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Crime

Woman held hostage during B.C. bank shooting experiencing roller-coaster of emotions

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9 minute read

By Hina Alam

Shelli Fryer was wide awake at 2:54 on Canada Day and hoped the stack of messages piling up in recent days could help her close her eyes.

The 59-year-old Langford, B.C., woman said she’s been having trouble sleeping since Tuesday when she was among those held hostage during a violent bank shooting in Saanich.

The messages pouring in since then, she said, have offered some of the comfort she’s sought and commended her bravery during the ordeal.

“There is just so much love I’m getting from all these strangers,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s overwhelming.”

Six police officers were shot and two male suspects were killed in the shootout with police on Tuesday outside the Bank of Montreal in Saanich.

Police have said multiple explosive devices were found in a vehicle linked to the two men, who have yet to be identified. Officers are still investigating the possibility of a third suspect.

Fryer has been mentally replaying Tuesday morning’s events ever since.

She pulled her blue Ford Bronco into the bank’s parking lot for an 11 a.m. appointment with the manager about a loan. Within a minute or two of sitting down in his glass-panelled office, Fryer said they heard a loud boom.

“The manager said ‘we’re being robbed’. He knew right away.”

The 17 women and five men in the branch that day all got on the grey floor immediately, Fryer said. She described the suspects as wearing all black including balaclavas, gloves, jackets, vests, body armour and pads covering the calves from the knee down.

One suspect came up to the bank manager and said “vault,” she recalled.

“He stared right at me twice. For 20 seconds,” she said. “But I couldn’t see his eyes. I couldn’t see his mouth. I couldn’t see any skin tone whatsoever.”

The manager tried to hand over the keys but the suspect pointed towards the vault and they walked off together, leaving Fryer in the room. She waited for the gunman to come back for her.

“I think he forgot about me,” she said.

Fryer got down on the floor and called the police. Her phone’s call log shows she dialed 911 at 11:04 a.m.

She whispered a description of the situation into the phone, fearing all the while she’d draw attention to herself by breaking the “eerie silence” that had descended on the branch, she said.

She left the phone on so the 911 operators could hear what was going on, turned down the volume so the suspects couldn’t hear if emergency personnel spoke and covered the phone with her long pink skirt so it wouldn’t be visible, she said.

For what “felt like an eternity,” she said there was “dead silence.”

Fryer said she felt little fear and experienced no dramatic moments as she hid behind a chair she doubted offered much protection.

“It was actually more like, ‘I think we’re gonna get out of this,'” she said. “I need to get the police though here. I’m just gonna let the police know. If the police get here, it will be OK.”

But then an “almighty hail of gunfire” rang out, she said, gasping at the remembered shock.

That’s when she ran and hid alone under a shelf in the manager’s office while others took shelter in a filing room.

Fryer said that while she felt the urge to panic with one half of her brain, the other half was reminding her to “just breathe.”

“‘The worst thing that’s going to  happen is, those shots will go right through the drywall and you’re going to be hit,'” she remembered thinking.

Fryer’s phone shows her call with 911, and the ordeal, lasted one hour, 26 minutes and five seconds.

While Fryer’s recollections of the attack are sharp, she said the rest of the day passed in a blur of police interviews, arrangements to retrieve her car and finally a meal of Asian food with her daughter.

The trauma of being held hostage comes in waves, she said. Fryer has spoken with police and victim services about how she feels, and she said she’s been told it will take time to process what she’s been through.

“It’s back and forth, you know? It’s like grief. You go through the whole stages, right? Sometimes you may never hit the last stage.”

But in the quiet moments, Fryer said she most often remembers seeing police walk through the bank door and hearing their concern for those trapped inside.

“The first words each and every officer said to us was, ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you.’ Even when they just came in from the gunfire,” she said. “… And much, much later we find out that six of their brothers-in-arms had been shot and injured.”

She feels “horrible” and “guilty” because she didn’t think about asking the officers whether any police had been injured, she said, though she and others inquired after the welfare of civilians.

“And each and every one of their energy and body language walking in and out of the crime scene did not give us any reason to even think to ask, ‘were any officers injured?'”

Saanich police Chief Const. Dean Duthie said three of the officers remain in hospital, including one in intensive care, while another will require more surgeries.

