Murder in Markham

Peizheng Qiu thought he could make his fortune flipping houses in Toronto. Instead he ended up strangling his business partner in the basement of a Markham mansion. A story of greed, ambition and real estate

Peizheng Qiu came from humble beginnings. He was born in 1987 in the province of Jiangsu in eastern China. His parents ran a gas station and, after some modest success, made enough money to open a small clothing factory. Business was inconsistent and often slow, but by 2008, they’d saved enough money to send their only son to live in Canada. They hoped he could make something of himself.

In China, where social mobility is limited, members of the lower middle class can only move up in the world with the help of people who can provide favours, referrals and patronage. The Chinese have a term for these social networks: guanxi. Many mainland Chinese families, including Qiu’s, believe the best way for their children to improve their social status and elevate their guanxi is to learn English, and obtain degrees from Western universities and colleges. There are more than 132,000 Chinese students currently enrolled in Canadian post-secondary institutions, making up nearly a third of foreign enrolment in the country.

When Qiu arrived in Toronto, he started a two-year ESL program, then enrolled in a two-year business accounting diploma at Centennial College. Qiu didn’t much care for his coursework, and he turned in a lack­lustre performance—he graduated with a paltry 2.04 GPA. But his parents were still sending him money each month, and he needed to find a way to stand on his own, so he wouldn’t have to rely on their largesse. He wanted to make them proud. “My father wanted me to try something on my own,” he later said. “He said to me that as a man, I needed to be trained in running my own business.” After he graduated, he used some money from his parents to open a store called I-Flooring, located in a strip mall near Woodbine and Steeles, and serving a mostly Chinese-Canadian clientele. He eventually had 10 people working under him—five full-time and five on contract.

The stress of the job wore on Qiu. He had no administrative experience, and despite his Centennial diploma, he had no idea how to run a business. Between paying his employees, covering rent and buying supplies, he was barely turning a profit. Reluctantly, he continued to depend on his parents to cover a significant portion of his monthly expenses. He got to the point where he felt waves of anxiety every time he entered his own shop. He needed to find another way to make money.

Xiao Xuan Long Yu, who went by the English name Bertram, was also seeking his fortune. A year younger than Qiu, Bertram was the son of a wealthy and prominent lawyer in Shenzhen, a major city in southeastern China, and one of the country’s biggest financial and commercial hubs. His parents had financed his immigration to Canada, putting him up in a luxury unit at the C Condos tower at Yonge and Finch. He liked to splurge on fancy cars: he drove a Ferrari 458, which sells for around $250,000, and previously owned a Maserati and BMW. Like Qiu, he was hoping to free himself from his parents’ support and make it on his own in Canada. He was smart and charming, with a strong command of English, and he probably could have landed a good job, but Bertram was ambitious. He wanted more than a steady paycheque. He wanted to run his own business.

Bertram Yu, the son of a wealthy Chinese lawyer, lived in a luxury condo and splurged on fancy cars

Bertram met Qiu at Centennial, where he too was studying business accounting. On the surface, they were polar opposites: where Qiu was modest and shy, Bertram was flashy and stylish, with side-swept bangs, thick-rimmed black glasses and an affinity for dramatic scarves. Qiu seemed to admire and resent ­Bertram’s inherited wealth, and sought to rise to the same level. By 2014, they’d decided to pool their resources and break into the one business that seemed like a sure thing in Toronto: real estate.

Qiu and Bertram believed that flipping houses would be a low-risk way to make serious money. More than six per cent of Toronto properties for sale in 2017 had been purchased less than 18 months earlier; that’s almost twice the percentage of properties that were bought by foreign investors. Flipping is particularly popular in the Chinese-Canadian community. In Richmond Hill, where nearly one-third of the population is of Chinese descent, residents successfully lobbied to ban the number 4, which sounds like the Chinese word for “death,” from street addresses back in 2013. Many Chinese home­owners believe that being stuck with the unlucky number will hurt the resale value of their properties.

