Five years after the unsolved killing of Cissy Chen, her husband, Jack Liu, still lives in the Torbay house they shared before she disappeared. Liu was the number one suspect in Cissy's death. Police believed he killed her and dumped her body in a nearby park. But a jury acquitted him of murder, and since then, he's been in a legal battle with Cissy's family over her property portfolio. Harrison Christian investigates.
The house is a big, two-storey temple, with grey plaster cladding and a balcony that stares out at the Hauraki Gulf. It's hidden from the street, tucked at the end of a concrete driveway in North Shore suburbia. Houses in the area are worth $1 to $2 million, and this one is no exception, although a court order prevents it from being sold. The current owner is Jack Liu, a factory worker nearing retirement. He answers the door in loose-fitting weekend clothes and slippers.
Liu looks a different man from the one who appeared in the dock at his murder trial. The three years have aged him considerably, and added a little more weight to his face. Though he's probably seldom recognised, the 60-year-old who stands 1.85cm tall is part of a story that rests uneasily in the public consciousness. He is the husband of slain Auckland woman, Cissy Chen, who disappeared five years ago and whose body was eventually found in a drain.
Police charged Liu with Chen's murder, but a jury acquitted him and he walked free. He returned to his job at a manufacturing company, building aluminium extrusion frames. He continued to live in the same house that he and Cissy shared for less than a year before she vanished.
Since his acquittal, Liu has been left to live a quiet life, while a dispute related to Cissy's death unfolds in secret. Liu's ownership of the Torbay house has become the subject of a legal battle with Chen's family. Around the time Liu was charged over his wife's death, Cissy's brother Philip Chen placed a caveat on the property, effectively making a claim of ownership and freezing its right to sale. Liu tried to remove the caveat. Now the disagreement has reached the High Court at Auckland, with Philip Chen filing civil proceedings against Liu.
"I don't have the time to talk to you about this," Liu tells us through a Mandarin interpreter. He starts pushing the door closed, staring through the crack with a faint smile of apology. The interpreter persists. He has been happy to speak to media in the past, she reminds him, so why not now? "I think you journalists wrote things in a strange way," says Liu. "Never mind, anyway."
The crack in the door gets thinner, but Liu delays shutting it completely. "How do you feel about living in the house?" The interpreter wants to know. "Nothing special," says Liu. "Just as normal as before?" "Yes."
Torbay is built on top of sandstone cliffs with pohutukawa spilling over their edges. Locals walk and exercise their dogs on the beach below. It's the sort of place where neighbours can't help getting to know each other. Cissy and Liu, both originally from China, had been together about eight years before they moved into the neighbourhood, from a previous address in Sunnynook.
They didn't really mix with other residents. At Liu's murder trial, neighbours told the court they heard raised voices coming from the house in the weeks before Cissy's disappearance. One resident said he heard what sounded like a plate smashing. Aside from these remote outbursts, the couple kept to themselves.
Bin "Cissy" Chen, 44, had come to New Zealand as a university student in 1991. She later got a job as an accountant at a small business in Glenfield called NorthStar Group. Her colleagues remember her as reliable, hard working, and a bit of a character around the office. "Strong-willed" was probably the right description. We spoke to Cissy's boss, Paul Frazer, in one of several new interviews regarding the case.
Cissy often lectured Frazer about his work-life balance, telling him off like a stern mother. She'd think nothing of barging into a meeting to get the answers she needed to do her work. Frazer grew to like that about her. The thing was, Cissy actually cared about her colleagues. When people in the office had personal difficulties, Chen would write them a recipe for some comfort food. "Her last day was just like any other," remembers Frazer, "which, looking back, is sad, because there were no goodbyes".
On Guy Fawkes Day in 2012, Cissy was last seen leaving NorthStar Group at 4.30pm. A colleague would later tell the court that Chen had seemed "really off" in the past few days, talking on the phone in Mandarin in quite an aggressive tone. Recently she had even gone home sick, which struck her colleague as unusual.
At about 9.30pm that night, Liu called the police and, in a 12-minute conversation where he struggled to be understood because of his poor English, told them that Cissy had not returned from her regular walk on the beach. He said she left on her walk about 5.30pm. Usually he'd have gone with her, he explained, but this time he stayed home to do some work around the house. Two police officers searched for Cissy that night, trudging around in the dark with fireworks popping in the distance. They turned up nothing.
Cissy and Liu had a tenant living in their house: a university student from China named Karen Gao. Gao didn't see much of the couple. She had her own kitchen, toilet and bathroom downstairs. She was focused on her studies. But she could hear her landlords going about their lives on the floor above.
