THE BODY IN THE COUCH
Retired Salvation Army major Janet Gilson was on one of her regular visits to her Hong Kong-based niece, Julia Fareed, when she disappeared. When her body was found in a couch at Julia’s flat, suspicion fell on Julia’s estranged husband Ahmed. He denied any involvement. But the forensic evidence had its own story to tell.
Julia Fareed met her husband Ahmed in 2003 when they were both working in the same hotel on the idyllic tropical paradise of the Maldives: a chain of 1192 coral islands in the Indian Ocean. They married in Hong Kong in 2007 and their daughter Jasmine was born in March 2008.
In Hong Kong, the couple found another idyllic place to live, settling down on Lamma Island. Just 3 km off the southwest coast of Hong Kong, Lamma was – and still is – famous for its unspoiled rural beauty, its beaches, its excellent seafood restaurants and its population of endangered species: Romer’s tree frogs, green turtles and porpoises. An attractive destination for expatriates and bohemians, the island also boasted rents that were (then) far below the usual astronomic mainland China or Hong Kong Island rates. And it was only a 40-minute ferry ride away from Julia’s job on Hong Kong Island: a journey that a New York Times travel piece described as “one of the most delightful commuter runs in the world”.
Julia Fareed’s married life on Lamma was less idyllic. Her husband’s ongoing drug use became a continuing source of conflict. In 2009 he was convicted of possessing dangerous drugs. The following year he was jailed for two months after being found guilty of “criminal intimidation”.
By 2011 the couple had separated. Julia and Jasmine moved to a small two-bedroom ground floor flat in Yung Shue Wan, and Julia began divorce proceedings. Although they had agreed on a schedule for Ahmed to have access to their three-year-old daughter, Jasmine, Ahmed’s aggressive behaviour prompted his ex-wife to go to court to get a “non-molestation” order, preventing him from entering her home.
In March 2011 Julia was happily awaiting the pleasant diversion of a visit from her UK-based Aunt Janet.
More of a mother figure to Julia than an aunt, Janet Gilson was a retired Salvation Army major who lived in the UK town of Leigh-on-Sea in Essex and had made regular trips to Hong Kong in previous years. In fact this trip was her fifth in as many years. As usual, she would be staying at Julia’s flat. The place had no guestroom but Julia was happy to sleep on the living room couch, so she could give her aunt her bedroom.
Janet Gilson arrived on March 5. But Julia had the chance to enjoy only the first week of her stay before the ongoing difficulties with her ex began, once again, to blight her happiness.
A row with her ex
Hostilities flared on Sunday March 13 when Ahmed failed to return Jasmine home by 5.30 pm, and Julia had to go looking for him. After she finally tracked him down at a local restaurant and retrieved their daughter, he came round to her flat – a breach of the “non-molestation” order. Claiming that he had Jasmine’s water bottle and hat, he insisted that she let him in.
When she refused, he started banging on the door, swearing at her and threatening to cause her “big trouble”. She called the police, who promptly arrested him. The next morning, Monday March 14, the couple were back in the Family Court where the judge told Ahmed off and ordered him to return to court in a week’s time.
The only positive aspect of this dispiriting situation was that they had at least been able to reach one agreement. Ahmed was unemployed and unhappily dependent on his wife for money. With their final divorce only weeks away, he had agreed that he had no future prospects in Hong Kong and would be best off returning to the Maldives. Julia would be paying his fare.
That night Julia arranged for Jasmine to stay at her maid/babysitter Karen’s place. The day’s events had been exhausting. She wanted to sleep in her child’s bed and enjoy a better night’s rest than she had been getting on the sofa.
The next day, Tuesday March 15, 2011, she left home at 7 am as usual, catching the 7.20 am ferry to Hong Kong Island where she worked for a local hedge fund.
Her morning was plagued with interruptions, all of them related to Ahmed.
Phone calls and texts from Ahmed
His first call had come when she was still on the ferry. He wanted Karen to collect a suitcase of Julia’s from him. Supposedly this was part of his preparations to pack up his stuff, leave Hong Kong and return to the Maldives.
