Millionaire accused in wife's death caught after four years on the run

Peter Chadwick, 55, is in custody after four years on the run.
Peter Chadwick, 55, is in custody after four years on the run.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST/NEWPORT BEACH POLICE DEPARTMENT

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - For years, Peter Chadwick's whereabouts mystified authorities. After being accused of murdering his wife of 17 years in their Newport Beach, California, home, the wealthy real estate investor had posted a US$1 million (S$1.3 million) bail, then failed to show up for a pretrial hearing.

US Marshals investigating his disappearance turned up a handful of clues: Chadwick had emptied bank accounts worth millions of dollars, and left behind books about how to change one's identity and live off the grid.

"Peter could be anywhere in the world," Newport Beach police chief Jon Lewis told reporters in September. "He's got the financial means to avoid the restrictions placed on his travel and he's taken every opportunity to hide his tracks."

More than four years after he vanished, Chadwick is now back in custody and facing 25 years to life for the alleged murder of his wife, 46-year-old Quee Choo "QC" Chadwick.

According to the US Marshals, the 55-year-old was apprehended on Monday, and is no longer listed among its 15 Most Wanted fugitives.

While officials have not yet said how they were able to track down the missing suspect, local media outlets have reported that he was arrested in Mexico before being turned over to US authorities.

Though Peter Chadwick had been missing since January 2015, the case received renewed attention last fall after the Newport Beach Police Department took the unusual step of releasing a true-crime podcast, "Countdown to Capture," in hopes of generating new leads.

Each of the podcast's six episodes, which documented how police had linked the fugitive to his wife's death, ended with a request for listeners to contact the department if they had any information to share.

"Technology can make the world a very small place, with very few places to hide," spokeswoman Jennifer Manzella explained in the series prologue. "And that's why we want this podcast to reach as many people as possible. Please consider sharing it, tell your friends about it, no matter where you are in the world. Because Peter Chadwick, he really could be anywhere."

As officials revealed on the show, QC's death immediately aroused suspicions.

Typically, Peter was always on time to retrieve his two younger sons, ages nine and 12, from the busy intersection where a bus dropped them off from their Orange County private school each afternoon. But on Oct 10, 2012, he didn't show up, and the boys were left waiting after everyone else had gone home.

The 12-year-old had a cellphone, but neither parent answered, and their older brother was away at boarding school. When a concerned neighbour spotted the children and drove them home herself, no one came to the door.

Neither of the boys had a key. QC, as she was best known, was a stay-at-home mother, and Peter, who developed real estate and managed assets and investments for his family's business, worked from a home office in their terracotta-roofed, Mediterranean-style house.

Usually, someone was always home. Worried about leaving the boys on their own, the neighbour took them back to her house for dinner, then called their parents again. When she got no answer, she called the police.

When officers arrived at the family's four-bedroom house, they found plates and food set out on the counter, as if someone had been about to make lunch. They also noticed that the safe had been left ajar. A glass vase next to the hot tub in the master bathroom had been broken, and the wall had been splashed with barely-visible droplets of blood.

But the couple were missing.


An undated photo provided by police showing millionaire Peter Chadwick. PHOTO: AP

The following day, Peter dialled 911 from a gas station located 6km north of the Mexican border in San Diego. In recordings released by police last year, he can be heard telling dispatchers that his wife was dead, and that an intruder who broke into their house had killed her.

But by the time officers showed up, his story had already changed. The killer wasn't an intruder, he claimed, but a handyman, "Juan," hired to paint staircase railings in their house.

Peter told police that he had been working in his home office when he heard his wife scream and ran to the master bathroom, where he found Juan holding QC underwater in the bathtub.

He hadn't been strong enough to fight the man off, he said. After drowning his wife, he claimed, Juan had held a knife to his throat and forced him to empty jewellery, valuables and US$10,000 (S$13,000) in cash from the safe.

Then, Juan had sat in the back seat of Peter's silver Lexus SUV, along with QC's blanket-wrapped naked body, and forced him to drive for hours before he managed to escape.

Detectives were sceptical from the start. Peter couldn't remember many details about the man who had supposedly abducted him and killed his wife, except that he had short dark hair and was named Juan.

When asked about the weapon that the man had threatened him with, he described a two-inch Swiss Army knife with a dull blade.

He didn't cry during the 911 call, or seem particularly upset when officers arrived. He also had scratches and bite marks on his body, blood on his hands, and a hastily packed suitcase in the back of his car.

Meanwhile, there was no evidence that Juan had ever existed. Five hours after responding to the call from the gas station, officers placed Peter under arrest.

A week later, on Oct 18, 2012, after searching through ravines and industrial parks throughout Southern California, authorities found QC's body in a dumpster on a remote road in a largely undeveloped area of eastern San Diego County. She had been strangled, according to the San Diego County Coroner's Office.

QC, who had grown up in a large family in Malaysia, was deeply devoted to her three children and kept their schedules organised on a whiteboard that she decorated with motivational slogans.

Police later found a list of her passwords, which included phrases like "4my3sons" and "3sons4ever."

In the days before her death, she had been researching supplemental math programmes for her younger boys, making plans for Thanksgiving dinner and taking her 15-year-old son out for Asian food that he missed while away at boarding school in Ojai, California.

TROUBLED HOME LIFE

But her home life appeared troubled. Through interviews with the couple's friends, detectives learned that QC periodically broke down in tears because her husband wasn't affectionate with her.

They were told that QC knew Peter wasn't faithful to her, but chose not to leave the relationship because she wanted the best possible life for her boys.

In her wardrobe, detectives found a handwritten list entitled, "From Pete's computer," which appeared to be a list of search terms. It included "abortion cost in California," "Chinese massage girls escort," "team Tijuana escort girls," the name of a divorce attorney, and "how to torture."

Prosecutors believe that Peter killed QC after they argued about financial issues and getting divorced, according to the Orange County Register.

After he was arrested on suspicion of murder, detectives warned that he had already shown he was willing to abandon his children and asked that he be held without bail. But since he had no prior criminal record, a judge determined he wasn't a flight risk. When he pleaded not guilty, he posted US$1 million bail and surrendered both his British and American passports.

Then, in January 2015, while still awaiting trial, Peter failed to show up for a routine hearing. At first, officials worried that he might be suicidal. But then, the US Marshals found that he had drained money from multiple bank accounts that he could still access, taken out the maximum cash advance from several credit cards and made "test" trips to Pennsylvania and Seattle before vanishing for good.

"He wanted to test the bounds of law enforcement and his court orders," Newport Beach police sergeant Court Depweg explained on the department's podcast. "What happened - or didn't happen - confirmed his hunch: he wasn't under constant surveillance."

Because of his money and his international ties - the Chadwicks had relatives in Malaysia, Australia and the United Kingdom, and travelled all over the world - officials concluded he had left the country. But they also predicted that sooner or later, they would catch up with him.

"No one can avoid capture forever," Manzella warned on a final episode of the podcast. "Today, technology is making the world smaller and more connected than it ever has been before. Law enforcement has capabilities and training that our predecessors never even dreamed of. Social media platforms, community involvement, and good old dedication and intelligence... together, we can use all of these tools to find anyone, living or dead."