This story was first published in July 2015 in an e-book titled Guilty As Charged: 25 Crimes That Have Shaken Singapore Since 1965. A collaboration between The Straits Times and the Singapore Police Force, the e-book appeared in The Straits Times Star E-books app. Read the other crime stories here. (Warning: Some content in these stories may be disturbing for some individuals.)
Gold bar murders (1971)
Brothers who killed for 120 gold bars end up being hanged with five other youths
It was a sweet deal for Andrew Chou Hock Guan. As an air cargo supervisor with Air Vietnam, he could easily pass though the high levels of security at the airport. Naturally, he was asked by the aircrew to help smuggle gold bars onto flights.
In early 1971, he began taking assignments from three syndicates in Singapore. They would drop the gold bars at his home at Chepstow Close in Serangoon Garden Estate, and he would slip them past security.
In return, he would be paid “good money”. For each 1kg gold bar, he would receive a total of US$15 from the aircrew and the local side.
For months, two to three times weekly, Andrew smuggled the bars and earned his commission.
Then things soured after money brought back to Singapore from Vietnam on a plane was stolen.
The commissions dried up. A plot was hatched to rob one of the syndicates still in business with Chou. Three people were killed.
And seven were hanged for the crime, including Andrew and his brother David, all on the same day at Changi Prison.
The lost money
Relations with the syndicates went south in October 1971 when a bag containing about US$235,000, that had arrived on an Air Vietnam flight, was lost at the airport. The money was meant for the three syndicates.
Andrew, whose job included collecting the money sent back, was relentlessly pressured by the syndicates to look for the missing cash. Threats were made against him. He did his own investigations, and managed to recover about US$180,000 from airport staff.
But that still left him short.
Out of desperation, he even consulted bomohs (Malay shamans) at a cemetery at Jalan Kaki Bukit.
But the rest of the money was never recovered, and he lost favour with the syndicates.
“Andrew became angry. His income from the gold trafficking was considerably reduced,” said Senior State Counsel S. Rajendran during the trial.
So Andrew plotted with his brother David Chou Hock Heng, 34, a university graduate who worked as an assistant manager at a pharmaceutical company, Peter Lim Swee Guan, a 24-year-old despatch clerk, and his good friend Augustine Ang Cheng Siong, 25. They came up with a plan to rob and murder import-export towkay Ngo Cheng Poh, 55, and his associates the next time he asked Andrew to deliver gold.
They recruited six others for the deed: Alex Yau Hean Thye; Ringo Lee Chiew Chwee; Richard James; Stephen Francis; Stephen Lee Hock Khoon and Nagalingam Konesekaram.
All were charged with murder.
But Andrew’s close friend Ang turned prosecution witness, was given a discharge not amounting to an acquittal on the murder charge, and detained without trial.
Ang was close to the brothers and often visited them at their home. He said he, David and Peter even escorted Andrew during one of his gold runs after the incident in which money was stolen.
Ang said he was paid $50.
He said he and Peter helped gather the recruits for the gold robbery — agreeing to pay each of them $20,000.
“It must be done clean and quiet and the bodies must be buried.”
According to Ang, that was what David said when they met in a Changi coffeeshop to discuss their plan. Ropes were to be used to strangle the victims.
If two men showed up, they would be brought into the house, and attacked as they left. If there were three men, one would be the driver who would stay outside. In this case, the driver had to be taken care of first. It was even suggested that the bodies be dumped in a well in Changi.
The boys were told to stand by every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday night — the days Air Vietnam flew into Singapore.
The deadly deed
On Dec 29, 1971, Andrew received a call from import-export trader Ngo, informing him that the next consignment of gold — 120 bars, worth over $500,000 — was to be delivered to his house later at midnight.
Andrew rounded up all the recruits and had them gather at the backyard of his house at around 11.30pm. Pieces of cloth were hung up to prevent neighbours from looking in. Green nylon rope was hidden under a food cover.
Slightly before midnight, a Mercedes car stopped at the front gate. Mr Ngo, together with two of his employees, clerk Leong Chin Woo, 51, and office assistant Ang Boon Chai, 57, had arrived.
Andrew immediately signalled for the rest of the group to hide in the kitchen, while he and his brother went out to greet the trio.
Mr Ngo and Mr Leong brought the gold in. The other man stayed in the car. Andrew then called his friend Ang out to the yard to count the gold bars. “Before I could count the gold, I saw Andrew and David pounce on Ngo and Leong at the same time,” said Ang. “Andrew put both hands around Ngo’s neck and David did the same to Leong.”
