China’s Most Wanted: How the Cops Got a Murderous Serial Bank Robber

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China Daily / Reuters

Police carry away the body of Zhou Kehua, the fugitive serial killer and armed robber, from the spot he was shot dead, in Chongqing Municipality, August 14, 2012.

Before Zhou Kehua became one of China‘s most wanted fugitives, he enjoyed reading and collecting detective novels. When he was short of cash as a teenager, he would sometimes sit on the roadside and rent his novels out, an acquaintance told the Chongqing Morning Post. But as an adult Zhou took a more direct and violent route to raising funds: robbing people at gunpoint, then shooting them and leaving them for dead. Police say he is suspected of killing 10 people in a crime spree that spanned eight years and three major Chinese cities. It came to a bloody end Tuesday when Zhou, 42, was gunned down by two plainclothes officers in Chongqing, his hometown in southwestern China.

Zhou’s death brought an end to a four-day manhunt that saw thousands of police, military police and troops scouring hillsides in Chongqing’s rural districts. The search was triggered by a shooting outside of a Bank of China branch in the city’s Shapingba district that left a woman dead and two others injured. The assailant, who police identified as Zhou, made off with $11,000, according to state media reports. The authorities feared that he would disappear into the rural districts near where he grew up, but instead he was found early Tuesday on a street in one of Chongqing’s urban districts, possibly preparing for another heist.

Private firearm ownership is illegal in China and gun crimes are rare. The shooting of three civilians in Chongqing on Friday stirred public concern and revived memories of 2009, when a handful of shootings helped spur a massive crackdown on crime. That campaign helped raise the national stature of Chongqing’s then-leader, Bo Xilai, who has since had a spectacular fall from grace. His wife, Gu Kailai, went on trial last week for the poisoning of a British businessman, and Bo, who was removed from office in March, is under investigation by the Communist Party’s internal discipline system.

Bo’s story has a distant but noteworthy link to Zhou. Bo’s downfall began this February, when his onetime deputy Wang Lijun made a surprise visit to a U.S. consulate, where he spent a day. While the U.S. hasn’t divluged what Wang said, it’s suspected he revealed damaging information about Bo and his wife Gu. As Chongqing police chief, Wang led the city’s well-publicized assault on crime. He was elevated to Chongqing’s Public Security Bureau chief on March 26, 2009, in part to lead an investigation of a high-profile killing of a People’s Liberation Army sentry the week before. Chongqing police now say they suspect Zhou of killing the sentry and stealing his submachine gun.

Interviews with neighbors in Chinese newspapers describe Zhou as a quiet child of a poor family who dropped out of middle school and worked with his father hauling sand along the Jialing River. He later worked loading freight and as a driver. His mother told the Guangming Daily News that around 2000 he was sent to a labor camp for possession of a firearm. The newspaper speculated that experience lead Zhou to develop thoughts of retribution.

The first shooting attributed to Zhou was in 2004, when one woman was killed and another injured in a bank robbery in Chongqing. One year later a couple was robbed and killed outside a bank in Chongqing’s Shapingba district. Then came the 2009 murder of Han Junliang, the PLA sentry shot in Chongqing. After that, police suspect Zhou in several shootings in the central city of Changsha and one in Nanjing. His last suspected robbery, on Friday in Chongqing, closely mirrors his first: a woman killed outside a bank in a robbery. While fleeing that scene Zhou allegedly shot and killed a railway police officer who was pursuing him.

Police finally caught Zhou early Tuesday as they waited outside another bank, suspecting he might strike again. A story in the state-run China Daily described the pursuit of Zhou by officers Zhou Jin and Wang Xiaoyu:

They followed him across a street into an alley, and he started to walk faster.”We also sped up. After we had gone about 30 meters into the alley and the distance between him and us was around 10 meters, he suddenly turned back, murmuring, ‘Did I go the wrong way?’ and walked toward us,” said Zhou Jin.

He said he was extremely tense when the suspect turned to him and his colleague, and he thought, “It must be him and he’s going to shoot us.”

The suspect fired three times, grazing Wang, and the officers returned fire, killing Zhou Kehua, according to the newspaper report. Police rejected the suggestions by the Chongqing Times and a reporter with the Changsha Evening Post that Zhou had killed himself.