“Ordinary, Run-of-the-Mill People” (by A.M. Porter)

A.M. Porter has traveled the world writing articles and nonfiction books, and as you’ll see in this post, she’s also had some interesting jobs closer to home, in her native Canada. More recently, she has turned her hand to writing mystery fiction, and her first published story, “The Drawings,” appears in the Department of First Stories in our current issue, November/December 2019. The first book in a series she is working on, set in the 1950s in a fictionalized version of her hometown, Stratford, Ontario, was long-listed for the CWA Debut Dagger Award in 2017. We’re pleased to welcome this talented newcomer to EQMM! —Janet Hutchings

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to be hired for what I consider a mystery buff’s dream job: doing research on true crimes for a television series. I was essentially getting paid to find and read all about murders, how they were committed, and how they were investigated. Working from home, I spent hours combing through online newspaper archives and doing Google searches on my computer. (The words ‘‘police’’ and ‘‘baffled’’ proved to be the best search terms for the latter activity.)

I found a surprising number of grisly stories: a man out for a walk killed by crossbow, a woman dismembered and stored in the attic of a Northern Ontario cottage, a couple murdered by their troubled son, who threw the bodies into the family truck before driving to a restaurant called Moxie’s and consuming a 10-ounce steak dinner along with five Blue Zen martinis.

But one of the most interesting cases I looked at was the killing of Maria Wong.

Originally from Hong Kong, Ms. Wong, 44, was well known in Toronto’s Chinese community, and well liked. Part owner of a popular Chinatown restaurant, she was described by everyone who knew her as chatty and always smiling. She not only donated to charities but was also the kind of woman who would bring treats to the English classes she attended at the local library.

On the afternoon of February 11, 1999, she could have had no idea that she was being followed home from her English class, then again when she went out later to buy a take-out meal for the family dinner. Inside the car was a motley crew of four, a man named James Pierce, his girlfriend, a former prostitute named Lisa Bateman, and a pair of teenagers, Chris Ortiz and Norman Figueroa.

No sooner had Ms. Wong pulled into the garage of her suburban house for the second time than she was attacked. With Figueroa acting as lookout, Ortiz stabbed her several times in the neck and throat, frustrated by how long it took her to die. The pair then drove off in Ms. Wong’s car, a dark green CRV, leaving it a few minutes later at a nearby strip mall.

Ms. Wong’s elderly father-in-law was the only person at home that evening, but he heard nothing. Her husband of twenty-four years, Shu Kwan ‘‘Johnny’’ Wong, was at work at Champion’s Off-Track Betting, a business he co-owned. A seventeen-year-old niece, visiting from Hong Kong, was at night school. Offered a lift home by a fellow classmate, it was the two of them who discovered Maria Wong’s lifeless body in the garage several hours later. The classmate, Jason Yu, called Johnny Wong first. He returned to the house right away, and was visibly distraught at the sight of his dead wife. Then the young man called York Region Police.

Johnny Wong was openly and immediately cooperative with the police, signing consent forms that allowed detectives go through his cell phone and financial records. But as the weeks passed, they had little to go on.

Ms. Wong’s murder in a quiet suburban neighbourhood seemed random and inexplicable. If the motive was simply robbery, why hadn’t the attackers gone into the house to search for valuables? And why had the stolen car been so quickly abandoned so close by? The handful of leads that came through Crime Stoppers tips proved to be dead ends; all of the suspects had alibis. Four months after the murder, headlines described the slaying as ‘‘still puzzling’’ the police. By then, Johnny Wong had sold the family house and his car and moved back to Hong Kong.

The only real clue the detectives in charge of the case, Les Young and Bill Sadler, had were the recollection of various neighbours, who said they had noticed two “swarthy” men on the street that night, talking on cell phones.

That left Sadler with the unenviable task of combing through 30,000 cell-phone calls, while his colleagues carried on with the mostly fruitless legwork. Working late each night and over the weekend, Sadler went through the list, checking each number, one by one. What finally caught his attention was an absence: several phone calls back and forth from Johnny Wong to a particular number, which suddenly stopped after the 11th of February. That number belonged to a man named Andre Jones, who worked as a bouncer at Champions, and was the first real clue that Ms. Wong’s death may not have been as random as it initially seemed.

In many classic murder mysteries, the co-conspirators agree not to see each other for a while to avoid suspicion. In this case, it looked odd.

More cross-referencing led Sadler and Young to calls made by Jones to Pierce. Cell-tower records showed that not only was he in the area on the day of the murder, but was busy making calls to Jones, Ortiz and Figueroa. Pierce happened to be facing charges for assaulting Bateman, which led to led the police to her. She wasn’t very good at cooking up any kind of innocent explanation, which left the detectives even more curious about her. They got a warrant to tap her phone.

But a real motive was to be found in Johnny Wong’s financial history. He clearly liked to gamble, and usually lost. Deeply in debt, it was notable that his wife’s $600,000 life-insurance policy would easily take care of all his problems and leave a big chunk left over for him to start a new life.

What really brought the story together was Bateman’s penchant for boasting. She was recorded telling a friend that she planned to write a movie script based on her involvement in the killing, and hoped it would make her famous.

It turned out that Wong had originally hired Andre Jones to kill his wife for him—he had even gone shopping at Walmart for a red tracksuit that wouldn’t show blood spatters—but he lost his nerve and got his friend, Pierce, to do it instead. Pierce hired Ortiz and Figueroa with the promise of a $2,000 payout. He also got rid of the murder weapon and the bloody clothes. Wong was eventually extradited from Hong Kong, tried, and sentenced to life. Pierce got sixteen years for conspiracy, Jones and the two younger men, life with the possibility of parole after 14 years.

Case closed.

What I found fascinating about this terrible tale, a tale of the ultimate betrayal of an average, middle-aged woman, was that simple mistake on the part of Johnny Wong. The other thing was the character of Lisa Bateman. She agreed to testify for the prosecution in return for being put in a Witness Protection Program and wasn’t charged. But she kept telling people she was in the program so got kicked out.

The television series never did get off the ground, but I held on to my notes with the idea that someday I might write a story about it, a story about the killing of an innocent woman from someone like Bateman’s point of view.

There was something about her involvement that underlined the fact that most murders are committed by ordinary, run-of-the-mill people, people who make mistakes, who aren’t very smart, who dream of being famous. People who somehow combine within themselves the human and the monstrous. It may not be the stuff of the kind of police procedural you can’t put down, but in real life, it’s them who kill.

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