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.)
The case of Anthony Ler (2001)
He showed no remorse after luring a teenager into killing his wife, who had wanted a divorce
Anthony Ler Wee Teang attended the wake for his estranged wife Annie Leong Wai Mun. The previous day at 1am, the 30-year-old insurance agent died in Tan Tock Seng Hospital of knife wounds she suffered a few hours before.
She had been stabbed multiple times outside the lift on the fourth-floor of the Housing Board flat where she was living with her mother and her four-year-old daughter.
At the wake, Ler sat down with a New Paper reporter not far from where his wife's body was in a coffin.
He admitted being a bad husband. Yes, he had an affair, "fouled up" their marriage, gambled at the races, was arrogant and an "unlikeable" person.
"She was everything I was not," he said. "She's the angel, I am the devil."
He insisted that despite their issues, they still shared a wonderful relationship.
He said he did not care that he was a possible suspect in his wife's death. Just before she was stabbed, he had met her at the void deck of Block 923 at Hougang Avenue 9.
She had gone up to get a pen to sign certain documents he had brought, he said.
He was, he insisted, innocent.
He did not know who killed her right after she left him. He was being framed, he pleaded. He wondered if he did things differently, would she have lived?
"What if I did not ask her down? What if I had brought a pen? What if I had gone up with her? A thousand 'what-ifs', but one reality, she's gone."
It was all a big act.
Two days after the interview, 34-year-old Ler was arrested at his Pasir Ris home at around 10pm.
Four hours earlier, the police already had in custody the hitman. He was a 15-year-old secondary school student.
On May 19, 2001, the pair were charged in court.
The student, a thin, lanky bespectacled boy, showed no emotion when he was accused of murder.
Ler, who was wearing a singlet, was charged with abetting the murder of his wife. The offence carried the death penalty.
The key question then was why did the boy do it?
The answer was provided during a trial which had the courtroom packed.
Around February 2001, through the 15-year-old, Ler got to know a group of youths who hung out at a McDonald's restaurant at Block 444, Pasir Ris Drive 6.
Vickneswaran Krishnan, 17, Seah Tze Howe, 22, Gavin Ng Jin Wei, 16, and 19-year-old Kong Ka Cheong all testified at the trial.
And they all said the same thing.
After Ler started to meet them regularly, often bringing along his white pomeranian dog, he broached the subject of murder. He asked if any one of them dared to kill.
The youths played along, thinking it was all a joke. How much, they asked.
Ler replied $100,000.
Sometime in late April, he started asking them if they could kill his wife for money, or find others willing to do so. He showed them her picture.
"I found it strange that he should mention the subject of killing his wife every time we met," Vickneswaran told the court. "I thought he was crazy."
Seah believed that Ler was joking. But one night, when he went to Ler's flat, he was offered $100,000 to carry out the killing.
Ler said he would get the money from selling his flat. Seah suggested that he hire a professional killer. Ler asked him to look for one. For the next two days, he called Seah to see if he had found a hitman.
"His tone sounded serious and I felt that he was not joking. I began to feel uneasy and surprised that he would be so persistent," said Seah, who finally told Ler he could not find anyone.
But for Gavin and the 15-year-old, the two youngest members of the group and who were childhood friends of 11 years, the matter was taken much further.
On the morning of May 9, Ler made a personal appeal to Gavin and the 15-year-old, who was never named due to his age.
Gavin testified that Ler said he wanted to kill his wife but if he did, he would be the top suspect.
So he wanted Gavin to do the job, because he was "more daring and more gutsy".
Ler described killing his wife as "easy" - just come up behind her, and slit her throat. He suggested Gavin buy gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints. He should also take her wallet to make it seem like a robbery.
Ler took Gavin back to his flat, where he opened a kitchen drawer and showed him several knives which he said were "most suitable for killing".
In the living room, Ler took out a "black Japanese knife", and told Gavin to use it to cut a sheet of newspaper. "He told me the skin of the neck was as thin as a newspaper."
Gavin could not do it. So Ler came up with a training exercise. He wrapped a bolster with newspaper, and told Gavin to slash it.
The teenager said he felt confused, and feared that Ler would be able to convince him to carry out the killing. He tried calling his 15-year-old friend to warn him about Ler, but failed to reach him.
On May 16, two days after Madam Leong was slashed, the same friend told Gavin he had done a "very foolish thing".
