Serial killer befriended and butchered tourists

The Prisons van ferrying John Martin leaving the High Court after the trial. He was convicted and became the first Westerner to be hanged in 1996 for murder in Singapore. John Martin (left) used his 1.5kg camping hammer (above) to kill the South Afri
The Prisons van ferrying John Martin leaving the High Court after the trial. He was convicted and became the first Westerner to be hanged in 1996 for murder in Singapore. ST FILE PHOTO

This is an excerpt from the book A British Serial Killer In Singapore: A True Story by Tan Ooi Boon. The book, first published in 1996, has been reissued by Straits Times Press, 2019. It is available at $26.75 (inclusive of GST) at leading bookstores and from stbooks.sg The Kindle version can be downloaded for US$9.99. Below are the prologue and epilogue, and a short excerpt on how the writer reported on the case for The Straits Times.

PROLOGUE

It has been more than 20 years since I first wrote about this case, which happened in Singapore in 1995. I was then a young reporter covering the law and crime beat for Singapore's main English daily, The Straits Times.

While the methods and technology for fighting crime have evolved significantly since, this case has remained as one of the most shocking crimes committed here.

A whole generation of people might not have known that this case took place in Singapore, known internationally as one of the safest countries in the world.

In Singapore, a popular refrain is this: Low crime does not mean no crime. While most money-driven crimes such as theft and burglary can be prevented with sufficient care, the same cannot be said for crimes involving violence.

Once a hunter has set his sights on a prey, it is hard to stop him, unless the prey is aware of the hunt. In such cases, what matters is how the police react and how swiftly they can act to catch the perpetrator and stop him from causing more harm.

This would be paramount if the criminals are dangerous.

Unlike other criminals, John Martin had a skill that made him a far more dangerous man. He was a prolific serial killer because all his victims were murdered within a month across three countries. His victims were all tourists on holiday. In short, it could have been anyone.


A British Serial Killer In Singapore:
A True Story by Tan Ooi Boon
 

It was spine-tingling to note that Martin could be someone who sat next to you on the bus or train. The tall, slim and handsome man had a soft-spoken and charming personality that would put strangers at ease.

He roamed the streets freely after his murders. He mingled with many people. This could have been an unsolved crime because Martin had executed his hunts without leaving behind many clues and he had almost-perfect getaway plans that would enable safe passage through all checkpoints.

But he made one fatal error. He underestimated the mettle of his foe: the Singapore Police Force.

The key investigators - Assistant Superintendent Gerald Lim, Staff Sergeant Zainal Abidin and Inspector Zainudin Lee - were so meticulous that they not only caught their man, but also successfully closed the case of the wily killer in record time. Their work earned praises worldwide - testimony that thorough and good old-fashioned detective work is what solves complex crimes.

Some things don't change, even with the advent of technology. In writing this book, I have tried to be as accurate as possible. However, there were certain events that only the killer and his victims would ever know.

For these, I have reconstructed fair accounts based on evidence and research. When this crime took place in 1995, there was neither the Internet nor e-mail, hence information moved a lot slower than today.

These thoughts are shared in the epilogue that will re-imagine the scenario - how a similar case would pan out if it happens today. Even hardened crime writers will confess that it is never easy to write about the suffering of defenceless victims and their families. It is more so when the suffering is the result of a gruesome and heinous crime. I have changed all the names of Martin's victims to protect the privacy of their families. With the passage of time, it is my sincere hope that the families have finally found solace and peace.

MARCH 20, 1995

It was a rather slow day for me in the newsroom. Other than writing a short mundane story on a traffic accident, there was nothing else to do. It was 6pm and I was ready to leave the office.

Then my phone rang. It was ASP Lim Chin Tiak. "I have good news for you. Remember the story about the missing South African that you want to write? You can do it today. The CID (Criminal Investigation Department) will send a statement to you shortly."


John Martin (top) used his 1.5kg camping hammer (above)
to kill the South African tourist and dismembered him in
1995. Martin then took the victim’s credit cards to go on
a shopping spree. PHOTOS: POLICE
 

I was excited. I did not expect him to get back to me on this topic barely a week after our last conversation. I asked: "So what happened? What will the police say?"

ASP Lim replied: "Wait for the statement, which has all the information. The police are confirming the victim's identity. We have also arrested a suspect."

As it turned out, that slow Monday turned out to be the start of a dark chapter in Singapore's crime annals. For me, I didn't get to leave the office until 1am that night.

