BEIJING (Reuters) - Expatriate British businessman Neil Heywood, whose murder has caused political upheaval in China, left his wife and children in a financially uncertain situation in China, prompting a former business associate to pay for their plane tickets to attend his London funeral, a family friend told Reuters.
The account marks the first time that details of Heywood’s financial affairs have emerged since he died in southwest China last November. Family friends also revealed more details about the final few days leading up to his death.
Police suspect he was the victim of a poisoning engineered by the wife of ousted Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai, over a business dispute that turned personal.
Heywood left his family yuan savings equivalent to a “five-digit” sum in British pounds, the family friend said, raising the possibility that any financial dealings with Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, a former high-powered lawyer, may not have yielded him windfall profits.
Police suspect that the 41-year-old Briton had been helping Gu move money offshore in return for a commission on the transaction, sources told Reuters earlier this week.
But if such transactions did take place, and he made personal gains from it, Heywood’s widow, known to friends as Lulu but who kept her maiden name Wang, has no knowledge of them, according to the friend’s account.
Wang, a native of China’s northeastern city of Dalian where Bo was mayor from 1993 to 2000, and Heywood’s mother, Ann, and sister in London have turned down interview requests.
“She doesn’t have a lot of bank savings,” the source said, requesting anonymity, adding that she had to make monthly mortgage repayments on a three-storey town house the family owns in suburban Beijing.
When Heywood bought the house a few years ago, similar homes in the gated compound sold for around 3 million yuan ($476,900), according to a local broker. Today such houses sell for about 7 million yuan following a boom in Beijing real estate.
Police believe Gu plotted to murder Heywood after he demanded a larger-than-usual cut of a big transaction and threatened to expose her financial dealings if she refused, sources with knowledge of the investigation said.
The scandal, which has brought down Bo, once considered a contender for a top national leadership post, is potentially the most divisive the Communist Party has faced in more than two decades.
It was not clear whether Heywood had other bank accounts his wife did not know about or owned assets overseas. If he did, his widow knew nothing of them, the family friend said.
Heywood, educated at England’s elite Harrow School and a fluent Chinese speaker, dressed well, drove a Jaguar and had friends in Britain’s aristocratic circles. He once arranged a visit to China by Winston Churchill’s granddaughter.
One of Heywood’s ancestors was Britain’s consul general in the northern port city of Tianjin from 1929 to 1935.
His children went to an international school in Beijing where the family paid attendance fees totaling more than $50,000 a year.
But friends say his expatriate life, while comfortable, was not lavish. The chain-smoking Heywood made his living as a mostly self-employed consultant to companies, including the Beijing dealer of Aston Martin, helping them resolve disputes and assisting with due diligence.
His grey Jaguar was second-hand, with a license plate “N007W3”. He requested and obtained the “007” plate from Beijing traffic authorities as he was a fan of James Bond spy movies and classic sports cars, according to the family friend.
Family friends dismissed UK media reports that Heywood may have been a British spy. The reports were based on the part-time work Heywood had done for Hakluyt, a UK-based private business consultancy founded by former British intelligence officers.
Another source close to the family scoffed at the idea, saying a real spy would hardly advertise the fact by driving around in a car with “007” plates.
“Who would be so stupid as to carve 007 on his face if he were a real spy?” this second source said.
In 2006, Heywood advised the maker of London taxi cabs, which was looking to enter the Chinese market.
“From a company viewpoint, he was rock solid - good knowledge, very intelligent, a well-organized sort of guy,” said John Russell, chief executive of cab maker Manganese Bronze, which is 20 percent owned by Chinese car maker Geely Automobile Holdings.
Heywood’s widow flew to London with the couple’s children - aged 7 and 11 - last December to attend a memorial service after the Aston Martin dealer in Beijing paid for their plane tickets, the family friend said.
Aston Martin Beijing declined to comment when reached by telephone.
The 41-year-old widow returned to Beijing with her children after the church service. They did not suspect then that Heywood had been murdered.
In his last days, Heywood did not appear stressed, family friends said. He attended the launch of a sports car club in Beijing on November 11 and bought his daughter a birthday gift, something from Apple, the next day.
On November 13, he was abruptly summoned to Chongqing, southwest China by staff of Gu, who turned 52 early that week, the sources close to the family said. He did not express any worries about the trip, they added.
Wang, Heywood’s wife, lost contact with Heywood over the next three days and began to feel unsettled, the family friends said. His body was found in his room at the Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel on November 15. Police determined he had died the day earlier from a poisoned drink, sources close to police say.
Chongqing police telephoned Wang on November 16 to inform her about the death, but she initially refused to believe the caller, suspecting a hoax, said sources close to the family. The officer suggested she check with the British Embassy in Beijing.
Disbelief soon turned to grief, and she boarded a flight bound for Chongqing on Nov 17.
After arriving in the sprawling, hilly city, she was met by a British diplomat and was told by police that Heywood had died of a heart attack due to over-consumption of alcohol.
Heywood’s remains were cremated on November 18 in the presence of relatives and the diplomat, and his ashes flown to London.
Family members in Beijing and London, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters in late March that they had requested cremation because they did not suspect foul play. That was before police told Wang, a Chinese national, in April to stop speaking to reporters about the case, family friends said.
When Chinese state media announced this month that Heywood’s death had been a murder and that Gu and a household assistant were “highly suspected”, the news shocked the family.
Wang was apparently unaware of her husband’s business dealings with Gu and their later conflict, said a relative and a source close to the family. Heywood helped Gu’s son, Bo Guagua, gain admission to Harrow. Gu is godmother to the Heywood’s children.
“It’s still difficult to believe Gu Kailai ordered Neil poisoned,” a source close to the family said. “The two families were very close.”
Asked to comment on speculation Heywood had an affair with Gu, another family friend said: “Neil adored his wife and children. Every time I called him, he would be with the kids. He spent a lot of time at home.”
Additional reporting by William Maclean in LONDON, Editing by Don Durfee and Brian Rhoads