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.)
ORCHARD TOWERS MURDERS (2002)
Michael McCrea tried to escape justice by fleeing Singapore but finally paid the price for killing a woman and his driver – a man he called his brother
On Jan 7, 2002, a security guard detected a fetid odour coming from a silver Daewoo Chairman parked on the seventh floor of the Orchard Towers carpark.
He alerted the police. The decomposed bodies of 46-year-old Kho Nai Guan and his girlfriend Lan Ya Ming, a 29-year-old from China, were inside the abandoned vehicle.
Mr Kho’s body was stuffed in a wicker chest at the back. The chauffeur’s legs were bent out of shape, his face was battered, and his corpse crawling with maggots.
Madam Lan was in the boot of the Daewoo, dressed only in a spaghetti-strap blouse. Her head was wrapped with blue plastic recycling bags, tied at the neck.
Her body was wrapped in blankets and bedsheets, and tied with wire.
Autopsies showed that both had been strangled.
The $146,000 car was bought and gifted to Mr Kho by his employer, former financial adviser Michael McCrea, after paying the initial deposit of between $20,000 and $30,000.
Three days before the grisly find, the Briton and his Singaporean girlfriend-cum-secretary Audrey Ong Pei Ling had already fled to London.
It was more than three years later that McCrea was back on Singapore soil to face charges of murder.
By then, details of what happened between him and his victims were already made clear.
The deaths were not, as McCrea initially claimed, a result of a fight because Mr Kho had stolen his money to buy drugs.
Yes, there was a fight, but it had started because of a Chinese phrase Mr Kho had called Ong. Translated, the phrase meant slut.
McCrea and Mr Kho were as close as brothers – so close that they and their lovers lived together in a Pinewood Gardens apartment rented by the British man.
The 44-year-old McCrea, whose pregnant wife was in Australia, was with 22-year-old Ong.
Mr Kho, a father of three who was estranged from his wife, lived with Madam Lan. She too was married, with a husband and twin boys in Fujian.
Former financial adviser McCrea paid Mr Kho $6,000 a month to drive him around, but also took him out to business meals and all the parties he attended.
He even gave “Ah Guan” – his affectionate name for Mr Kho – a $20,000 bonus a month before their falling-out.
It all came apart just after New Year’s Day of 2002, when, after some champagne, the chauffeur called the boss’ girlfriend “jian huo” and spat at her.
This infuriated McCrea, who pounced on Mr Kho, pushed him against the wall and punched his face. He retaliated by breaking a vase on his employer’s head, but this had little effect on McCrea who kicked him, fracturing his ribs.
The Briton, who was an amateur boxer, also punched Mr Kho repeatedly in the face, and held him in an arm-lock so tight that it fractured the small bones in his throat.
When Madam Lan came at McCrea with a knife, he knocked her unconscious.
At about 4.30am, McCrea and Ong realised Mr Kho was dead when they found that his body was cold and that his legs had turned purple.
In desperation, Ong attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while McCrea tried to jump start Mr Kho’s heart with a massage machine. It was too late.
Ong saw Madam Lan moving slightly and took her to Mr Kho’s bedroom.
McCrea suggested they stow the body in a luggage bag, but Ong pointed to the large wicker basket which was used as a coffee table in the living room.
She emptied the basket and they put the body inside.
What followed were frantic arrangements to hide the killing – as well as an attempt to get whatever money Mr Kho had, especially the bonus he had been given the month before.
So Madam Lan, lying dazed on Mr Kho’s bed, was pressed for where it could be hidden.
Meanwhile, McCrea sought help from a friend, Englishwoman Gemma Louise Ramsbottom, who used to do his business paperwork. She had introduced McCrea to Ong about six months earlier, while the latter was working in a Boat Quay pub.
The three talked about what to do with Mr Kho’s body.
Ong placed dumbbells in the basket in case they decided to throw it into the sea. The chest, also filled with Mr Kho’s belongings, was sprayed with air freshener to mask any smell.
Through the day, Ong popped in and out of the apartment to help run errands for Ms Ramsbottom. She claimed Madam Lan was very much alive then.