The two men struck a deal: Bertram would put up the money to buy properties, while Qiu would use his construction expertise to make upgrades. Their arrangement was remarkably informal. They’d meet at Mint Karaoke and Lounge, a bar near Yonge and Steeles, not far from Bertram’s condo, where they’d drink and chat about business. There was very little paperwork spelling out what obligations each party was expected to fulfill and what would happen if things didn’t go according to plan. They were eager to make money as quickly as possible, and relied solely on mutual trust and friendship to make it happen. “The Chinese like to do things different,” Qiu later told police. “Millions can be loaned or borrowed based on a slip of paper.”

Bertram also enlisted his good friend Elson Yu to join the partnership. Elson was a seasoned businessman who’d owned and operated a men’s clothing store for six years. He and Bertram had met a few years earlier through some mutual friends. The two came from a similar social background, and both had grown up in mainland China. Elson was eager to get in on the flipping scheme. He figured that if his friend could trust Qiu, so could he.

By early 2014, Elson and Bertram were scouting Toronto’s real estate listings, and over the next few months, they went on an investing spree, impulsively buying several large homes in North York for a some $3 million. The first property that caught their eye was 216 Harlandale Avenue, located just west of Yonge and Sheppard. It was a five-bedroom detached in a peaceful suburb, listed at $928,000. Elson knew that plenty of other people were looking at the property and decided to snatch it up on his own, forking over $300,000 for a down payment. He promised Bertram that he could still invest in the property later.

The partners bought this house at 216 Harlandale Avenue in early 2014 as their first property to flip
Peizheng Qiu sold 262 Senlac Road behind his partners’ backs, pocketing the profits
Bertram Yu bought 2 Laureleaf Road for $1.5 million in 2015. A year later, he was murdered and dismembered in the basement

Three weeks later, Elson and Bertram pooled their money to buy 262 Senlac Road, a four-bedroom detached in West ­Willowdale, only a couple of kilometres north of the Harlandale house. The sale price for this one was $752,000; Elson put up roughly two-thirds of the $150,000 down payment, while ­Bertram fronted the remainder. And two months after that, they acquired their third and most valuable property: a mansion at 2 Laureleaf Road in Thornhill, sold for $1.46 million. It was worth much more than Senlac to begin with, and the trio figured that a suite of upgrades could raise its sticker price substantially: they wanted Qiu to install new flooring and drywall, finish the basement, and add a new staircase on the main floor. The partners decided to focus on 2 Laureleaf first and use the profits to judge what to do with 262 Senlac. Based on what they made on 2 ­Laureleaf, they could decide whether to renovate the Senlac property or tear it down altogether.

According to Elson, he and Bertram covered the $450,000 down payment on the Laureleaf property, and were waiting for Qiu to cover his share. Qiu later disputed this claim, insisting that he had contributed to the down payment. He was the one who found the first financing opportunity for the house. He had a friend at the bank who was willing to give them a favourable mortgage.

Cracks in the partnership began to show as soon as the properties were purchased. Qiu was still juggling his flooring business and the flipping enterprise, and he seemed overwhelmed. Progress on the houses was excruciatingly slow. By the beginning of 2015, he’d barely done any work on the Laureleaf property.

Qiu was desperate for money. In March 2015, he went behind his partners’ backs and sold the property at 262 Senlac for $666,000, almost $100,000 less than Elson and Bertram had originally paid for it. When they confronted him, Qiu tried to placate them, promising he’d pay them back with the money they’d all make from the sale of 2 Laureleaf. Neither Elson nor Bertram believed him. They realized there was a lot about Qiu that they didn’t know.

The house at 2 Laureleaf Road is palatial, with six bedrooms, six baths, a three-car garage and a faux-gothic aesthetic. Located in the idyllic neighbourhood of Bayview Glen, it had the potential to bring in big profit—if the planned renovations were ever finished. “Whenever we asked Qiu about it, it was always delay, delay, delay,” Elson said later. “Every time we went to inspect the house, nothing much was done.” He and Bertram were worried. Neither of them trusted Qiu, and they had no paperwork that would hold him accountable if he didn’t refund their money. By this point, all they wanted was to recoup their initial investments, sell the houses and walk. They never wanted to work with Qiu again.

Qiu, meanwhile, had sold his flooring business, ostensibly with the goal of renovating 2 Laureleaf full-time. He’d hired his friend Yaorile Yaorile, an experienced Chinese construction worker, to help him with the project. He’d also begun seeing a woman named Ruby. Frequently, Qiu would ask Bertram and Elson for more money to finish the renovations. Between the down payments, monthly mortgages and renovation costs, they had both invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into the partnership. As far as they could tell, Qiu had invested zero.

