Chinese Immigrant Evades Murder Verdict in Killing of Wealthy Relative in Canada

The lurid court testimony riveted Canada: A Chinese immigrant shot dead his brash, womanizing, millionaire relative at his $8 million hillside mansion in Vancouver, and then chopped up the body into 108 pieces before taking a long nap.

In an unexpected ruling on Tuesday, Justice Terence Schultes at the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that Zhao Li, now 59, who was a business partner of the victim, Yuan Gang, was not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter and of “interfering with human remains.”

Justice Schultes said that while he did not find Mr. Zhao’s testimony to be “truthful,” he had been left with reasonable doubt over whether Mr. Zhao intended to kill Mr. Yuan. Intention to kill beyond a reasonable doubt is the prerequisite for a murder verdict in Canada.

“Given the brutality of the crime and all the other circumstances, this verdict is surprising,” said Chris Johnson, a lawyer who represented the estate of Mr. Yuan, who died a few weeks before his 42nd birthday.

The defense and prosecution agreed on a judge rather than a jury trial.

The trial, which took more than two years and attracted news media attention in China as well as Canada, underlined how Vancouver has become a global sanctuary for foreign money moving from Asia to North America. Mr. Yuan was a millionaire who had gamed the Canadian immigration system, building a business and acquiring Canadian real estate worth millions of dollars.

Mr. Zhao, whose wife is Mr. Yuan’s cousin, was portrayed by the defense as a “well-adjusted” and law-abiding man who had been provoked by an indecent proposal from Mr. Yuan asking to marry his daughter. Mr. Zhao did not have murderous intent, his lawyer said, despite the crime’s violent aftermath, and so was guilty of manslaughter, not murder.

But the prosecutor countered that Mr. Zhao had confessed the killing to the police, including that he had used a power saw to cut up the body. As the judge read aloud the decision, Mr. Zhao, who was wearing a navy blue suit, stared forward calmly, listening intently to his interpreter.

The judge said the case had hinged on Mr. Zhao’s mental state at the time of the shooting and whether he had the intent necessary for the crime to qualify as murder.

There will be a hearing next week to set a date for sentencing. He could face up to life in prison.

“The verdict brings to an end what is surely one of Canada’s most gruesome killings, made all the more interesting by the fact that it happened in the wealthy and virtually crime-free enclave of West Vancouver,” Mr. Johnson said.

The background of the victim and his lavish lifestyle — as well as testimony in a related civil case over his estate — offered a vivid glimpse of the lives of superrich Chinese living in Vancouver, many of whom have invested in real estate and see Canada as a refuge for cash and kin.

In addition to Mr. Yuan, a playboy with a penchant for sprawling houses, luxury cars and taxidermied animals, other figures in the story were a colorful group of family members. Among them was Mr. Zhao’s glamorous daughter, Florence Zhao, known as “Flo-Z,” an aspiring fashion designer who starred in a popular reality show on YouTube, “Ultra Rich Asian Girls.” The series showcased Vancouver’s growing class of wealthy second-generation Chinese.

Credit…via Chris Johnson

Mr. Yuan was born in Heilongjiang, a province in northeastern China. After becoming wealthy he moved to Canada, where he had previously married and then divorced a Chinese-Canadian woman to help gain permanent residency. While living in Canada, he became ensnared in a corruption and bribery scandal related to his previous business dealings in China.

He also went on a very expensive buying spree in Canada, purchasing two mansions, a Bentley, a Rolls-Royce and a $2 million private island.

But Mr. Yuan’s glittering new life took a lethal turn after he invited his poorer cousins from Montreal — Li Xiaomei; her husband, Zhao Li; and their teenage daughter, Florence — to live with him.

During the trial, Mr. Zhao testified that he had been ruthlessly bullied as a child after his father had opposed the Chinese government and was sent to a forced labor camp.

The Zhaos were increasingly revolted by Mr. Yuan’s endless stream of girlfriends — as many as 100, according to testimony in a separate civil case over Mr. Yuan’s estate.

On May 2, 2015, Mr. Yuan told Mr. Zhao that he wanted Florence’s hand in marriage.

Mr. Zhao was irate, calling Mr. Yuan “worse than a pig or a dog,” according to his testimony at his murder trial. “Even a rabbit will not eat the grass around his nest,” he added, referring to incest. (The Zhaos were not Mr. Yuan’s blood relatives, since Ms. Li was adopted).

It was at that point, Mr. Zhao said, that Mr. Yuan grabbed him. After a tussle over a hammer, he said, he shot Mr. Yuan twice.

Then, Mr. Zhao said, he began to chop up the body, overcome by hallucinations: “I heard someone talking to me about a bear and how to cut up a bear,” he told the court.

A more than eight-hour standoff ensued, during which the police surrounded the mansion in West Vancouver.

After the killing, lawyers for the Yuan family said Mr. Zhao was a fabulist and motivated by revenge.

But during the trial, Mr. Zhao’s lawyer, Ian Donaldson, told the court that his client was a “normal, healthy” person who had been subject to “provocation.”

The prosecutor countered that it was irrefutable that Mr. Zhao had killed Mr. Yuan. She also argued that his testimony that the killing was an accident was neither credible nor reliable.

After the case gained exposure in the news media, seven women from China claimed that their children deserved part of Mr. Yuan’s roughly $21 million Canadian estate.

A judge ruled that five were entitled to split Mr. Yuan’s possessions. However, a taxidermied black panther, displayed at the entrance of one of his mansions, was donated to a museum.

Tracy Sherlock contributed reporting from Vancouver.

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