Gao was able to observe that the couple left the house for work every morning at 7.30am. Each night, the student could hear Cissy chopping vegetables, then calling Jack for dinner, and then the television would be going. At about 10pm, it would go quiet. Gao told the court that during her seven months of living in the house, she only noticed Cissy and Jack going out for a walk once, on a Sunday evening.
She heard them arguing twice, and one of those instances was two days before Cissy went missing. Gao heard raised voices, but was busy studying and didn't pay too much attention.
As police came and went from the house on the Monday night of Cissy's disappearance, Gao acted as an interpreter for Liu. This included relaying to police how Liu had received a fresh wound to his thumb. He said he'd pinched it while moving a pot plant. In the coming days, officers kept coming and going, and Gao kept translating what was said. She was in the middle of her exams.
When Chen didn't show up to work on Tuesday, her colleagues thought she might be sick. Then Frazer got a call from a police officer, who told him Cissy was missing and a search and rescue effort was under way. It was difficult, in subsequent weeks and months, for Cissy's colleagues at NorthStar Group to get answers about what had happened. It gave you a sinking-gut feeling, Frazer says. "There was a very noticeable blanket of sadness over the whole team for some time."
At 3am on Wednesday morning, Gao told the court she heard a "water flush noise" in the house, which lasted about half an hour. When she next saw Jack, his explanation was that he'd been washing a fish tank. The following Monday, Gao moved out of the house and never returned.
Later in November, police detective Aaron Iremonger went to pay Jack Liu a visit. He had been spending quite a bit of time with Liu, taking him to the North Shore Police station and interviewing him on camera. On this occasion, he invited Jack to sit with him in the backseat of a patrol car. In the front seats were another detective and a constable who spoke Mandarin and was interpreting for Liu. Iremonger told Liu he believed he was the number one suspect in Cissy's murder. "We're going to find where Cissy's body has been dumped," he said. "When we find her, we'll be coming back to see you."
In March of 2014, 16 months after Cissy disappeared, a lawn mowing contractor discovered her body in a North Shore park. He had just finished cutting the grass at Totaravale Reserve when he looked into a concrete culvert and saw a human skull. Cissy's skeleton was dispersed through the culvert, a storm water system located 11km from her house. The park had been well-known to both Cissy and Liu; the pair previously lived less than one kilometre away from it in Sunnynook. Cissy's body was in the latter stages of decomposition. She was identified through forensic dentistry.
Two weeks later, in April, Iremonger was back at Liu's house. "In the past I invited you back for an interview," he told Liu at his front door. "Today is different. I am placing you under arrest for the murder of Cissy Chen." Liu asked if he could get some clothes, and Iremonger obliged, following him into the house. They travelled to the police station in a patrol car. Liu was silent during the trip.
The same month Liu was charged with Cissy's murder, her older brother Philip Chen placed caveats on his sister's Torbay property, and a property she owned in Mt Roskill, which is estimated to be worth $760,000. Mortgage data for Liu is not known, but the combined values of both properties is likely to be around $2 million. The caveats remain in force, after Liu unsuccessfully filed notices with Land Information New Zealand to lapse them.
Philip, a successful businessman, divides his time between living with his family in Vancouver, Canada, and working in Guangzhou, China. When Cissy disappeared he flew to New Zealand and spoke to Liu a number of times, secretly recording their conversations and passing the recordings on to police.
Liu's murder trial in 2014 lasted several weeks. All the evidence had to be translated into Mandarin for the defendant. Crown Solicitor Brian Dickey told the court Chen had been in the throes of leaving Liu when she died. They had been disentangling their property affairs from each other.
Chen was so fed up, Dickey argued, she even called her brother in China to tell him she was leaving the defendant and she was going to write a will excluding him as a benefactor. Discovering Chen's plans, Liu killed his wife in their home and dumped her body in Totaravale. The jury was taken traipsing through Totaravale Reserve to get its bearings.
Meanwhile, Liu's lawyer Michael Kan argued there was no physical evidence to support the theory Chen was killed in her home. Kan argued the Crown's case was just loosely tied together bits of circumstantial evidence. He said the couple had a happy relationship and were planning their future together.
On a Monday morning, the jury retired to consider its verdict. A decision was returned to the court at 4pm the next day. Liu was found not guilty of murder and not guilty of manslaughter. Chen's family was crushed. Philip Chen shook his head in the courtroom as Liu strode out of the dock, bowed to the judge and left. To this day, Philip Chen struggles to accept the verdict. "I was very upset," he says, "And felt as if a knife were being twisted in my heart whenever I thought about Cissy being killed, and Jack Liu being free to walk away."
Dickey considered an appeal, but didn't bring one. The grounds for appeal post-acquittal are very limited for the Crown.
Dickey is the top dog at Meredith Connell, the law firm that prosecutes serious crime in Auckland. He prosecuted his first criminal case when he was 23. He's since appeared before the courts on more than a thousand matters, including prominent murder and rape trials.
