Inside the Mei Fan murder case

TALIA SHADWELL
Last updated 15:00 19/04/2014

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Friday, November 8, 2013: As day broke, a thick fog crept over Wellington, blanketing the Miramar Peninsula and grounding flights.

The usual overhead roar was unusually diminished, as the mist kept planes at bay while Mei Fan walked her 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son to school.

Just four days earlier she had celebrated her 37th birthday. Embracing a bouquet of balloons, she mugged for the cameras as she celebrated among friends. Fan had migrated from China and just two weeks earlier she had confided in her new friends in her halting English - which she was proud to be improving each day - that she was the happiest she had ever been. But by that day something had changed in her path - whether she knew it or not - and what befell her next has become the subject of a five-month-long investigation.

Wearing a hooded crimson top with white stripes and plain black trackpants, Miramar's hills shielded Fan against the brisk southerly sweeping the capital that day. The city waited impatiently for the light winds to budge the fog. But in the light drizzle and mist, it must have seemed a peaceful morning to Fan walking the short distance alone, sometime before 9am, from Miramar Central School, down Park Rd to her Brussels St home.

It was to be the last time she was seen alive.

November 8: In Vietnam, United Nations worker Tani Hoyhtya had a bad feeling. It was late on Thursday, Hanoi time, and his girlfriend was off the grid.

The Finnish forester's calls to his partner of almost two years were going unanswered. They spoke every day and he wondered if he had done something wrong as he stared at the blank icons on his computer screen showing Fan's Facebook and Skype accounts were offline.

November 9: Hoyhtya was sick with worry and called police in New Zealand, reporting his fears Fan had become ill or had been in some kind of accident. He was urged to file a missing persons report from Hanoi. He complied and waited.

November 10: Mei Fan's face had already appeared on the police missing person's web page but Hoyhtya was impatient to hear from his love. He called two of the couple's friends in Wellington and begged them to go to Fan's house to check on her.

Around 5.30pm, a woman's terrified screams ripped through Miramar. The fog had lifted from Brussels St but within 10 minutes the evening calm was disrupted as ambulances and seven police cars descended upon the suburb. Concerned neighbours watched as police officers and their dogs, along with paramedics, filed urgently down the driveway toward Fan's modest Housing New Zealand home.

Cops armed with assault rifles stepped over glass from a broken ranchslider to get indoors, later revealing the mother-of-two's friends had found her body on the floor of her own home.

Two people were helped down the driveway and into a police car.

There were few details that night but, as dusk fell, police confirmed they were investigating a homicide.

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Detectives and forensic examiners in protective suits joined the hive of activity in Brussels St. Through the night they worked in and out of the house where Fan's red car was still parked in the driveway.

In the days that followed, police confirmed Fan was stabbed to death and they were seeking a killer.

A cloud was cast over the image of a carefree mother finding happiness in her adopted home country when police confirmed she had sought a protection order in the days before her death.

Detective Senior Sergeant John van den Heuvel, who was in charge of the investigation, labelled the knifing a "vicious and brutal" attack in which Fan sustained multiple injuries.

In an unusual move, police released pictures of a 32cm carving knife found at the scene, later establishing it was part of a 1990s supermarket coupon set.

Late November: Police divers began scouring the waters around Miramar Wharf in a hunt for a disguise they thought whoever killed Fan may have discarded. They said the killer may have been wearing a wig.

In February, Police divers again returned to their water search, resurfacing with old video tapes and fish hooks but, they said, still no disguise.

December 2013: Fan's family flew from Inner Mongolia, a province of China, and their grief was beamed into living rooms around New Zealand as they made a tearful plea before rolling television cameras for her killer to come forward.

On December 2 they gathered to bury her - without Fan's father, who had taken ill from grief.

A simple bouquet of white blooms and a photograph of Fan was placed atop her coffin at the small, private funeral.

After she was laid to rest the hunt for her killer continued in what police dubbed Operation Brussels, which commanded about 50 investigators and forensics experts at its peak.

A week after the funeral, police sought the public's help tracing sightings of a car's whereabouts the day Fan died.

March 2014: By the new year, the investigation had taken a bizarre turn.

Police revealed a chilling clue. A mystery intruder had broken into Fan's home in December. In her bedroom, a small red card bearing a biblical Book of Proverbs quote had been put there, propped up beside a photograph of her.