The Laureleaf project crawled along for the next few months. According to one worker, Qiu didn’t even do much of the hands-on labour. He was better known for his coffee runs than he was for construction work. “They seemed to be in no hurry,” says Dino Dimonte, who lives across the street. “They’d come in Friday evening, work on Saturday and Sunday, be gone on Monday,” he says. At one point, he had to call the City of Markham to complain about the endeavour: apparently, Qiu had begun renovations without a permit and had violated several bylaws, including failing to ensure the construction site was properly fenced in.

The tension was mounting between Qiu and his partners. Elson and Bertram were both short on cash, and Bertram was planning to marry his long-time girlfriend. They wanted to get their money back. The harder they pressed, the shiftier Qiu became. He’d promise payment, then postpone; promise payment, then postpone. Eventually, Bertram became resigned to the fact that Qiu would likely never pay him back. According to Bertram’s girlfriend, he wasn’t the kind of guy who ever got angry. “He knew that Qiu wasn’t a trustworthy person,” she later said. “But Qiu was his friend, and he had a high tolerance for him.”

On September 1, 2015, Bertram and Elson confronted Qiu at Mint karaoke bar, their usual spot. They had drawn up Acknowledgement of Debt documents, which they presented to him. These promissory notes included repayment schedules for Qiu, who at this point owed Bertram $1.3 million; the first $100,000 was due on January 15, 2016, with several more instalments scheduled throughout the year and a final payment of $600,000 in October. He owed Elson $290,000. Both documents had a Breach of Terms clause that demanded 0.5 per cent interest for every week he missed a payment. They also included scanned copies of Qiu’s driver’s licence. Bertram and Elson insisted that he sign on the spot, and he did so without a fuss. “We were going to leave 2 Laureleaf alone. We didn’t care when he finished working on it,” Elson later said. “But now he had a liability that he couldn’t run away from.” In total, Qiu owed $1.6 million.

Bertram and Elson forced Qiu to sign promissory notes for repayment totalling $1.6 million

Qiu missed his first payment to Bertram for the amount of $100,000. Desperation had set in. At around 8 a.m. on Sunday, March 20, he walked into a Home Depot near Woodbine and Highway 7. He bought gloves, masks, coveralls, a DeWalt reciprocating saw and metal saw blades. He packed the items into his girlfriend’s BMW and drove to 2 Laureleaf.

About half an hour later, he called Bertram and asked him to come to the property for a meeting. He said he wanted to discuss borrowing money to pay for more renovations. As soon as Bertram arrived, the two started arguing about money. Qiu claims Bertram threatened to use his connections in China to hurt Qiu’s family back home, to kill them or have their limbs hacked off. In Qiu’s version of events, he was a victim forced to defend himself and his family against a rich bully.

Qiu snapped. He noticed a hammer, grabbed it and began swinging (he later claimed that he’d seen Bertram reach for the weapon first). He says he wrestled Bertram to the floor and whacked him on the back of his head when he tried to get up. Then he began strangling him. “I just wanted to shut him up and let him die,” he later said. He kept his hands gripped tightly around Bertram’s neck for two minutes, Qiu said, until he stopped breathing. His former friend was dead.

When Qiu realized he’d committed murder, he had a cigarette. He needed to figure out a way to avoid jail time. He turned to his phone and started googling phrases such as “How to handle a dead body.” He’d seen a YouTube video about how to dismember a corpse and an episode of CSI where the characters had discussed how to butcher bodies. So he decided to do what he’d seen on TV.

There were all sorts of tools—saws, knives, an axe—stored in the basement, as well as a supply of black garbage bags. “I wanted to separate the meat from the bone,” he later told police. He took an axe and started with Bertram’s head, which he severed after several chops. Then he hacked off his arms and legs. Qiu says that at one point, he tried to use his new DeWalt reciprocating saw on the corpse but found it too unwieldy. Instead, he opted for a straight-edge knife to carve the flesh off of Bertram’s bones. He removed each muscle and organ individually, trying to keep them grouped together. The process lasted hours. Then he divided up Bertram’s remains—the head, limbs, hands, feet, skin, muscles, organs and bones—into seven garbage bags. He placed his victim’s clothes into an eighth bag and rolled the torso inside a blue tarp.