"Anthony's wife, I do already," the boy said.
It started off as a "stupid joke" which then escalated into a "game of bluff". But Ler insisted that he never expected anyone to take him so seriously that they would carry out the murder of his wife.
This was the story he stuck to throughout the trial.
When he met the group of youths, he tried to be something of a mentor to them, he said.
Some of the boys then boasted about being in fights and how they would not be scared of killing.
According to him, Gavin was the one who first said he would take a life for $100,000.
Gavin asked Ler to name a target, and he suggested his wife.
But never for a moment did he mean it, Ler said.
"I realise now it was a bad joke," he told the court. "But my wife was the only person the group knew I was in contact with. They knew we were going through a rough patch.
"I had to give him a target. It was more a challenge of their guts and to expose their bluff."
When asked why he told the boys he could sell his flat to raise the money, Ler said: "Because if I didn't, they would call my bluff, so I was trying to sustain my point."
Even when he began discussing with Gavin and the 15-year-old the plan to kill his wife, it was all part of the bluff - a "challenge of guts", a phrase Ler kept repeating.
The younger boy was supposed to act as a lookout, because Ler told him he lacked the "guts" to kill. And that comment, suggested Ler, pushed the boy into actually committing the murder in a bid to prove himself. "I think I may have hurt his ego, but I was not aware at that moment," said Ler.
He only knew what really happened three days after his wife was stabbed.
The 15-year-old went to Ler and confessed. "I sort of screamed," said Ler of his reaction on being told. "I told him I was joking."
Yes, he did get the boy to type on his computer because he thought his home was bugged. And he did try to cover up what happened.
But that was because Ler was afraid he would be implicated as well. He believed he was partly to blame since it was his "stupid joke" that began the whole episode before spiralling out of his control.
The prosecution told the court that Ler had two clear motives in wanting to remove his wife.
He would get to keep their $480,000 maisonette, which his wife wanted to sell.
He will also get complete custody of their daughter.
But Ler rejected both suggestions. He said he could always have gone to live with his mother if the flat was sold. And he lacked the money and time to make a better parent than his wife.
Judicial Commissioner Tay Yong Kwang bought none of Ler's explanation. He said that the only bluff in this whole saga was Ler's story. "The expression of shock, the seeming concern for the dying Annie and the tears at the funeral were nothing more than rehearsed acts performed by an accomplished actor.
"Murder Anthony wrote," added the judge, as he sentenced Ler to death.
He ruled that it was Ler who came up with the idea to kill Madam Leong, showed the youths his wife's picture, coached the boy in how to commit the murder cleanly, cajoled him, and then finally forced him to carry out the deed.
This was no joke but "a serious death match on the chess board of reality where the young men were to be his pawns and he as 'king' would direct the demise of his 'queen'. "
Money was a key motive. When his wife left him in October 1999, Ler was mired in debt. With her out of the way, Ler would have full claim over their maisonette.
But if Ler was the cold-blooded murderer, his accomplice appears to be a "rather simple-minded and mild-mannered boy ensnared haplessly way out of season in adult intrigue and machinations".
"I see no mean miniature monster in him. I detect no vengeful or vicious spirit in this 15-year-old boy before me. I see instead a morose and mortified teenager still trying to come to terms with the cataclysmic events of the last seven months," said JC Tay, pointing out that the boy was left with just two choices by Ler.
Either kill his wife or be killed.
Because of his age, the boy was spared the death penalty. Instead, he was detained indefinitely.
His parents were still in a state of a shock by it all. His mother said: "He has always been such a good and caring boy. I still can't understand why he would do such a thing."
Ler's appeal was rejected in March, 2002. He was hanged at 6am on Dec 13 that year, on a Friday.
He never admitted his crime, never showed remorse. Instead, through his trial, he maintained a cool smile.
In his 2008 book, The Best I Could, Ler's defence lawyer Subhas Anandan wrote about that smile.
"That smile could be a sneer, it could be a smile of confidence, or it could be one that belies some deep fear. For some reason, I have never related his smile to one of happiness. Somehow I felt it was his security blanket."
Ler's instructions to the 15-year-old
Don't let anyone see your face
"Anthony said we should get a full-face helmet to hide our face when doing it," the boy told the court.
Don't leave any fingerprints
"Anthony told me to get a pair of gloves from a shop in Beach Road which sells army stuff. He said it was to prevent me from leaving my finger-prints behind."