The computer printout read: "I will trust the Lord with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding; in all ways - acknowledge him and he will direct my paths."

At the time police said they were not ruling out the possibility that the person responsible for her death may have delivered it. Police sought more information about the peculiarly crafted note, which sported jagged edges suggesting it was creating using a "die" - a type of commercial cutting press.

April 4: Detectives released a photo taken in 2011 of a witch hat costume, wanting to source identical costumes bought in Wellington around that time, with little explanation.

Van den Heuvel has repeatedly declined to reveal how the hat is significant to the case. "I don't for one minute suggest Mei's killer wore a witch's costume as part of a disguise," he said.

April 16: Late in the day, van den Heuvel announced police had made an arrest and a man would face murder charges in court the next morning. That man was her estranged husband, Michael Edwin Preston, 59.  

He said prosecutors had a "mountain" of work ahead of them, though police were very pleased to have reached the "milestone" of an arrest.

"This has been a five-month complex investigation and our mission throughout has been to bring justice for Mei and for her parents and her two children."

He repeated a plea to the public to come forward with any new information.

Fan and Preston's children were in loving care, van den Heuvel said.

Fan's father, recovering from health issues in China, hopes to travel to New Zealand for the court proceedings.

FROM MONGOLIA TO MIRAMAR

She was born Fan Rongmei in 1971 in Inner Mongolia, later changing her name to an anglicised format. Fan's family moved to Shenyang city where she was raised by her aunt during her early school years. She was the youngest sibling of three brothers, one of whom passed away in tragic circumstances.

She moved to Beihai, in south China's Guangxi province, where she went on to become a successful businesswoman, owning several apartments with her Kiwi husband Michael Preston.

The pair had two children together - a girl and boy - and Fan ran an English teacher recruiting agency, growing the business to have some 35-40 educators on her books.

When Tani Hoyhtya met her in 2011 she told him she had been separated from her husband for about two years.

The Finnish man was immediately interested in Fan, who told him she was estranged from her husband, who had moved back to New Zealand in late 2010 with the couple's children.

The pair were lonely and looking for love. Fan and Hoyhtya secretly struck up a relationship in Beihai.

But ultimately her desire to be with her children proved too strong and she moved to New Zealand in August 2011, while father-of two Hoyhtya took a job in Vietnam.

Fan returned to living with her husband but Hoyhtya says he maintained his relationship with Fan long-distance. In late 2012 they announced their relationship and she moved out of the marital home.

Fan lived in and out of Women's Refuge and sought state housing in Wellington during a rudderless period in which her friends say she was extremely stressed.

But Fan doggedly established her independence in the year that followed, getting a job at a commercial printing outlet, printing T-shirts in the Wellington CBD and buying her own car.

She also had love. She travelled the world with Hoyhtya and met his children who came to New Zealand. The pair peppered their Facebook pages with photos of their adventures - sharing a love for gourmet cooking and adventure. Hoyhtya said they discussed marriage and secretly, he planned a New Zealand proposal and picked out a ring, anticipating she would one day become a free woman.

It was not to be.

Hoyhtya found himself here in entirely different circumstances last December.

"I wanted to give to her the biggest, most beautiful, most romantic proposal in the world with a minimum of one diamond - a one- carat diamond ring, single stone not multiple - followed by a big wedding in front of her relatives and friends. She never got those in her life," he told The Dominion Post.

He chain-smoked cigarettes, grief etched on his face, as he described his years with the woman he had just buried as the happiest of his life. "It is like somebody pulled a carpet from under my feet. . . It is like I am standing on nothing."

"She was for me like a match made in heaven. I had stopped searching - I didn't want to search any more because I had found the perfect woman."

Fan's death stripped two children, then aged 9 and 7, of their mother and Hoyhtya demanded her killer be brought to justice.

"She just wanted to have a long, happy, healthy life. That is all she wanted."

Five months on, Hoyhtya has had the one-carat solitaire diamond ring he bought for Fan reworked into an earring which he wears every day to remember her by.

On March 23 he bought fresh pink lilies to decorate a shrine he has created for Fan in a nod to her Buddhist faith. He plans to move to New Zealand this September to start a new life. He wants to work in the forestry industry in the North Island, although there are some immigration hoops yet to jump through.

She is gone, but Fan's advice to the man who wanted to marry her remains etched in his memory: "Love your life. Take care of your health and body. Do it for you, not for me, not for us."

- The Dominion Post

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