Qiu’s Home Depot receipt from the morning of the murder and a police sketch of the crime scene

By 4 p.m., the reality of what he’d done had sunk in. He’d murdered his friend and business partner, and tampered with the corpse. Could he get away with it? “I stopped and went to smoke another cigarette,” Qiu later told police. “Then I decided, no, I won’t do that. Just be a man.”

He picked up the phone and called Harley Bowe, his friend and housemate, who was at their place in Scarborough. Qiu didn’t tell Harley exactly what had happened over the phone—only that he needed him to drive over to 2 Laureleaf. When Harley arrived, he went downstairs and got the shock of his life. Qiu was covered in blood. “He looked like he got out of a butcher’s,” Harley later testified.

They got into Harley’s truck and drove to their house, where Qiu took a shower. He didn’t have the heart to tell his girlfriend what had happened. The two were supposed to marry in just a few months. Yaorile showed up while the men were drinking beers, and Qiu confessed his crime. “I asked him if he was joking,” Yaorile told the courts. “When he said no, I told him I couldn’t help him. Be a man and turn yourself in.”

At 6:15 p.m., Qiu drove Bertram’s white Ferrari to 42 ­Division, near Markham and Sheppard. He gave a lengthy statement to police, in which he confessed to his crime and tried to explain why he’d resorted to murder. According to Qiu, Bertram was the one who owed him money, not the other way around. He claimed that Bertram had a gambling addiction, and that he visited underground casinos and bet large sums of money on soccer games—an accusation Bertram’s friends and family vehemently denied. He also told police that he’d been regularly making $10,000 monthly mortgage payments on 2 Laureleaf Road. He insisted that he’d truly believed Bertram would hurt his family. “Rich guys in China can do whatever they want,” he told police.

Qiu was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. The story made major news back home in China. The headlines in Chinese newspapers were littered with exclamation marks and highlighted the gruesome nature of the crime. People were shocked to learn that a Chinese student from an affluent family could meet such a fate in Canada, a country that’s revered for its safety and prosperity.

A police photo of the crime scene

Preliminary hearings began a year after the murder, in March 2017. Qiu’s lawyer insisted that the murder was unplanned. His client had bought the supplies at Home Depot that morning to work on the house, he argued, and he became violent only after Bertram allegedly threatened his family. The Crown argued that the murder was premeditated. According to police, the outdoor security camera at the crime scene had been disabled at 9:19 on the morning of the murder, 15 minutes before Qiu called Bertram to come over. And the autopsy report suggested a far more violent attack than the one Qiu had copped to: Bertram had sustained countless fractures, lacerations, bruises and contusions on his face, jaw and torso in the moments leading up to his death. His lungs and airway were filled with blood, suggesting that he was still breathing when he acquired these injuries. And while there was some evidence that he’d been strangled by human hands, there were marks that also showed trauma to his neck caused by a sharp object.

In the end, Qiu accepted a deal: he agreed to plead guilty to charges of second-degree murder and indecent interference with a body. In exchange, he would be spared a jury trial and receive life in federal prison, with the possibility of parole after 14 years. If he is released, he will be deported back to China. Bertram’s family was horrified when they learned about the plea bargain. During a pre-sentencing hearing, the family’s lawyer read a victim impact statement from Bertram’s father, condemning the Crown for agreeing to a second-degree murder charge. He claimed the deal was dishonourable, and described Qiu as debased. He told the court he believed Qiu should never be allowed to step outside prison walls again. Bertram’s girlfriend also issued a statement. She recounted the last time she saw her partner, on the morning of March 20, 2016, near Finch subway station. “Xiao Xuan Long was the most charming man I had ever seen,” she said. “No one could or can imagine the degree of harm and hurt his murder brought to me…. My life has been filled with tears ever since.”

At his sentencing hearing last October, Qiu presented his own statement in Mandarin, which was translated for the court. “The bad things have been tormenting my mind like a movie looping and repeating itself,” he said. He listed off the things he’d lost: his job, his fiancée, his family, his dignity, and his opportunity to make a life in Canada. That one seemed to sting the most.