Flamboyant Crime Fighter May Face Justice Over Role in Scandal

Wang Lijun reveled in his image as the consummate crime fighter. An ethnic Mongolian policeman with a fondness for expensive overcoats, he directed crackdowns on organized crime, performed autopsies, patented designs for police uniforms and was even named an honorary professor at the institute of a famous American forensic scientist. His earlier exploits inspired a television series. All that was missing was a mask and cape.

Bo Xilai
Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images
Bo Xilai

His coup de grâce was revealing to American diplomats in February his suspicions that the wife of Bo Xilai, his boss who was then running this western metropolis, had murdered a British business associate.

But there is another side to Mr. Wang, now accused by many people of being as much a criminal as those he boasted of persecuting. He locked up and tortured lawyers, business executives and other police officers as part of a relentless crackdown he oversaw, say those victims and people in Chongqing with police contacts.

In April, a senior official in Chongqing signaled at an internal police meeting the start of a wide inquiry into the allegations. Mr. Wang also ran an extensive wire tapping campaign. And he helped cover up the killing last November of the British businessman, Neil Heywood, said two people with ties to the police.

Court officials answering to the Communist Party have painted an even darker portrait. They say he schemed with Gu Kailai, the wife of Mr. Bo, to kill Mr. Heywood after Ms. Gu supposedly became fearful that Mr. Heywood would harm her son. Mr. Wang is being detained and has been unable to comment publicly about any of the accusations.

The official narrative, laid out at a trial of Ms. Gu on Aug. 9, said that Ms. Gu and Mr. Wang intended to lure Mr. Heywood to Chongqing, where Mr. Wang would then shoot Mr. Heywood in a drug-related arrest attempt, according to courtroom observers.

After Mr. Wang backed out of the plot, Ms. Gu poisoned Mr. Heywood with the help of a family aide, and then confessed to the murder in a talk with Mr. Wang, who secretly recorded the conversation. The account by the official Xinhua news agency, though, barely mentioned Mr. Wang.

Four policemen under Mr. Wang were tried separately on charges of harboring Ms. Gu.

Legal experts and some political observers in China say some of the evidence presented in court lacks credibility. Hu Shuli, a prominent Chinese journalist, wrote Wednesday that parts of the official murder narrative had raised “suspicions.”

Nevertheless, the state is expected to soon mete out its brand of justice against Mr. Wang, too. He could go on trial this month for his flight on Feb. 6 to the American Consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu, where he told United States diplomats of the Heywood murder before being escorted to Beijing by state security officers. The charge against him is likely to be treason, which potentially carries a death sentence, though officials may show leniency because Mr. Wang has cooperated with investigations, said several people with knowledge of the case.

A tough sentence for the enigmatic Mr. Wang, 52, could open the Obama administration to criticism over why it did not grant him more protection. American officials say Mr. Wang left the consulate of his own volition and did not apply for asylum.

Even if he had, they say, he would not necessarily have presented a compelling case because of the evidence of human rights abuses carried out under his authority. That view is supported by residents here with police contacts.

“Maybe in the beginning, he wanted to do something, he wanted to be a hero,” one such person said. “But once he came over, he saw something very complicated. It wasn’t like he had thought it would be.”

Mr. Wang arrived in June 2008 to take on the post of deputy police chief. He had been hired from Liaoning Province, in northeast China, by Mr. Bo, the Communist Party aristocratwho had been governor of Liaoning before becoming commerce minister and then party chief of Chongqing. Mr. Wang, from Inner Mongolia, had risen through the ranks of police departments in Liaoning. His exploits there became grist for a television series, “Iron-Blooded Police Spirits.” There were some complaints of torture under his command, but he left the province a star.

He was promoted in March 2009 to police chief. But he associated with shadowy figures. He was close to a secretive Bo family henchman, Yu Junshi, a former military intelligence officer, said several people here. Whenever Mr. Yu called, Mr. Wang would pick up the phone. After two of Mr. Yu’s dogs bit a man to death last year, Mr. Wang, rather than pursuing charges, persuaded Mr. Yu to put the dogs to sleep.

Mr. Wang also ran in celebrity circles. One night in February 2009, Mr. Wang had drinks in a Hilton hotel suite with Zhao Benshan, a famous comedian whom Mr. Wang knew from Liaoning. Mr. Wang told a story about how he once had police officers beat up every member of a gang under arrest except for a friend of Mr. Zhao’s, according to a microblog post by Zhang Mingyu, a disgruntled real estate mogul who was in the hotel suite. With a laugh, Mr. Wang also told of how he had suspects taken to an execution ground and ordered shots fired into the air to frighten them into informing, Mr. Zhang wrote.

Mr. Wang enjoyed the grand gesture. In December 2009, when the police detained a lawyer, Li Zhuang, on suspicion of suborning perjury in a Chongqing legal case and flew him from Beijing back to Chongqing, Mr. Wang was on hand when he stepped off the airplane.

Mr. Wang had arranged for the plane to be surrounded by police vehicles with flashing lights, officers with helmets and submachine guns and television news crews, Mr. Li recalled in an interview with The New York Times months after his release from prison. Mr. Wang stood with his hands in the pockets of a dark yellow overcoat. “Li Zhuang, we meet again,” Mr. Wang said.

Even Mr. Wang’s ordinary public appearances were noteworthy. He went everywhere with an entourage of policemen dressed in dark overcoats, and two officers would always catch his own overcoat when he shrugged it off. In restaurants, he would demand the entire floor be blocked off. He brought his own food and drink or asked that the restaurant’s be tested. To get to the airport, he would sometimes take a police helicopter.

But Mr. Wang also showed a keen interest in the day-to-day details of police work. Among nearly 200 patents he filed is one for traffic police islands where officers work on laptops. Mr. Wang also designed police boots, uniforms and rain jackets.

People say Mr. Wang was genuinely interested in crime solving. He obsessed over criminal psychology and surveillance technology. He admired Henry C. Lee, the Taiwanese-American forensic scientist made famous during the O. J. Simpson trial.

Dr. Lee said he first met Mr. Wang more than 25 years ago in Japan, where Dr. Lee was giving a speech at a conference. Mr. Wang walked up afterward and “said he was really proud that a Chinese scientist had been invited to be a keynote speaker,” Dr. Lee recalled.

Last year, Dr. Lee gave a lecture in Chongqing, and about 20 officers went to train at the Henry C.Lee Institute of Forensic Science in West Haven, Conn., where Mr. Wang is an honorary research professor.

Mr. Wang’s main legacy as police chief has been the “strike black” campaign, dreamed up by Mr. Bo and billed as a crackdown on organized crime and police corruption. Over a 10-month period starting in June 2009, nearly 4,800 people were detained. Many were held in secret jails, and tales of torture abound. Thirteen people were executed. By one estimate, about 1,700 police officers were fired under Mr. Wang.

At the time, the campaign appeared to be the high point of Mr. Wang’s career. A team of writers was hired to write a four-volume history of the crackdown; a “Godfather”-style movie and television series were to follow.

But things fell apart quickly for Mr. Wang last year. A central government investigatory body pressed an inquiry into corruption in the city of Tieling, where Mr. Wang had been police chief. Tensions built between him and Mr. Bo. Then the Heywood death took place. Three months later, Mr. Wang fled to the American Consulate after being demoted by Mr. Bo, who he said punched him in the face during a confrontation over the Heywood death. Mr. Wang then disappeared into the maw of state security, and the Chongqing government said he was undergoing “vacation-style therapy.”