It was the early hours of August 14 and a police task force was readying to strike. Their target was 42 year-old gunman Zhou Kehua – one of China’s most wanted killers. Law enforcers had been trying to catch Zhou for years, so the task force took nothing for granted.
Over the years Zhou’s armed robberies became so violent that police put a Rmb5 million reward on his head. Just four days earlier he had struck again: outside a bank in his native Chongqing he’d killed a woman and grabbed her bag. The heist apparently yielded no cash.
Police knew this because they were listening to phone calls between Zhou and his alleged girlfriend, 20 year-old Zhang Guiying, according to the Xiaoxiang Morning Herald.
“I’ll do another big one on the 14th,” Zhou is said to have told her, according to the newspaper. It added that Zhou always called Zhang before a robbery, to share a few details of his plans.
The gunman, who had killed 11 people over the past eight years, usually tried to target people who he thought had withdrawn large sums of money from banks.
But that same morning – shortly before 7am – Zhou was shot dead by two police officers. The career of China’s cold-blooded “Billy the Kid” was over.
There were some similarities. Like Billy the Kid (whose real name was William McCarty), Zhou loved to read detective novels, reports Xinhua. This contributed to turning a “smart rural kid” to an “armed robber and killer”, the news agency suggested.
The Chinese public has been fascinated by Zhou’s story. Just two days after his death, even the nationalist fervour stirred by the Diaoyu Island dispute with Japan couldn’t shift stories about Zhou and his girlfriend from the top of Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-equivalent. For example, the term “Zhou Kehua’s girlfriend” has registered over 125,000 posts (the Diaoyu dispute only around half that).
But unlike Billy the Kid – who is said to have shot dead a similar number of people – Zhou was considered not so much charming as a terrifying killer.
Even killers have a “bottom line”, wrote the Xinmin Weekly magazine this week. Such as “not killing those who surrender. Not killing the pregnant. Not killing children. Not killing the seriously ill… but Zhou Kehua had none.”
“As a cold-blooded killer with a scent for fresh victims, he surpassed all our efforts to understand him,” the magazine wrote. “What family, what background, what education, could have produced him? The doubts and suspicions surrounding Zhou Kehua are many.”
Since Zhou is now dead, we may never find out. But the little we do know about him goes something like this. He was born and grew up in rural Chongqing. At the age of 15 he was detained for two weeks for harassing women, according to Xinhua. Shortly afterwards he left home, spending the next 25 years doing casual jobs around the country. He married and divorced. Then he spent about five years as a porter at a railway station.
Between 2000 and 2004 Zhou lived in the southwest border regions and was jailed briefly in 2005 in Yunnan province for trafficking firearms (from Burma). It was around this time that his shooting and bank robbing spree began.
Zhou often hid in the mountains to evade capture, media has reported, but almost inevitably, rumours have spread of a secret money stash somewhere in Chongqing municipality.
How about his alleged girlfriend? Ten minutes after Zhou’s death she was taken into police custody, according to reports. Her Chongqing landlord told the Xiaoxiang Morning Herald that the young girl was quiet and seemed nice. But he had wondered about her when he checked her identity card number and discovered that it was false. When she paid him the rent she stuck her hand out of the door but didn’t show her face which made him suspicious, he said.
Zhou’s death has led to expressions of relief. “Finally, we are not afraid of going to the bank!” wrote one blogger using the handle Youmuminyoji. The police will also be grateful that they finally got their man. But as ever in China, sections of the public began to wonder if they might have been duped by the authorities. Was Zhou really dead? The speculation was that the body photographed on the Chongqing street may not really have been him and that the shooting may even have been staged to help local officials climb the promotion ladder. Next up were wild rumours that it was an unfortunate lookalike who had been shot (ironically, a policeman from Changsha). But the man in question then appeared before TV cameras to deny the claim. “I was killed?” he scoffed. “I have nothing to say. It’s ridiculous.”
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