Ang called out to the rest of the boys to come out. “I saw Andrew still with his hands on Ngo’s neck. Ngo was lying on the cement floor of the backyard.
“He was struggling and kicking his legs up and down. I quickly caught hold of both his legs and pressed them down.
“As I was pressing Ngo’s legs, I turned and saw David was pulling a rope that was around the neck of Leong, who was also lying on the floor.”
After a short while, David came over to Andrew and put his own hands around Ngo’s neck.
“I then walked out to the small path near the porch where I saw a man (the driver) lying down sideways. I saw Andrew stamping the man’s body with his feet. Andrew also applied karate chops on his neck and right temple,” said Ang. “I took a rounded block of wood and hit the man’s face several times. I heard the man calling for help in Hokkien.
“He said: ‘Please! Please! Don’t hit me. Let me go!’”
Just after the killings, the couple living next-door returned from a movie. Cloth was quickly placed over the bodies, as David went to greet the couple and make sure they had not seen anything.
The three corpses were then bundled into the back seat of a Volkswagen. Andrew, David, and Ang remained in the house to wash off the blood from the backyard floor, while the rest of the boys went off to dispose the bodies.
But the boys panicked. Instead of disposing the bodies in a disused well as planned, they left them in thick bushes beside an old mining pond in Lembah Bedok.
Mr Ngo’s Mercedes was abandoned at Jalan Somapah Timor in Changi.
Wives of victims
When the clean-up was finished at around 2.30am, Andrew called Mr Ngo’s home and spoke to his wife Goh Cheng Hong. He pretended to ask why her husband never showed up.
“We have been waiting since he telephoned before midnight, but he and the two men have not showed up yet. Would you know what is the matter?” he asked Madam Goh, who grew alarmed.
She knew her husband had a large quantity of gold with him.
At 5.30am, she could wait no longer. She left her East Coast bungalow and went to the Chou brothers’ home. Stopping outside, she sounded the car horn.
Andrew came out dressed only in shorts, and put on another performance.
“Yes, Mrs Ngo? What happened to your husband? Why hasn’t he come yet? We have been waiting and waiting!”
She noticed Andrew had a bandage on his left arm near the wrist. But she never thought that hours earlier her husband had been killed right where she was. She suspected secret societies had jumped him while he was transporting the gold.
She went home. At around 10am, she contacted the wife of Mr Ang Boon Chai, who was also growing anxious.
Half an hour later, they went to the Joo Chiat Police Station and made a report, telling the duty officer that they suspected “foul play”.
Two hours later, Mr Leong’s body was found by a group of national servicemen who were training in the area of Jalan Lembah Bedok. His hands and legs were tied. Police were called. Soon, Mr Ngo’s body was also found. Then the third body.
A few days after the murders, the police managed to retrieve all 120 gold bars, of which 115 were found neatly packed in small bundles of five in the home of Lim’s aunt, Catherine Ang, who was supposed to help sell them.
The other five bars were found in David’s office at Bayer Singapore.
‘It was Ang’s idea’
Andrew insisted that Ang was the mastermind behind the entire plot.
Ang was introduced to him by his brother David and they became “very close” friends.
Ang used to accompany him on his gold deliveries, and took a cut. After the incident involving the stolen money, Ang urged him to rob Mr Ngo.
“I was making good money from the gold transactions and there was no reason for me to want to rob him,” said Andrew.
“Ang was aware that I was contemplating leaving Air Vietnam. He told me not to be selfish but to think of him also. The discussion was basically on his anxiety to get rich.”
Ang first suggested that Andrew faked being robbed. Andrew replied that it was a crazy idea.
Then he suggested waylaying Mr Ngo on his way to deliver gold to Andrew’s home.
“I did not agree to this because it involved violence,” said Andrew.
After being pestered constantly, Andrew said he finally agreed to a plan in which Mr Ngo would be detained, the gold sold, and part of the proceeds given back to the businessman.
“Ang said he had the connections and asked me to leave everything to him and to trust him,” said Andrew.
Nine of those involved were convicted of murder on Dec 29, 1972.
Ringo Lee and Stephen Lee, who were both under 18 at the time of the murders, escaped the hangman’s noose and were detained at the President’s pleasure.
The remaining seven men were sent to the gallows. When the sentence of death was read out, Ang was reported to be “visibly moved”.
In the corridors outside the courtroom, female relatives of Richard James, Stephen Francis and Konesekaram, wept openly and had to be restrained and led out by police. One fainted.
In their appeal, it was argued that Ang’s testimony could not be trusted. The appeal failed.
So did a petition to former President Benjamin Sheares for clemency.
All seven were hanged in Changi Prison at 6am on Feb 28, 1975.