On Tuesday, March 21, 1995, The Straits Times broke the story with a Page 1 report which also published a photograph of David Kellane (the victim, name changed) for the first time. (An edited version of the actual report is reproduced here.)

BODY PARTS IN BAGS MAY BE THOSE OF SOUTH AFRICAN MAN

The body parts found in plastic bags off Clifford Pier last week are suspected to be those of a South African tourist who arrived in Singapore earlier this month on holiday. He is said to be a 33-year-old chemical engineer from Johannesburg, who arrived in Singapore on a shopping trip on March 8.

Yesterday, police said a Caucasian man who was found to be holding the victim's passport and credit cards had been detained for questioning.

The grisly killing first came to light last Monday when a boatman discovered a pair of legs, severed at the knee, inside a black plastic bag. The bag, which was tied with blue underwear, was floating in the sea off Clifford Pier.

Three days later, thighs and a naked torso - without the head and limbs - were fished out of the water off the pier. They were also in black plastic bags, similar to the one which contained the legs.

Police said the victim, who was married and had no children, was supposed to have left for home on March 11. When he failed to return, his family contacted the South African High Commission in Singapore to help find him. It then made a missing person report to the police.

Police investigations showed that he had checked into a hotel with the suspect on arrival and had not been seen by anyone since then. It is not known how the two men met.

The suspect had used the victim's credit cards to make cash withdrawals and purchases of electronic goods here. The suspect also carried several passports of different countries and police are trying to find out his nationality. He apparently left Singapore not long after he met the victim, but was arrested by police at Changi Airport when he returned to Singapore from Bangkok on Sunday night.

When contacted by telephone in Johannesburg yesterday, the victim's elder sister, who is in her late 30s, said: "The family is very upset now and we do not wish to answer any question."

Martin picked his victims carefully. He targeted tourists who were not likely to be immediately missed by their families at home or in the countries they were in. The family of his first victim in Singapore only raised the alarm almost a week after he was murdered, by sending faxes to the police and local authorities. This took place a few days after he failed to be on the return flight home.

The family said he was carrying about US$8,000 in traveller's cheques and about US$7,000 might have been billed to his credit cards.

In a separate telephone interview, a close friend of the family said: "He was a very reliable person and when he was away, he would make daily contact with family members."

The director of a trade and finance company, 38, described the victim as well-built, about 1.7m tall, and had brown and slightly greyish hair.

He said: "When he did not return home on March 11, we knew something was wrong. He was the sort who never went to a bar without telling his wife."

The report became the talk of the town the next day. What actually happened? Who was the mysterious murder suspect? And why did he have so many passports?

What all of us did not realise then was that Singapore police had caught a criminal who was not ordinary. The man in custody was a vicious and dangerous serial killer.

EPILOGUE

There are fewer serial killers in the world today. This is because the advent of technology has made it increasingly harder for them to find victims, commit the deed and escape justice, unlike in the old days. While it is difficult to prevent a violent crime from happening, it is far easier for the police to track down assailants once such a crime is reported today.

So, while murder cases are still happening, it is getting much harder for the killers to go "serial" and chalk up a list of victims.

New technology has enabled the police to hunt these perpetrators down so long as the crime is discovered early.

In this particular case, John Martin committed the murders and got away before the crimes were discovered. In Singapore, he had a head start of about five days before the police found out someone had been murdered. By the time the crime was discovered, he had already left Singapore.

He went on to murder two more people, in Thailand, and also succeeded in leaving the country before the crime was discovered.

But, if not for the fact that Martin was arrested in Singapore when he tried to re-enter the country, these crimes would probably remain unsolved. Worse, it was likely he would have continued his murderous rampage in other countries as well.

Unlike other criminals, he had a gambit from the beginning. He had two different identities in the form of two genuine passports that were issued by the British government. One was his own, while the other was mistakenly issued after he used a stolen birth certificate of another person to make another passport for himself.

If he had used the two passports interchangeably when he travelled to various countries, he might have escaped detection from local authorities. After all, it is very rare for anyone to possess two genuine passports with different names. No immigration authorities would raise an alarm because as far as they were concerned, the paperwork would be in order.

Martin picked his victims carefully. He targeted tourists who were not likely to be immediately missed by their families at home or in the countries they were in.

The family of his first victim in Singapore only raised the alarm almost a week after he was murdered, by sending faxes to the police and local authorities. This took place a few days after he failed to be on the return flight home.

As websites and Internet access were not available in those days, the family probably had to make plenty of phone calls before they were able to establish the proper fax numbers to transmit their missing person appeal.

