then a big Samoan boy came out of the sleepout and said, ‘Fuck off, these are my boss’s houses.’” He said his boss was Chris Wang.
Tongans installed in Stilwell Rd, a Samoan in Morningside Drive… Money visited, and said, “[Wang] had rented out every room in the house. There was a person sleeping on the floor in a bathroom where there was a toilet. The houses were just disgusting, absolutely filthy. You wouldn’t put animals in there.”
Wang collected rent in cash. He said the houses belonged to him, and their argument went to the Tenancy Tribunal. According to the couple, he threatened them. “I’ve killed two people,” he supposedly said.
Private investigator Phil Jones hoped for a guilty verdict. He gave evidence but didn’t follow the case. He said, “If they [Michael and Tom] went into the house, that’s dumb.” Despite what the jury found, he said, “It wouldn’t have taken long for Chris to get inflamed and grab the knife and get into them.”
Jones acted for the two men when they were trying to serve trespass orders on Wang, and divert rents at Michelle Wang’s four houses. It led to a stand-off with Wang a month before the killings.
Jones had wanted to wait until after Christmas before dealing with Wang — but his hand was forced when he drove past the house at 75 College Hill in Northcote, and saw a FOR SALE sign on the lawn. “Chris had basically gone and put the property up for sale and he didn’t even own it,” Jones said.
On December 14, he went with Michael and Tom to the house on Stilwell Rd. “We didn’t expect Chris to be there. We thought he was living in St Lukes. We turned up, the door opens, and there’s Chris. It was a real shock. It became very confrontational very quickly. Tom and Michael were baiting him. Chris had an evil, mad look in his eye and a horrible smile on his face. Michael was just laughing at him and thought it was all a bit of fun.”
But then someone shouted Wang had a knife, and Jones saw Wang reach behind his back. “I almost grabbed them and said, ‘Get in the car right now.’”
The prosecution tried to play it out as a crucial episode, casting Wang as someone who had form with a knife. But it fell flat. No one actually saw the knife. Was this the real instance of a knife that wasn’t there?
You could easily form a sympathetic picture of Wang… He sounds put upon, blameless.
You could easily form a sympathetic picture of Wang. There he was, at the house he used to live in with his wife, suddenly approached by three men who told him he had to get lost. One of the men, by his account, was sleeping with his wife. They laughed at him, goaded him. He told them to clear off, but phoned Jones the next day to apologise for losing his temper… He sounds put upon, blameless.
On January 13, Michael rang Jones and said he was going to go back to Stilwell Rd with Tom. Michelle Wang needed to get her rents. The banks were talking about mortgagee sales. Sutcliffe, Wang’s lawyer, told the jury, “The pressure was building for action to be taken. The heat was on to do something… They had to resort to violence.”
Jones tried to talk Michael out of returning to Stilwell Rd. He said, “I’m almost a witness that helped Chris a bit. I warned Michael not to go in, and he does.”
He advised Michael to go to the Avondale police station and ask if they could go to the address with an officer. They spoke again on the phone on the morning of January 14. “I told Michael, ‘Even if you go by yourselves, you get any sniff that Chris is there, even if he’s fine, ring 111 and tell them he’s aggro and violent and jumping up and down.’ He obviously didn’t do that.”
He had passed through danger, scatheless; the Chinese demigod of Stilwell Rd faced the jury alone.
Tom’s daughter Jade dropped him off that morning at 8.30; it was the last time she saw him. Michael was looking forward to a family holiday in the South Island. The two men went to Avondale police, but were told an officer was unavailable. Michael and Tom were described as cheerful, relaxed. Glubb told the jury, “You do not go to all that trouble if your sole purpose is calculated violence. It makes absolutely no sense. Their only intent was to reinforce the trespass order.”
Jones said, “Michael talked about protecting himself, taking a weapon. I said, ‘Listen, you can’t.’”
Does he think the two men threatened Wang? “They could have. Yeah. Possibly.”
Threatened to kill him? “Absolutely not. No way. There was no inkling of that whatsoever.”
No one came to support Wang in court. He had passed through danger, scatheless, on that summer’s morning in Mt Albert; sometimes, during the long days in court, you wondered whether there was almost something supernatural about Wang, the way he had escaped death; the Chinese demigod of Stilwell Rd, nimble and “untouchable”, faced the jury alone.
The forewoman wore a bright-red polka-dot top with a large white ribbon around her skirt. She said of the charge of the murder of Michael Wu, “Not guilty.”
Wang closed his eyes and swayed.
Not guilty, also, of manslaughter.
She said of the charge of the murder of Tom Zhong, “Not guilty.” But they found him guilty of his manslaughter.
The families of the victims had gone pale with shock. They had to be helped out of the courtroom.
Justice Venning thanked the jury, and told them they could leave. He waited until the door to the jury room closed behind them, and then he said, “Well.” His smile was bemused.
Kevin Glubb said, “Remarkable.”
Tom Sutcliffe left to talk with his client.
It was as though the verdicts were a wager each way. The jury had accepted self-defence in the killing of Michael Wu, that there was a second knife, that Wang was just trying to save his life. He used reasonable force. But the implication was that they rejected Wang’s claim that Michael had accidentally stabbed Tom. Their verdict identified Wang as the killer — but that he lacked murderous intent when he plunged the knife 13cm into his back.
What happened that morning in the house on the hill? The final answer was given by Justice Venning at sentencing on Friday, August 16, in a cramped downstairs courtroom in the High Court. It was the final reunion of the prosecution and defence lawyers, of the nice old gent from Victim Support, of the petite translator who sat at Wang’s side, of that small, doughty survivor, Chris Wang. He appeared in the familiar collarless tunic, the old tan shoes. Jurors from all three trials came too.
The judge got down to business. He said Michael Wu came to the house in Stilwell Rd with a knife. There it was, stated out loud, as fact — the second knife did exist, was taken upstairs in a home invasion. He said he did not accept that Tom Zhong had his back to him and was trying to run away when Wang killed him with the hunting knife. The fatal wound, he said, was most likely inflicted in the confusion of the violent struggle between the three men. “I accept you acted in self-defence,” he told Wang, “but you went too far.”
It felt like a minor chastisement. He then set about the terms of sentencing. He said he’d observed Wang throughout the trial, and didn’t see any evidence of remorse. He noted that Wang had offered to pay $30,000 to the families of the victims, but the offer was rejected. He sentenced him to exactly four years. Wang should be out in about two.
Partly because there was blood everywhere, the house got snapped up at a mortgagee sale in November 2011 for $1,641,000 — an absolute bargain, $700,000 less than it fetched when the Wangs bought it.
There is the balcony from where Barrie Cardon plunged to his death, there are the grand front steps where Michael Wu and Tom Zhong walked towards their horrible, bloody end, dying in agony. But the great ship of 23 Stilwell Rd has sailed into calm waters, taking onboard a good Catholic family, pillars of Auckland’s establishment. It was bought by Kevin Ryan. His father was the celebrated criminal defence lawyer, Kevin Ryan, QC; his sister is Judge Claire Ryan. He and his wife Bernadette have five children.
“Kevin’s done a lot of work on the house,” said former neighbour Michael Bassett.
“He’s very proud of the renovations.”