SCMP Saturday, January 6, 2001

To catch a killer


Within the affluent confines of Mid-Levels exists the vortex of a criminal's psychosis-serenity has been uprooted, terror imparted and life seized. It's where Hong Kong's serial dog killer baits pets with pesticide-laced chicken and duck, leaving them to suffer agonising deaths. Poisoning by these means ensures frothing, vomiting and convulsions while their aghast owners struggle to save their lives.
The killer's toxic meat trail, strategically strewn on popular walking paths framed by Bowen Road, Black's Link and Holland Road, forms a geographic triangle as mysterious as that of Bermuda's. The case has remained unsolved for more than a decade despite police tactics covert and overt, academic discourse and an animal detective being imported from Sweden.
The poisoner is indiscriminate. A Happy Valley policeman's dog was one victim; Rocky, a terrier of television-commercial fame was another; former Governor Chris Patten's pooch nearly died. Innumerable canines have been afflicted (local vets have treated about 200).
Since 1995, when the police began recording the number of poisonings, about 100 cases have been reported, though it is estimated to be a fraction of actual incidents. About a third of the dogs have died. To catch killers, criminologists must become mind-hunters, attempting to discover the murderer's identity by searching for psychological clues in his or her modus operandi. But under existing laws, even if this perpetrator is caught, justice may never be truly served.
This has not stopped police from trying to track down the poisoner. The Hong Kong Regional Crime Unit stepped up its investigation last March, but to no avail. In November, solicitor Jonathan Midgely was called on by police to help create a composite of the killer based on a sighting, the only one, in 1995. It was binned because the drawing did not satisfy Midgely.
The wily killer has also exhibited an uncanny intuition. When patrols are increased, even those undercover, the killer recedes from public, says Detective Senior Inspector Florence Cheung Suk-lan. ''The most difficult part of the case is that the person is very aware.''
Consequently, there's a disturbing lack of evidence. The killings began in 1989 but crime scenes and victims were not properly examined until 1995, when police realised they had a serial killer on their hands.
The starting point in tracking serial killers is the first offence, a vulnerable time when the miscreants are still crude in their craft and most likely to leave clues. ''If they're well organised they learn from experience and adapt,'' says Dr Roderic Broadhurst, an associate professor at Hong Kong University's Centre of Criminology.
Broadhurst says poisoners of humans are usually women and tend to be older. ''They're more the spider type than the hunter type, waiting for people to come into their web,'' he says. Victims of poisoners are also often intimates-husbands, children-and the offenders are notoriously difficult to capture. ''But does it all cross over [to animal killers]? I doubt it.''
The case quickly enters the realm of speculation, so it is best to start where the experts agree: the killer is likely to be a man who lives near Mid-Levels, is working alone and lays the poison in the early morning, typically at weekends. These are assumptions made from Midgely's only eyewitness account of an Asian man in his mid-40s, 1.7 metres tall, round face, balding and speaking reasonable English, plus criminal profiling, an invaluable tool-part art, part science-that is essential to narrowing offender types.
Enlisted in November for her expertise in building profiles was Dr Helena Striwing from Sweden, home of ''some of the most advanced animal welfare laws in the world''.
Striwing is 52 years old, wears oversize glasses and apologises needlessly for her impeccable English. Having studied 1,000 animal abuse cases, she has come across perverse atrocities such as picarism, a sexual abnormality where the perpetrator becomes aroused from repeatedly stabbing inanimate objects and/or sentient beings-in this case the victim was a horse. The offender was caught and jailed for 18 months.
Probably the most important component in criminal profiling is determining motive, which in this instance deteriorates into guesswork. ''This is one of the most unusual cases I've come across,'' says Striwing. ''What makes him tick?''
It was therefore apposite of the Hong Kong University students in Broadhurst's crime and deviance lectures to play the theme song to Mission Impossible as a Power Point-engineered puppy appeared on the screen at the beginning of their year-ending presentation on the case.
The students have come up with possible motives. One is that the killer believes that dogs are unclean and should be eliminated.
The poor-versus-rich struggle theory has also been posited. Is the poisoner, by targeting only Mid-Levels, in essence targeting the rich? Cheung, Striwing and a vet who has treated many poisoned dogs, Lloyd Kenda, of the Valley Veterinary Centre in Happy Valley, disagree with the popular theory, noting that a wide cross-section of people use the Bowen Road jogging track.
Or it may just be someone who doesn't like dogs or faeces on the path, or incessant barking, says Kenda.
The poisoner may be a vigilante of sorts, encouraging owners to obey the leash law as mainly untethered hounds discover the tainted meat. ''He could feel aggression against other people who let their dogs run off the leash,'' says Striwing. ''Perhaps this is how his own dog was severely bitten or killed.''