But when she returned to the flat at about midnight on Jan 3, Madam Lan’s body was on the floor and Ms Ramsbottom was being threatened with death by McCrea if she told anyone what had happened.
Investigations revealed that he had placed plastic bags over Madam Lan’s head and secured them with ties when she appeared to be going into convulsions.
The trio wrapped her body in blankets and bedsheets, securing the bundle with wire. They took measurements of the wicker chest and the back seat of the Daewoo.
When the coast seemed clear at 4am on Jan 4, the chest was loaded onto a trolley and brought down in the lift. All three lifted the basket and placed it on the back seat. It was then back to the apartment to get Madam Lan’s body, which McCrea carried on his shoulders and placed in the boot.
Then came the big question of where to dump the bodies.
The trio could not find a suitable place despite driving – Ms Ramsbottom and McCrea took turns at the wheel – from Jurong to Tuas. The sea off Punggol was no good as there were people on the jetty and it was getting bright.
At about 10am, Ms Ramsbottom was sent home as she needed to pick up her two young daughters from the babysitter.
Finally, McCrea and Ong settled on the top seventh floor of the Orchard Towers carpark.
They took a taxi back to the apartment, and planned to dissolve the bodies with acid.
But Ong’s friend, Mr Cheo Yi Tang, said he could not get his hands on so much acid.
He turned up at the apartment instead with bleach, rubber gloves, sponge and paint – to help remove bloodstains on the walls and floor.
The next day, Jan 5, McCrea booked two air-tickets and left for London with Ong. They later went to Melbourne, to stay with McCrea’s pregnant wife.
In late May, Australian police went to the South Melbourne home to attend to a domestic dispute. McCrea was detained when they found irregularities in his passport and visa.
He was arrested formally on June 13 after it was discovered he was wanted in Singapore. Ong had been nabbed a week earlier.
On November 10, 2002, she landed in Changi Airport and was taken into custody by Singapore police, having agreed to surrender the month before.
She was jailed for 12 years. after pleading guilty to two charges of helping to dispose of the bodies and removing bloodstains from the apartment.
While the defence argued for leniency given that she had turned herself in and testified against McCrea, District Judge Richard Magnus pointed out that she made no attempt to contact authorities here after the duo first ran away.
“The accused’s overall conduct was sordid, macabre, callous, shocking, reprehensible and grossly offensive to any right thinking member of the public,” he said.
Meanwhile, McCrea was fighting tooth and nail to avoid facing justice, all the while being remanded at the maximum-security Port Phillip Prison in Melbourne.
To bring him back to face trial, Singapore had agreed that he would not be hanged even if found guilty of murder.
Australian law forbids anyone from being extradited to a country where he could receive the death penalty.
A Law Ministry spokesman said at the time: “Without the undertaking, extraditing McCrea and bringing him to justice is not possible. We will then have a situation where an accused will completely escape trial in Singapore or elsewhere.”
In November 2002, an Australian magistrate ordered his extradition. The next month, McCrea petitioned the country’s Minister for Justice and Customs and failed.
Then he went to the country’s Federal Court, and was turned down again.
By now it was August 2005, and McCrea had one last hope – Australia’s High Court, which expedited the hearing given the many delays already.
In September, it took Australia’s highest court less than an hour to turn him down.
McCrea was kept in a straitjacket for two weeks after the final rejection, to stop him from harming himself.
On Sept 27, the 46-year-old boarded Singapore Airlines flight SQ228 and was flanked throughout the seven-hour trip by plain-clothes officers. His hand was constantly cuffed to a detective. At about 9.30pm, a shackled McCrea finally set foot in Singapore.
Two days later he was formally charged with the murders of Mr Kho and Madam Lan.
In June 2006, he pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter and of causing evidence to disappear.
He was given the maximum of 10 years in jail each for each person’s death and another four for disposing of their bodies.
Justice Choo Han Teck ordered the terms to run one after another.
He also did not backdate McCrea’s jail term to 2002, when he was first detained in Australia, ordering that the jail term start with effect from the day of sentencing.
McCrea was shocked to realise that he would spend the next 24 of years of his life in prison.
Justice Choo made it clear he did not buy McCrea’s plea for a lighter sentence because he was remorseful. He pointed out that Mr Kho was extensively battered over a “relatively small matter”.