It was better late than never, as the appeal played a critical role in helping the police to establish the identity of the victim after his body parts were found. Otherwise, investigations would have taken far longer and the killer might even have made a clean getaway.

This begs the question - how would this case play out if a similar killer was stalking a prey today?

If he had a charming personality, he might be able to approach and befriend a stranger at the airport and persuade the intended victim to share a room with him.

Indeed, with ride-sharing and room-sharing platforms easily available today, people might even be more open to share with strangers. This may be a source of concern because this is what criminals count on. They will use deception and tell a sob story in order to gain sympathy, trust and, most importantly, access to their victims' lives.

Indeed, the availability of social media platforms would enable criminals to create fake and seemingly endearing personal profiles, along with fictitious families, to help lend credence and convince their victims that they are ordinary and decent folks.

Imagine a traveller having doubts about sharing a room with a stranger. Those doubts might be erased if the stranger pretends to allude to his family and shows pictures of a happy family on his social media page to the traveller. This would make it easier to trick victims into trusting him.

This means technology has also led to the creation of more dangerous criminals. In this instance, once the victim agrees to go with the stranger and share a hotel room, there can only be one outcome - the victim will die.

Technology is but a mere tool and it will not stop a crime from being committed if the victim goes with the killer to his lair. Indeed, the human fallibility of being too trusting has been made worse by technology. Due to the ability to do instantaneous searches and the speed of getting readily available information, people tend to get impatient easily and this can drive them to make decisions without proper consideration.

The result is that people are likely to fall into traps even faster than before. This explains why countless people still fall prey to various Internet scams worldwide, even though in most cases, the scams sound too good to be true. If people can be easily tricked into trusting someone they have not met online, it is even harder to reject a charming stranger in front of you who has a friendly smile and is eager to shake your hand.

So the only defence that could save a person is the ability to say "no" and walk away from strangers.

Don't be too trusting. This advice is especially important if you are travelling in a foreign country.

What about instant connectivity being available? Is it safer when you are always contactable by family and friends, no matter where you are?

Yes and no. If you are in trouble and they know, it is, of course, easier for them to raise the alarm and seek help. Indeed, the availability of location-tracking apps in smartphones has enabled people to reach out and assist the victims, provided this takes place in the same city.

Help may not be available so quickly if the crime takes place in a foreign country. In the movie Taken (2008), Liam Neeson plays a father who could only listen helplessly as his daughter spoke on the phone about being kidnapped by strangers. What this means is that being in touch with family is not a safety net that can stop a crime.

Fortunately, technology will lean in favour of justice once a crime is discovered.

The availability of online services will enable people to file a missing person report quickly with the police. They can get help immediately by sending over the victim's description and other crucial information to the police.

Once communications have been established, the police can work with the family to get more information to trace the victim's last known whereabouts - such as the hotel he had checked into - or whether he was still in the country. Retrieval of information is far quicker now as everything is now stored online. Once the location or possible scene of crime is determined, the wheels of justice will also turn at a much faster speed than before.

During his trial, Martin tried to create an alibi for himself by saying that he had a "British friend" who helped him cut and dispose of the victim's body.

If a CCTV network had been in place then, it would be difficult for him to make up such a story. A simple check would reveal whether another person had been present at the scene of the crime. Once this location is known, technology will help a great deal when it comes to the testing of blood samples and bodily fluid that provides the DNA of the victim. This will enable the police to verify the identity of the victim quickly.

Once a murder is suspected, tracing will be done to determine the suspect's whereabouts. If he has left the country, the tracing will track him to the next destination.

Chances of escape will be slim so long as the suspect tries to travel legally through immigration checkpoints. Even if he holds two different passports, his ruse to avoid detection will fail, unless he can change his fingerprints or his eyes totally.

The biometric scanning of eyes has been put in place progressively at many immigration checkpoints around the world. Even if this technology is not yet available in some countries, the facial recognition software that is linked to Interpol's database will still enable law enforcers to stop criminals at checkpoints.

Of course, if the criminal decides to hide and totally drops off from the grid of security network, he will become harder to catch. Still, the key point is harder but not impossible. Sooner or later, justice will catch up and there will be no escape for known criminals.

Lest people forget, while crime-fighting technology has never been better, the indomitable human spirit and a hunch by a good detective are ultimately the strongest weapons against the scourge of crimes.

But although technology may make it harder for criminals to escape, it is better not to become a victim in the first place. All of us can do better to make it harder for criminals to harm us and our families.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 26, 2019, with the headline 'Serial killer befriended and butchered tourists'. Print Edition | Subscribe