A lawyer with his track record must have been disappointed when Liu's murder trial didn't go his way. But Dickey can't say much about his own personal reaction to the verdict. He is a legal engine of the Crown, and the Crown is not meant to suffer losses or enjoy victories. Instead, it wears the outcomes of cases. The same can be said for police. After the verdict, officers released a statement saying they weren't looking for anyone else in relation to Chen's death, and would not be reinvestigating the case. Their position has not changed.
The Crown case was always going to be difficult. It's hard to convict someone of murder when you don't know how the victim died. Chen's skeleton bore no marks that pointed to a cause of death. A lack of soft tissue meant the forensic pathologist couldn't rule out strangulation, suffocation, stabbing or poisoning. Chen's brain was remarkably well preserved - perhaps because her body had been left in a cold and wet environment - and there was no sign of a significant head injury.
There was also no direct evidence of Liu's involvement in the alleged murder. No one had seen or heard a struggle, or witnessed the dumping of Cissy's body. What the Crown had was a long chain of circumstantial evidence, such as testimony that Liu's relationship with Chen had reached breaking point. To convict Liu, the jury had be sure beyond reasonable doubt - in other words, certain - that Liu killed Cissy. Evidently, the jury had its doubts.
There was one piece of evidence that Dickey says would have been helpful to the Crown, but which was ruled inadmissible by Justice Sarah Katz. On the morning of the day she disappeared, Chen had a telephone conversation with a close friend, Cindy Chin. Chen told Cindy of her plans to make a will, excluding Liu and leaving her assets to her brother and nephews. At one point in the conversation Chen allegedly said to Cindy: "Cindy if one day I am dying [if I die], you please quickly call the police and Jack he's the one who kill me."
With some reluctance, Justice Katz ruled the statement inadmissable, deeming it too prejudicial. The statement could almost be seen as a premonition by Chen of her own death, and an accusation from beyond the grave as to who was responsible. There would inevitably be a huge temptation for the jury to rely on the statement for the truth of its contents, perhaps even subconsciously. Justice Katz concluded that the "reverberating clang" of Chen's accusatory words, made in such close proximity to her disappearance, would "drown out all weaker sounds" in the case.
In August last year, the Court of Appeal found fault with the decision to rule Cindy's statement out of the trial. It said the evidence should have been admitted after all. "The evidence that Ms Chen feared Mr Liu might kill her was, as the judge observed, powerful but we consider that power was of an entirely legitimate nature," the court said, referencing Justice Katz's decision in an unrelated judgment. Asked whether the evidence could have influenced the outcome of Liu's trial, Dickey says: "It was always the Crown's position that it was potentially important evidence."
Another piece of evidence was also pulled from the jury soon before it retired. Weeks into their investigation, police found a document in the Torbay house, stowed in a cabinet under the TV. On the piece of paper were written the words "homicide," "altercation" and "resuscitate," in English, Chinese and phonetically.
The Crown argued it could be used by the jury to infer Liu had been planning what to say to emergency services after he allegedly killed Cissy. Justice Katz conceded it was an unusual note to find in the home of someone accused of murder, but she told the jury to disregard it. There was no evidence, the judge explained, to show who wrote it, or why, or when. The document had never been sent for handwriting analysis.
The substantive hearing has yet to take place in Philip Chen's civil proceedings against Liu. While police have reiterated that they are not looking for anyone else in relation to Cissy's death, they add that if further information came to light in the case, it would be fully investigated.
At Enclosure Technology, where Liu has worked as a factory assembler for eight years, his boss describes him as the perfect staff member. The work there is hard going. Liu grinds though his days without complaint, using air tools and drill machines to build server cabinets.
Standing taller than most of his co-workers, Liu is seen as something of a gentle giant. And his workmanship, Bronwyn Johnson says, is second to none. "It's very frustrating work and I don't think I've ever heard him raise his voice. I think he's an exemplary employee." When Liu was charged with murder, his manager didn't once consider letting him go. "I knew right from the outset that the charges just couldn't be Jack."
Talking through a crack in his door at the Torbay house, Liu will not discuss his legal battle with Cissy's family. The interpreter changes the subject. "What's your life like?" She asks him. "Nothing special," says Liu. "I go to work every day." Still he won't close the door fully - whether out of indecision or sheer politeness, it's not clear - but his patience with journalists is at an end.
"Do you want," asks the interpreter, "to solve your wife's case, and find the murderer?"
"The police will deal with it," says Liu. Now the door finally snaps shut. We drift back up the driveway. As we're leaving, we see Liu in a window on the house's second storey, peering down at us. It's only for a second, then he moves out of view.
Published: The Sunday Star-Times, October 2017