Fryer was born in Chicago and came to Canada when she was seven. Her experience with the police last week has made her feel “extra proud” to be Canadian, she said.

Since Tuesday when she started talking about her experience at the bank, Fryer said apart from strangers she’s also got messages from people whom she knew in another lifetime.

She got an email from her first roommate with whom she lived while working her first job after graduating high school when she was 18.

“We lived together for like eight years, and I was a bridesmaid at her wedding. I haven’t seen her since 1989. She reached out. Isn’t that funny?” she said.

“This is going to be life changing in many ways for me and I’m very grateful now because it could be very cool.”

Fryer has also been able to find levity — such as what to do with the outfit she was wearing on Tuesday at the bank – a long sleeve shirt, pink maxi skirt and pink high-heeled sandals.

“I’m going to throw it out,” she said. “I’ve had it for so long anyway. Or I should frame it. I really liked it too, though.”

She even plans to return to the bank, whose employees she said showed incredible professionalism under duress and whose manager she described as unflappable.

“I have to finish my appointment,” she said with a laugh. “I sat down for two minutes. We got interrupted.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 2, 2022.

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Crime

High court won’t hear case involving estate of dismembered multimillionaire

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OTTAWA – When Chinese-born, West Vancouver-based multimillionaire Gang Yuan was beaten with a hammer, shot twice and his body chopped into 108 pieces in 2015, the simplest part of the story ended with a manslaughter conviction, but the fate of Yuan’s fortune remained very unclear.

Now the Supreme Court of Canada has refused to hear an appeal from the woman whose identity is protected by a ban but who is described as Mother 1, the first of five women who had a child with Yuan and who claims to be his spouse.

Thursday’s dismissal of the leave to appeal application ends Mother 1’s lengthy legal battle to be declared his spouse which, because Yuan died without a will, would have entitled her to half of his $7 to $21 million estate while Canadian law would have split the rest among his five children.

The B.C. Court of Appeal upheld a lower-court ruling and dismissed Mother 1’s spousal claim last December, finding no “marriage-like relationship” between her and Yuan, even though the two met before Yuan came to Canada and he supported her in China, where she lived with and cared for his parents.

As is customary, Canada’s highest court did not give reasons for its decision on Mother 1’s application.

The dispute over the estate was brushed with notoriety because of Yuan’s untimely and gory death at the hands of once-favoured business partner, Li Zhao.

Court documents from Zhao’s B.C. Supreme Court trial in 2020 trial show he disapproved of Yuan’s playboy lifestyle and treatment of women but Yuan, Zhao and Zhao’s family shared a large West Vancouver home and got along well enough.

That was until May 2, 2015, when the two fought viciously after Zhao believed Yuan first made disparaging remarks about an invention of Zhao’s and then compounded the offence by offering to marry Zhao’s beloved and only daughter as part of the price of financing the invention.

The documents detail a brutal and prolonged fight between the two men that only ended in the driveway of their home when Zhao, who told investigators he feared “life was at risk,” fired twice at close range from a rifle mainly used for shooting rabbits.

Yuan was hit in the neck and died in the driveway.

In finding Zhao guilty of manslaughter, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Terence Schultes, in his oral ruling delivered in October 2020, said that’s when things became “unquestionably bizarre.”

Zhao attempted to dispose of the body by using power tools to cut it into what the ruling described as “108 discrete fragments.”

The 55-year-old even explained his grisly work in the garage of the home by agreeing with the family nanny, as she passed by, that he had been out hunting and had “hunted a bear.”

Zhao had earlier ordered his wife and elderly mother-in-law away from the scene but they eventually asked a family friend to help them call police and Zhao was arrested at his home the following morning and charged with second-degree murder.

Schultes ruled the Crown failed to prove the necessary intent to convict on that charge and found Zhao guilty of manslaughter and interfering with human remains, sentencing him to 10 years and six months on the two counts.

Because Zhao had never asked for bail while awaiting trial and the case was prolonged by delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sentence handed down almost two years ago was reduced to reflect credit for pretrial custody, leaving a total remaining term of two years, four months and eight days to be served for Yuan’s killing.

.If Zhao did not seek early release, he will have completed his entire sentence by early 2023.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2022.