Striwing studied a similar case in Finland, where a collective of dog poisoners penned directives to the owners and local newspaper stating that all canines must henceforth be leashed. But Hong Kong's offender has never made any demands.
Cheung agrees with Striwing that the killer, or his pet, has been bitten before. The killer's territorial nature further suggests that he is protecting himself, his kin or his pet. Such a purposeful motive is what criminologists call mission-oriented, which is one of four distinctive types of motives for serial killers. Most investigators suspect Hong Kong's culprit is mission-oriented but say it is difficult to tell. ''It's not typical because the poisonings haven't grown in intensity,'' says Striwing.
And if the mission is to rid the world of dogs, it would be important to eradicate stray dogs as well as lay poison elsewhere, says Striwing, neither of which seems the case.
Another type, the thrill killer, is doubtful but cannot be entirely dismissed, say Broadhurst and Striwing, because of the gruesome nature in which the dogs die. Less likely is that the person is a lust killer, for whom murder elicits sexual arousal, or the visionary killer, who is psychotic and typically hears voices and lacks methodology.
Although the killer appears rational, Cheung believes he is mentally deranged, as evidenced by harbouring his anger for so long. ''Honestly though,'' she says, ''I can't tell what kind of person it is. It is quite a weird case. There are so many possibilities.''
Striwing, on the other hand, has a hunch. ''I had a feeling from the beginning that the person is targeting owners,'' says Striwing. ''I think it's a loner-type person with a severe grudge against people. He wants to cause as much sorrow as possible to humans.''
But if people are his target, why kill their pets? Perhaps for reasons of cowardice and cunning. To begin with, poisoning is an impersonal, non-confrontational way to kill and pets make easy targets and have great sentimental value. And, as this case has proved-and maybe the criminal has brilliantly foreseen-police are less motivated to pursue a crime such as animal abuse, as opposed to, say, destruction of personal property, which, equally noteworthy, carries more severe sentencing if convicted, Striwing says.
Once police have built a profile of a suspect, they sometimes try to ensnare them by manipulating their behaviour, or ''teasing them into a dialogue'', says Striwing. Behavioural manipulation, as criminologists call it, can be employed to test hypotheses of motive.
Some of Broadhurst's students suggest testing whether the criminal is targeting the rich. Police could set up obvious deterrents like surveillance cameras that would encourage the killer to go elsewhere. If he did, then perhaps the rich are not the targets, says 22-year-old psychology major Ho Yiu-shun.
Another tactic could push the killer to use a different poison, perhaps by working in complicity with a newspaper. The paper would falsely report, for example, that veterinarians had discovered a new antidote to the pesticide employed by the poisoner. All pesticide sales thereafter would be closely monitored and tracked. ''The market is quite small, less than 25 stores,'' says Michael Cheun Wan-kuen, a senior officer in the pesticide registration department of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.
The problem is, says Cheung, that a 500-gram bag of pesticide can last the poisoner a long time, maybe more than a year. ''At some point he'd buy more,'' says Cheung. ''But when? [Further], we've checked with the retail businesses already and the owners say every buyer is a habitual customer; they know everyone's face. But they don't know of anyone buying from Mid-Levels.''
Another tactic is the ''Guilty Knowledge Test'', a Hollywood favourite. Once again police team up with newspapers and publish false information that only the killer would know was false and, with his inherent sense of superiority, would contact authorities to inform them they were wrong. However, Striwing says such a tactic only works with braggarts.
She suggests that vets keep a standardised form on hand that owners seeking treatment for their dog would fill out. By collecting concrete information such as the time and location of poisoning, the killer's behaviour could be better charted. Says Cheung: ''We're thinking about that.''
HKU students suggested that police dogs trained to detect pesticides could both clean up the paths and catch someone carrying tainted meat. But Cheung says the police dogs would be at risk of eating the meat themselves and that sniffing every passer-by would be an extreme breach of personal privacy.
Cheung says police are looking into placing surveillance cameras on the paths but that the hilly terrain only allows for a short field of vision.
Ultimately, though, those involved say the best chance of capture rests with a wary public.
But even then, short of strong circumstantial evidence or an admission of guilt, the perpetrator could walk scot-free. In Hong Kong, it is not an offence to carry poison or lay it indiscriminately. But if a link were established to a specific death, the offender could be prosecuted under the Cruelty to Animals Act, which carries a maximum penalty of $5,000 and six months in prison, or the Personal Property Ordinance, with a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. ''[But] unless we catch him red-handed, it's difficult, honestly,'' Cheung says.
Of course, the chances of catching the Mid-Levels canine killer hinge upon his decision to kill again. ''He's unlikely to stop,'' says Striwing. ''I don't think we should give up and say it's not possible to solve.''