Use the correct weapon
"He chose a small knife and and said we should use this. The knife had a sharp tip and its edges were jagged. It was small enough to be hidden anywhere in my body. He also told me that the knife was sharp enough to stab and long enough to reach the heart."
Make it look like a robbery
"I am supposed to take her valuables. He told me that his wife normally carried a white handbag and also a Bonia wallet... When I asked how he knew this, he said that he had been studying her movements and had been planning this for a long time."
Don't let victim hurt you
"He told me to wear a long sleeved shirt so that I will not be injured, in case I was scratched by his wife. He warned me that if my skin tissue gets caught under her fingernails, the police could trace my identity."
Don't leave cigarette butts around
"He also told me that if I decided to smoke, I should not throw the butt there as my fingerprints and saliva would be there."
THE COVER UP
Wipe off the blood and fingerprints
"He told me to buy a piece of cloth. I then chose a red checked table cloth. I decided to use the same cloth to wipe the helmet and the knife. To hide the colour of blood, I chose red."
"Burn her money if it is stained with blood. He advised me not to be greedy as the money would only be about $200, knowing that I can get much more."
"He told me to put her identity card and other cards found in her wallet into an envelope and to post it to his address with a note to say sorry ... This he said, was to prevent him from coming under suspicion."
"He told me not to run but walk to the bus stop. He also told me not to panic when I spot the police while waiting for the bus."
"He told me that even after my examinations, we should continue to meet at McDonald's, where he would pretend to help me in my studies."
THE 15-YEAR-OLD'S WRITTEN CONFESSION
I got to know Anthony Ler when I was about the age of 10. I used to bring my hamster down to the stone chairs and play with it. Anthony had a dog, so that was roughly how I got to know him.
Anthony shifted away from Block 109 Pasir Ris Street 11, so I lost contact with him. But he did not tell me that he was going to shift to Block 116, Pasir Ris Street 11.
It was only recently I found out that he had shifted to Block 116. Then I saw him almost every night when I went down to the coffeeshop or McDonald's. He met my friends Gavin, Vick, Ka Cheong and Zhi Hao.
At first, my friends did not like his company but after some time they accepted him. He started telling us about his wife and even asked us if we would like to kill her. In return he would give us a sum of $100,000.
All of us rejected, but later on he came and asked me to do it. He told me that nothing would happen to me and asked me to imagine that I'm getting paid about $2,000 or more per month for the next four years.
Anthony told me that nothing would happen to me if I went according to his plan, he said he had thought and planned this whole thing out for a very long time. He threatened to kill me if I didn't want to do it after knowing so many things about him.
I believed him and agreed to help him because he told me that he killed for a living and until now he did not get caught. He also mentioned that his graphic design job was just a cover-up.
After that, he gave me $100 to get two M-cards so that he could contact me without people knowing. Then he told me to get a knife, a sharp, pointed one.
After he told me that, I went to a handphone kiosk at Pasir Ris Drive 6 to get two SIM cards, then I got a knife from the hardware shop beside the kiosk. Then I met him at the bus stop across the road so that he could show me the place where his wife lives. He brought me to Block 923, Hougang Avenue 9.
After that, we went back to his place. There he taught me how to murder his wife. He told me to practise it, so that when the time comes, I would not be scared.
On May 13, 2001, Anthony... told me that before he went to McDonald's, he had gone to meet his wife and to see his daughter. He also said that during that time he had tried to kill his wife but did not have the chance because his daughter was around.
I was quite happy when I heard this, because I did not want to do this. I was forced to do it.
I followed Anthony back to his house because he asked me to practise how to kill his wife. On May 14, at about 9pm plus, I went to Anthony's house to practise some more because he kept calling me on my handphone.
At Anthony's house, after practising, he wrapped the knife in newspaper and passed it to me.
I tucked the knife in my jeans. We took a bus over to his wife's place. After alighting from the bus, we went our separate ways, I went to his wife's void-deck while he went to the nearby coffeeshop.
After that, he called me on my handphone and told me to wait for his wife to return home, so I waited. At 10pm plus, he called me to say that his wife has returned home already and he asked me to wait for his wife at the fifth storey.
I did not kill her because their daughter was with her at that time. I then called Anthony to tell him I did not want to do it because his daughter was present. He told me that his wife would be going up alone and he asked me to take that chance.
