Gaming scandal linked to murders in England

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND

Mon, Dec 07, 2009 - Page 19

It has been more than a year since two young Chinese college graduates were found bound and mutilated in their apartment in Newcastle, England. The throat of Zhen Xingyang was cut; the skull of his girlfriend, Xi Zhou, was smashed in three places.

The convicted murderer, Guang Huicao, refused to provide a motive for his crime, but detectives unearthed evidence that the victims had been involved with an Asian gambling ring that was relying on advance tips to bet on English soccer matches.

Since German law enforcement officials arrested 17 people last month in connection with a wide-ranging match-fixing investigation, new lines of inquiry have opened. At the same time, fresh questions have been raised about the dangers of criminal organizations becoming involved with sports betting.

Some trails lead to China, where 16 former soccer players and club officials were arrested late last month, and to Taiwan, whose government on Wednesday ordered an investigation into its baseball clubs after the police penetrated a pervasive match-fixing ring there.

In Newcastle, a soccer-obsessed city about 480km north of London, the killings, although not connected to the match-fixing scandal, remain something of a mystery. Cao, a Chinese national living illegally in England, was sent to jail for at least 33 years. He refused to give any explanation for the murders in return for the possibility of a lighter sentence.

The implication is that he feared retaliation for speaking up more than he did the prospect of spending much of his life in jail.

‘MESSAGE SENT’

“This was an execution,” the judge, Alan Wilkie, said at the trial in May after the jury had ruled. “In some way, two young people had crossed a large criminal gang and were punished by them. They were murdered in a cruel and savage way. Miss Zhou had suffered horrifying and unimaginable suffering, and in this way a clear message had been sent.”

The message might be that sports and betting is not a victimless crime. One officer in Bochum, where the German police investigation is centered, described the case as the tip of an iceberg. The same phrase echoes around Newcastle’s Chinatown district, where Kevin and Cici — as the couple were known to their friends — were murdered.

Detective Superintendent Steve Wade, the senior officer in the case, said in an interview 10 days ago that many questions were unanswered. His team visited China in search of clues, and his 26 years’ experience in homicides led him to conclude that organized crime was behind the killings.

Traces of Yang’s blood were found on Cao’s pants, and Yang’s wristwatch and glasses were found in Cao’s home. But Cao, a dishwasher in a restaurant, said only that he was in the couple’s apartment the day they were murdered. He said he was there to discuss renting a room and was tied up and locked in the bathroom during the killings.

The police found nothing to link Cao to soccer, but plenty to implicate the victims.

Zhou, 25 , earned a master’s degree in applied linguistics from Newcastle University. She worked as a waitress for £6 (US$10) an hour at a local noodle restaurant. Yang, also 25, had a master’s in international human resources and was unemployed.

Yet their laptop and phone records traced almost US$500,000 passing through their bank accounts over two years, Wade said.

They were recruiters in a betting scam, the police said. Zhou placed advertisements, using her nickname, Cici, on a local Mandarin-language Web site to lure students as spotters and informers for betting syndicates in China and Hong Kong.

The recruits, who attended games across England, were paid to describe the action over a Chinese cellphone, Wade said.

DELAYS

By exploiting a delay of one or two minutes between the play and the satellite broadcast, the police testified, the syndicate could place a winning bet on the next goal, throw-in, or corner or free kick before it was seen in the East.

The police said they believed Yang recruited as many as 50 people to monitor games. Before the murders, Wade said, threatening messages were posted online, accusing Yang of failing to keep promises about payments.

But no one other than Cao was brought to trial.

Cases involving gambling rings are always hard to prove, and those involved are rarely brought to justice. Three years ago, for example, it was proved that matches in the Belgian league were fixed. But the ringleader, identified as Ye Zheyun, slipped out of the country and was presumed to have returned to China.

Interpol has had some success against international betting rings. In recent years, two operations involving the police in China, Hong Kong, Macao, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam broke up major rings.

“Gambling on soccer might seem as harmless as placing a small bet on your favorite team,” Ronald Noble, the secretary general of Interpol, said last year at a Singapore conference on Asian organized crime. “But these illegal operations are often controlled by organized criminals who frequently engage in loan sharking and use intimidation and violence to collect debts.”

He linked the gambling to murder, extortion, prostitution and trafficking in drugs. Last week Interpol become a partner with FIFA, the global soccer organization, to attack the link between the game and criminality.

Wade said he regretted that he had to close the double-murder case for want of resources. Cao remains silent and some Newcastle residents maintain theirs too.

CHEEKY REPLY

Asked if they thought the murders were related to betting, staffers at the Cheeky Duck restaurant, in a cluster of Chinese shops and a community center, pointed across the road to a casino.

Some Chinese students at Newcastle University were bolder. Lu Yanjun, studying law, turned the crime into a stage play for new arrivals in October.

“As Chinese people we have quite a strong tradition, and there is a lot of homesickness,” Lu said. “You have to figure out how you can best finish your studies. If you lose your direction, you lose yourself.”

Shi Shuangshuang, head of the university’s Chinese student union, recalled being afraid after the murders “because we didn’t know what was happening.”

Feeling safer eight months after the trial, she said: “You’re fine if you don’t gamble.”