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Alberta

California court OKs death penalty in ’80s sex slave murders

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By Don Thompson in Sacramento

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The California Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the conviction and death penalty for one of two men implicated in at least 11 notorious horrific torture-slayings in the mid-1980s in which the duo kept their victims hidden in a secret bunker in the Northern California woods.

Thirty-seven years later, authorities are still trying to identify the remains of some of their victims.

Charles Ng, now 61, was convicted in 1999 of killing six men, three women and two baby boys in 1984 and 1985. He was initially accused of 13 slayings — 12 in Calaveras County and one in San Francisco.

He and his criminal partner, Leonard Lake, committed a series of kidnappings in which they engaged in bondage and sadism ending in murder. They were initially suspected of killing up to 25 people.

“This is one of those stories that’s been passed down through time in this community,” said Calaveras County Lt. Greg Stark, whose father worked for the department at the time of the slayings. “There’s been wild estimates and there’s been conservative estimates, and honestly I don’t think anybody will ever know, due to how they were disposing of the bodies.”

Ng and Lake held their victims in a remote 2 1/2-acre Sierra Nevada fenced compound about 150 miles (241 kilometers) east of San Francisco. It included a bunker with three rooms, two of them behind a hidden doorway. One hidden, locked room was furnished like a cell with a bed covered with a foam pad, a plastic bucket and a roll of toilet paper.

Lake killed himself with a cyanide capsule after police arrested him for shoplifting in San Francisco in 1985 and were questioning him before any bodies were found.

The justices said in a detailed 181-page analysis of the case that Ng received a fair trial, including a change of venue from Calaveras County to Orange County because of pre-trial publicity.

It was one of California’s longest and most expensive trials at the time, costing millions of dollars, partly because the court said Ng repeatedly attempted to delay and disrupt his own trial. That included extended debates over whether he could represent himself and who would be his attorneys.

The justices unanimously also concluded that Ng was properly extradited after he fled to Canada, where he was arrested in Calgary, Alberta, in 1985 for shoplifting and wounding a store guard. He fought extradition for six years before the Supreme Court of Canada ordered him returned.

The men incriminated themselves with videotapes of them tormenting bound, terrified women they used as sex slaves before their murders.

Jurors were shown a tape of one woman pleading in vain for the men to spare her husband and baby as Ng cut off her shirt and bra with a knife in front of the camera.

Investigators also discovered piles of charred bones, blood-stained tools, shallow graves and a 250-page diary kept by Lake.

Four law enforcement agencies spent five weeks scouring the property, according to the court’s detailed description.

They found thousands of buried teeth and bone fragments throughout the property, with at least four of the dental specimens belonging to a child under age 3. “Many hundreds” of the bone fragments had been burned.

Two forensic anthropologists eventually concluded that the remains belonged to at least four adults, one child, and one infant. Two men were found in a shallow grave not far from the property. They had been bound, gagged and fatally shot.

Officials in Calaveras County last year exhumed additional bones and other human remains from a crypt in a cemetery where they had been kept since Ng’s conviction, in hopes that modern DNA tracing could reveal their identities.

A sheriff’s chaplain read a brief invocation, and soon California Department of Justice criminalists and two forensic anthropologists began sorting and analyzing the remains.

They are initially hopeful that enough viable DNA is left for a comparison, said Stark, but the Department of Justice hasn’t yet been able to run the comparisons in part because of more urgent active cases.

Investigators plan to compare the DNA to that from cooperating next of kin of the known victims, and run it through DNA databases in hopes of a comparison.

“Regardless if there are 11 (slayings) or more than 11, we’re hoping to categorize the remains and if possible return them to the families to give them their due respect and internment,” Stark said. “If we find additional identifications, we’ll definitely look into them and their connection to the case.”

Ng joined the Marine Corps after he came to the United States from Hong Kong. He earlier was imprisoned at Leavenworth, Kansas, for weapons theft while serving in the Marine Corps.

He and his defense attorneys argued that he was under the influence of Lake, an older man and survivalist who they said engineered the serial slayings. Ng denied participating in many of the crimes.

His attorneys argued at the time that Ng was shaped as a child, when he was beaten by his father.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has imposed a moratorium on the death penalty so long as he is governor, and Ng still has the possibility of other federal appeals.

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