I attacked her from behind, I slashed her neck and stabbed her in the chest. After that I ran down the stairs and walked to the bus stop where I took a cab to dispose the weapon.
On the way to the beach to dispose the knife, I really regretted doing it - even at this point of time while writing this.
How I wished that I had never known Anthony. I have let my parents down and all those around me. I do not know how people would think of me. I feel very lost and confused.
Anthony did not call me on my handphone until the morning of May 17, 2001. He asked to me to get The New Paper for him, and lunch.
Anthony told me the police had looked for him and he would pass me some of the money later on.
Anthony told me that I had done a good job.
THE VICTIM: ANNIE LEONG
Madam Leong was 15 when she met Ler in church. He was 19.
After five years of courting, they married in 1995.
She quit her job at a bank to help Ler set up a business. But the soft-spoken woman returned to work after their child was born.
She saved little because of the need to pay Ler's debts.
She also tried to cope with her husband's philandering, even as he brought mistress Miss Berlinda Ho to their marital home. But she could only take so much.
In October 1999, she took their daughter and left him.
Still, in August 2000, nine months before she was killed, she returned to help Ler after he tried to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills and landed in hospital.
At the time, he was nearly bankrupt because of a failing publishing business. To him, this was a sign that all would be well again. But in February, she started divorce proceedings.
During the trial, Judicial Commissioner Tay Yong Kwang asked Anthony Ler several questions on what happened the night his wife was stabbed.
JC Tay: "Did you not carry a pen with you that night?"
Ler: "Sir, I don't have a habit of carrying a pen."
JC Tay: "But you were going there to sign something?"
Ler: "Yes, I understand. Even when I go to the turf club I don't carry a pen, even when I know I'll be betting. It's just a habit."
JC Tay: "Then you told your wife to go upstairs to get a pen?
Ler said he wanted his wife to go to a coffeeshop so that they could borrow a pen there, but she was the one who wanted to go upstairs to get one. She told him to wait at the playground with their daughter, Ler added.
JC Tay: "But that was close to midnight already."
Ler: "That was about 11.30pm to 11.45pm, yes sir.
JC Tay: "Surely you are not going to spend a lot of time at a playground at an unearthly hour with a four-year-old? So why didn't you accompany your wife up, go into the house, let her sign the documents?"
Ler: "I could've done that... I should've done that, sir."
JC Tay: "Yes, but the question is why? I would've thought the natural thing to do is to say 'let me go up with you, sign the papers and take it away'... but you just remained downstairs."
Ler: "Because I wanted to go to the playground with my daughter. It is important to me to spend even five minutes with her."
Ler's other women
Anthony Ler did not just raise the idea of killing his wife with the youths he met. He also talked about it with his lovers.
Sales and marketing executive Berlinda Ho Wei-lynn told the court that she met Ler in 1997, when she was working as a pub waitress at Boat Quay.
She helped him set up a graphics company but that went bust. Then came a modelling agency and an entertainment magazine. These did not work out as well.
Saddled with a debt of $100,000, she left him.
During their 3½-year affair, the lovers often fought - physically. She said Ler threatened to kill her several times. He also said he would kill his wife, if she took his daughter away.
"I asked if he was serious about it, he said yes," she told the court.
After Ms Ho, Ler hooked up with Ms Tan Su Fen in October 2000. She borrowed money to invest in Ler's business which went on to fail. When she threatened to commit suicide, he asked her to kill his wife first, she said.
How the police cracked the case
The police already suspected Ler from the start.
When he was questioned at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, he was hostile and uncooperative.
"This aroused suspicions as, normally, if a man's wife had been murdered, he would have been expected to cooperate and bring the killer to justice," said Station Inspector Colin Han.
But there was little hard evidence.
It all changed when Senior Staff Sergeant Ravindra Supramaniam, a member of the eight-man investigating team, found a torn piece of newspaper at the Hougang lift corridor where Madam Leong was killed.
The rest of the newspaper which the torn piece came from was found in Ler's Pasir Ris home.
Police also retrieved Microsoft Word files in Ler's computer detailing a conversation between him and his accomplice, three days after the stabbing.
Worried that police were listening, he got the boy to sit beside him and type. He deleted the text but forensic experts were able to access them. One damning sentence read: "Payment might have to wait."