The right crowd

Gangster murders have parents at elite B.C. school panicking

The right crowdUntil last month, parents at West Point Grey Academy, an elite Vancouver private school, no doubt thought they were tucking their children far from the scourge of drugs, gangs and violence. Point Grey, the premier’s riding, is one of the city’s toniest neighbourhoods; the academy’s junior school, where parents earn an average of $149,000, has been ranked as B.C.’s top elementary school for two years running by the Fraser Institute. When he still hated the limelight, Liberal scion Justin Trudeau was “everyone’s favourite teacher” there, according to alumnus Tyler Friesen. (After father Pierre’s death, students ringed the flagpole with red roses.) Trudeau Jr. taught French and drama at the senior school, where tuition can run north of $21,000.

Then, last month, the five-, seven- and 13-year-old children of Betty “the Loan Shark” Yan quietly exited the school for good. Four days earlier, their mother, a well-known Chinese underworld figure, had been found, shortly after 4:20 a.m., slumped over the steering wheel of her grey, late-model Mercedes outside the Canadian Chinese Chess Society, a suspected illegal gambling den in Richmond. Yan had planned to return home later that morning to drive the children—she called the youngest “mei mei,” Cantonese for “my little one”—to school.

Yan, a pretty, petite, well-manicured 39-year-old, was bubbly and chatty—“almost aggressively so,” says her close friend Jin-Yun Chen. She had “the Birkin bag, the Chanel bag, brand-name sunglasses.” Even her T-shirts were Versace. Home was a “very large, very beautiful,” Sopranos-style suburban beige brick house with a pillared entrance and three-car garage in Richmond, says local prosecutor Helen James, who attended an end-of-year party Yan hosted last June for West Point Grey’s kindergarten class. James’s son, who was in the same class as Yan’s boy, had visited the house on play dates. The party unfolded amid the jumble of marble and ornate, gilded furniture—Yan’s decorating style leaned toward “anything expensive,” says Chen, who’d chummed up to her two years earlier, when she joined the school community. “Louis XIV, modern—whatever.”

Hanging on one wall was a framed photograph of West Point Grey, signed by founding headmaster Clive Austin, thanking Yan for her generous contributions, says James; one of the other moms at the party had, with a raised brow, pointed it out to her, she adds. Chen says Yan was a big deal at West Point Grey. “When Betty dropped the kids off in the morning, it was a hug, kiss on the cheek, high-five or a pat on the back for the kids” from the headmaster, she says. “That’s how he treats the major families.”

Since Yan’s shooting death, amid what appears to have been the end days of Vancouver’s four-month-old gang war, the school, known for its top-notch debating squad, has been swamped by calls and emails from upset parents, including some legitimately concerned their kids had been exposed to danger. According to the RCMP, Yan had used her boy and two girls as human shields when she feared a hit on her life—effectively putting the lives of the entire student body at risk, says a recent graduate, Nicole Jinn, whose brother attends Grade 4 there. The school declined to be interviewed by Maclean’s; in a terse email, Nancy Spooner, the crisis consultant hired to deal with the scandal, said the Yan children had “not been expelled.” (On a Web comment board, Yan’s 13-year-old daughter wrote that she’d been “kicked out” of her school.)

That Spooner has been hounded by media should come as no surprise, says James. This is the school’s second dead gangster. Two years ago, Hong Chao “Raymond” Huang was shot to death in front of his yellow mansion in Vancouver’s exclusive Shaughnessy neighbourhood; his 10-year-old daughter, a West Point Grey student—who, according to Chen, also quietly exited the school—phoned in the hit to police. A leader with the Big Circle Boys, whose network of small cells span the globe, Huang was believed to be a major player in the trade of heroin and synthetic drugs and had criminal links to Toronto, the U.S., Australia, Hong Kong and China.

Yan, who was from China’s Guangdong province, entered Canada as a refugee via Bangkok in the late 1980s and ended up running what police call a “ruthless loan-sharking operation.” (Known to break into debtors’ houses when they didn’t pay, she would steal anything from furniture to citizenship cards and passports.) Police say she was present at the assassinations of underworld figures Tommy Wong and “Pretty Boy” Meng; in another incident, during a double homicide in a Vancouver restaurant, she was playing mah-jong with the wife of one of those hit.

“It defies the popular image, but many of the most successful criminals in the country don’t have a record. They play golf at $400 a pop, and sail expensive boats,” says criminologist John Martin of the University College of the Fraser Valley. After a year of coffee dates and dim sum lunches, Chen had the gnawing sense “things weren’t quite right.” Perhaps it was the strange phone calls Yan received, the four terrifying bulldogs—“Betty’s attack dogs”—who would leap at her car, barking, teeth bared, whenever Chen pulled up to the house, or the “evasive” answers to questions about the nature of her business. In a carefully drafted letter, the school has said it will review issues relating to the “admission to and composition of the school community.”