The Mail on Sunday
A HARROWING HOMECOMING
Joy etched on their faces, this British couple have finally won custody of their murdered son’s daughter after paying £9,000 to her Chinese family. But the smiles mask utter anguish. . . they had to leave her brother behind
TWO British grandparents desperately battling for custody of their son’s children after he was murdered by his wife have been forced into an agonising decision to bring their granddaughter home from China – but leave their grandson behind.
Heartbroken Ian and Linda Simpson were last night preparing to fly to Britain with sixyear-old Alice after agreeing to give more than £9,000 to the family of the children’s Chinese mother, who stabbed their son Michael to death in a jealous rage nearly two years ago.
Devastatingly, Alice’s eight-year-old brother Jack must stay with his Chinese grandparents, who live in the remote city of Nanzhang in north-west China, because they refuse to give him up.
Last night, as Ian began the bittersweet journey home with his ex-wife Linda and little Alice, he told The Mail on Sunday in an exclusive interview: ‘We are overjoyed to bring Alice home but it breaks our hearts to leave Jack behind. Linda cried and asked me, “How can we wrench them apart?”
‘But in the end we had to choose between coming home with Alice or walking away without either of our grandchildren. We could have lost them both for ever.
‘ Alice has never been apart from Jack and it’s obvious she misses him badly. She has been amazingly brave but there have been moments when she has been in tears asking for her brother.’
In poignant scenes last week as they prepared to say goodbye, Ian and Linda – who have spent more than £100,000 on the custody battle and have set up a Just Giving fundraising page – hugged and played with Jack in a Nanzhang hotel restaurant, watched over by the boy’s Chinese grandparents.
On Boxing Day morning, a distraught Jack ran to his grandmother Hu De Xiu in tears as she packed a bag for his sister and pleaded with her: ‘Don’t let Alice go.’ She also wept as she signed the custody papers on behalf of her husband, an illiterate bicycle repairman.
She was comforted by Linda, who cradled her head and told her: ‘I understand. You are feeling the same pain I have felt for the past 21 months.’ The Simpsons are clearly devastated at being forced to leave their grandson behind – but more heartbreak is to come.
Cut off from their British relatives, the children have been told by their Chinese family that their parents are alive and working abroad, and that their father deserted them.
It means Ian and Linda have been left with the agonising prospect of having to tell Alice that her father is dead and that her mother is serving a life sentence for his murder.
Michael, 34, an executive with the clothing firm Next who had lived in China for nine years, was stabbed to death in his Shanghai apartment by his estranged wife Fu Wei Wei in March last year as the children slept. The couple had split up two years earlier and Michael had been left to raise their children. He was with his new partner when Wei Wei burst into his flat and stabbed him in the neck, killing him instantly. She also left Michael’s girlfriend with lifelong injuries.
Days later, Jack and Alice were spirited 600 miles from Shanghai to live in Nanzhang with their Chinese grandparents and a young cousin.
Alice has told her British grandparents that they all shared one bedroom in the tiny flat.
Ian and Linda – who before their son’s murder had a close relationship with Jack and Alice, seeing them every year on holidays in China, Europe and the UK – were then refused any contact with their grandchildren for a year. While they fought frantically for custody, the Fu family demanded they hand over more than £60,000 for Jack and Alice in a negotiation cynically directed by Wei Wei’s older brother.
Now, after a dignified but determ in edtransg lob al legal fight, which has drawn widespread support from friends and sympathis- er sand triggered a critical intervention by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Ian and Linda say they will fight on until Jack is reunited with Alice in the UK.
‘We feel terribly guilty leaving Jack behind,’ said Ian, 69. ‘You try to do the right thing and there was no easy answer here unless a judge somehow gave both children to us.
It breaks our hearts to leave Jack. But we had to choose between coming home with Alice or walking away with nothing
But we were warned that that was probably never going to happen and we would have walked away with nothing.
‘ The comforting thing is our lawyers are already talking to us about phase two – bringing Jack home.
‘In the meantime we will try to get the Fu family’s trust and try to get Jack to want to come to us. We will never give up.
‘In the meantime, we can speak to Jack every week and see him for a holiday for three or four weeks a year. In a way, that’s what we had before with Michael living over here in China.’
The Mail on Sunday travelled to Hubei province with Ian and Linda on Christmas Day where, after a custody hearing a week earlier, they signed an out- of- court agreement to bring Alice to live in Suffolk with retired business project consultant Ian and his second wife Diana. Ian arrived clutching a canvas holdall containing two brick-sized bundles of Chinese notes worth £9,200 – a year’s income for Hu De Xiu, 55, and her husband Fu Shi Bao, 61. The couple struggle on less than £200 a week. The settlement reached in the rural province, where sons are prized over daughters, included payment to the family for custody of Alice and an agreement for weekly phone calls between the siblings and once- a- year visits between them in England or China. Alice was then taken by Ian, Linda and their lawyers on an eight-hour train journey to Shanghai, where an emergency British passport and exit visa were being arranged by the British consulate and Chinese officials yesterday.
As Ian and Linda shuttled Alice between form-filling sessions, she remained cheerful and playful. Having attended a local school for nearly two years where only Mandarin is spoken, she has lost most of her English and communicates with her British grandparents through a smartphone translation app.
She had one weepy moment a day after arriving in Shanghai – a world away from Nanzhang with its rick- shaws and dusty street markets – when she sobbed in the bedroom of their hotel and said: ‘I want to go back to China.’
But her spirits have been lifted by daily video chats with her brother and grandmother through WeChat, China’s version of WhatsApp. She is gradually remembering words and phrases in English, telling Linda on Friday night: ‘It’s bedtime, granny.’