As for the death of Madam Lan, also known as Suzie, the judge said: “He had not only prevented Suzie from leaving the flat, but had kicked her in the head before killing her, all because he wanted to find Ah Guan’s money – right after he killed him.”
He wanted the two sentences to run one after the other as there was “a sufficiently long break” between the two killings to warrant their treatment as two separate offences.
As for McCrea’s request to backdate his sentence, Justice Choo pointed out that he chose to stay four years in an Australian jail to fight efforts to extradite him to face trial here.
“It would be invidious for him to ask that his jail sentence commence from the date of his initial remand on account of his own filibuster.”
McCrea appealed, and almost got his 24-year jail term raised.
Before the three-judge Court of Appeal, his lawyer Kelvin Lim had argued that the judge who punished McCrea did not consider his client’s remorse, and described how he had tried to resuscitate Mr Kho.
Justice Andrew Phang pressed Mr Lim on what he would have done if he was in McCrea’s shoes.
“Your best friend, your brother, is dying. Put yourself in your client’s position. What would you have done?”
Mr Lim replied: “I would call an ambulance.”
Justice Phang shot back: “Yes. It’s common humanity.”
Allowing McCrea to serve the two 10-year jail terms concurrently would have meant he need serve only 14 years in all.
Justice Phang told Mr Lim: “There are two deaths and you are asking for a concurrent sentence? Two lives were lost.”
At one point, Justice V.K. Rajah raised the possibility of exercising his powers as a judge to increase the prison term. McCrea could have been jailed for up to an additional three years for disposing of evidence.
But the judges decided against this and kept the original sentence, after finding “the appeal wholly without merit”.
THE KILLER: MICHAEL McCREA
He left school without a single O level, but that did not stop the press back home to recognise his business savvy. A 1980 profile described McCrea as “Nottingham’s Million Pound Man” after bringing in £1.2 million in nine months for a financial-services firm he worked for.
He first came to South-east Asia in the early 1990s and met his Australian wife Brunetta Stocco in Singapore.
For many years, he was a financial adviser who enticed expatriate clients with his “Expat Survival Kit” – a plan to grow an offshore nest egg that could not be detected by tax authorities.
It seems he once had a run-in with Singapore authorities and was fined for flouting financial regulations.
His $2,000-a-month apartment in the Pinewood Gardens Condominium at Balmoral Park. was decorated with designer pillows by Versace and there were candles all over. He had a punching bag attached to the living room ceiling since he had been an amateur boxer.
He threw noisy parties at the condo’s poolside, which caused neighbours to complain on several occasions.
Mrs McCrea told a British newspaper that she left Singapore while pregnant with their first child as “she didn’t like the lifestyle he was living”.
Their marriage was over, she said, after he turned up unexpectedly on her Melbourne doorstep with his girlfriend and co-accused Audrey Ong.
VICTIM #1: MR KHO NAI GUAN
In the 1980s, his electronics dealership was lucrative enough for him to own four cars. But that collapsed in 1989. After working in his brother’s a pet-food business, he decided to set up his own company in the same line. But that folded in 1992, and left him with over $18,000 in debts.
Still, friends knew him as well-spoken and friendly.
In 1997, he was one of 50 picked when Yellow-Top Cab needed cabbies for its new fleet of Mercedes-Benz E-250 taxis.
He even went on to receive a Singapore Courtesy Council award for his customer service.
In 1998, he met Michael McCrea and six months later became his personal driver.
But his relationships with foreign women caused a rift in his marriage to a postal worker, with whom he had a son and two daughters. In 1999, he moved out of his home. After his death, his family identified his body from the Thai tattoos on his back.
VICTIM #2: MADAM LAN YA MING
She was 30-year-old teacher from Fujian province.
According to her husband Lin Jia Song, who then worked in a telecommunications company in Fujian, they had been married for eight years.
She went to Singapore in October 2001 on a social visit pass, to apply for a teaching position and visit a friend here. She called home once every week since she left. The last he heard from her was on Dec 29.
The couple had eight-year-old twin boys.
It was only 10 months after her body was found that her 32-year-old husband identified and claimed her body.