Julia was at her desk by nine. But there was more to-ing and fro-ing by text. Ahmed hadn’t turned up for the meeting with Karen. Then he asked her to re-schedule it. Shortly after 11.30 am, she received a text message from her Aunt Janet. The message was entirely innocuous.
“Went to Sok Kwu Wan,” it read. “Going to have some food here and then will take the ferry to Aberdeen. I will tell you when I come back later. Love, Jane.” Sok Kwu Wan was a village, a couple of kilometres away from Julia’s home.
The text arrived at exactly 11.37 am on Tuesday March 15, 2011. Later Julia would recognise that moment as the point at which her life changed forever.
At the time, however, she had simply read the text and got back to work. As a personal assistant, she always had plenty to do. Certainly she had enough time to note that it was a bit strange to be receiving a text from her beloved aunt, who was not a texter. Like many retired 64-year-olds from sleepy British seaside villages, Janet Gilson had a mobile phone but used it like an old-fashioned landline: just for phone calls. The text was also signed “Jane” rather than Janet.
But Julia wasn’t a worrier by nature and she was too busy at work to let her mind start wandering. After all, this was her aunt’s fifth trip to Hong Kong and she knew her way around. If she’d had time to think about it, Julia might have wondered if her aunt had got talking to someone – a friendly woman at an adjacent restaurant table perhaps. Maybe that person had taught her how to text, in between chatting about the delights of the seafood restaurants of Aberdeen.
She didn’t think any more about the mysterious text until she got home and found that her aunt was still out.
Had something happened to her aunt?
It was then that she started to worry that something could be seriously wrong. For a start, her aunt wasn’t answering her phone. More perplexing was the fact that she seemed to have left the house in a terrible hurry. Her room was in a mess and she had left the bathroom water heater on. Janet Gilson’s handbag and its contents, including keys to the premises, a wallet and her passport were missing, as expected if she had headed off for a day of sightseeing. But she hadn’t taken her glasses, or the shoes she usually wore when out and about. She had also put clothing out on the bed, presumably to wear after taking a shower. The garments were still lying there.
Something had caused her to leave the house in a mad rush.
But what? Julia continued to try her aunt over the next few hours. She waited until 10.30 pm, in order to check that she was not on the last ferry from Aberdeen, which docked at that time. Then she went to the local police post and reported Janet Gilson missing.
The police responded quickly. On Wednesday morning an extensive search was launched. Police took a quick look around the house. Then 20 police officers with tracker dogs scoured the area between the village of Yung Shue Wan and nearby Sok Kwu Wan, where the text supposedly sent by Janet said she’d gone. There was no sign of Janet Gilson. The following day, another 20 police and 20 Civil Aid officers joined the search. Meanwhile Julia posted photos of her aunt around the island and went from shop to shop trying to find someone who might have seen her.
Julia felt more distraught with each passing day. But she had to pretend to behave normally for her daughter’s benefit.
Red stains on the floor
On Saturday morning, when she was lifting her daughter on to the sofa she noticed some red stains on the floor tiles. They hadn’t been there on the Monday night when she’d been sleeping on the sofa. She also noticed an unpleasant smell in the house – a sickly odour that refused to budge even when she opened all the windows.
Once again she called the police.
Requesting Julia to remain outside, senior inspector Chung Shing Keung immediately ordered his men to lift the sofa. A long cut had been made into the black material undercover of its yellow foam base, creating a cavity. In it they found Janet Gilson’s body. It was obvious that she had met a violent and undoubtedly painful death.
There were no signs of a forced entry into the apartment. Mrs Gilson had either let her killer in because she knew him – or the killer had used a key. Julia’s spare keys had gone missing. Who would have both the opportunity and motive to steal them? There was also only one person to whom Janet would have opened the door.
That individual was, of course, Ahmed Fareed. According to his daughter’s maid/babysitter, he had been rifling through drawers at his ex-wife’s house some ten days earlier.
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