‘We know there will be difficult days ahead but at the moment it’s an adventure for her,’ said Ian. ‘She’s been very affectionate and she’s started calling me Yaya – the Chinese word for grandad.
‘She’s looking forward to going on a plane and she told our Chinese lawyer ,“I’m British.”’ Before Michael’s murder, Alice and Jack lived a privileged expatriate life in Shanghai. Jack went to international school and the family enjoyed holidays together in the UK, Europe and Thailand.
Life in Nanzhang, where there are no other foreigners, is a world away from Jack and Alice’s Shanghai upbringing, a point Ian and Linda’s lawyers argued at the custody hearing to demonstrate why they would be better off with their grandparents in the UK.
Ian said: ‘There is a selfish reason for what we are doing – because we want them. There was a sentimental reason for doing it – because they are Michael’s, and that is
incredibly important to us. We also genuinely believe we can do more for them than the family in China.
‘Their annual income is less than the amount we gave them on Boxing Day. No, they’re not being mistreated. No, they’re not on the breadline. But I honestly believe that we can give them back the life they had before – travel, holidays, education and friends. We can give them that.
‘Everything we have done has been for the good of the children. The judge said last week that even the Fu family eventually admitted the children would be better off in England.’
The custody wrangle has led to fiery confrontations. When Ian and Linda were finally allowed to see their grandchildren in March, an uncle of the Fus told them to show Wei Wei sympathy ‘because she has lost her husband’ and that they should pay the family for looking after their grandchildren.
Furious Ian responded by thrusting a book of pictures of Michael and the grandchildren he and Linda prepared for their son’s memorial service. ‘I said, “What is wrong with you? Did you forget my son is dead?”
‘They seem to have forgotten the backstory and have decided that we are the bad guys coming to take their grandchildren away.
‘I told him, “We are the one who lost a son. Your daughter killed our son and killed the children’s father.”’
Ian and Linda considered trying to raise the money to meet the family’s demands for custody of both children but were cautioned by lawyers that Wei Wei’s brother would simply push the figure higher if they caved in to the extortionate demand. The Fu family also refused an earlier offer of £10,000 and a declaration of forgiveness to the court in return for giving up the children – a deal which, under Chinese law, could have halved Wei Wei’s 20-year jail term when she was sentenced in July.
Ian even visited Wei Wei in prison in Shanghai to appeal to her to support their claim for custody of the children. She refused to co-operate and offered no apology for killing Michael, telling him she would leave the decision to her family. Ian described the prison visit as ‘absolutely surreal’ and ‘like being in a movie’, but insisted: ‘If I had to go to see Pol Pot or Adolf Hitler in hell to get my grandchildren, I would do it. I would do anything to bring those children home.’
A turning point came when Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt raised the case on an official visit to Beijing in July.
‘It made a big difference,’ Ian said. ‘When they do these visits they only have a few things on their agenda and I was told we were item number two or three after a trade deal.
‘That was fantastic. It’s hard to quantify the impact but it made the judges realise they had to come up with a fair decision.
‘Our Chinese lawyers and the judges in Nanzhang have been magnificent and the consul general and the officials at the Forei gn Office have shown us genuine care.
‘I’m no flag-waver, but as far as I’m concerned the Foreign Office makes me proud to be British. I don’t know how many other countries could have done what they’ve done, in the way that they did it.’
However, as negotiations stalled and the Fu family kept changing their demands up to the moment the handover took place on Boxing Day, Ian admits he and Linda began to despair of ever bringing their grandchildren home.
‘ The thing that has upset us most is that the children were slowly losing Michael,’ he said. ‘They seemed to be actively cutting him out of their memories and they were being told the lie that they were working abroad.
‘When we showed them pictures of Michael in March they still recognised him. Jack was in tears. But when we saw them before the custody hearing there was no reaction from Jack and when we asked Alice about him, she said, “He’s away working.” Michael and the children were so close and the love between them so strong.
‘It’s cruel they’ve been led to believe their father is alive but hasn’t contacted them. If I were Jack or Alice, I would be angry. I would be thinking, “Why hasn’t he even rung us?”
Ian, his wife Diana, and Linda – who all turn 70 in the coming months – insist they will be able to cope with the rigours of looking after their lively granddaughter with the support of an extended family of nine grandchildren, and Michael’s brother Andrew.
‘When I realised that there was going to be a fight to get the children, I knew I couldn’t do it on my own,’ Ian said.
‘So I phoned everyone in my family and within hours they all came back and said, “We are in this together.” ’
Ian and Michael shared a lifelong passion for Sunderland Foot- ball Club and exchanged text messages after every game. He now plans to take his grandchildren to see their father’s team play when Jack comes to visit. ‘I’m going to write a letter to the club to ask for Alice and Jack to be mascots at a Sunderland home game because I know Michael would love that,’ he said.
Ian has received counselling from Victim Support since Michael’s murder and admits that he has put his grief to one side while he fights to win custody of his grandchildren.
‘It’s something I have to deal with once all this is over. I’ve told Michael, “I’ll get to you later”,’ he said. ‘The lady from Victim Support asked me, “Why don’t you write a letter to Michael?” I said I couldn’t because it would just say, “Dear Michael, I haven’t got the children.”
‘I feel I can write that letter at last because I can tell my son, “OK, it’s not perfect but we’ve got Alice, and I’ve seen Jack. I’ve talked to him and I’ve hugged him, and he’s well, so don’t panic, Michael. Now here’s our plan…” ’