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A.K.A.: "The Red Dress Killer"
Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Robberies
Number of victims: 13
Date of murders: 1999 - 2001
Date of arrest: August 13, 2001
Date of birth: 1973
Victims profile: Young women
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Hubei/Hunan, China
Status: Unknown

Duan Guocheng

August 15, 2001

Duan Guocheng, 28, was arrested at a hotel in the Wuchang district of the city in Hubei province and confessed to a series of murders and robberies, the Beijing Youth Daily said.

Footprints at the scene of four murders carried out in Wuhan between May and June this year matched the shoes in the hotel room where Duan was captured, the paper said.

Police matched footprints from four slayings with a former juvenile delinquent's shoes and charged him with stabbing 13 young women to death in central China. 

Duan carried out the four murder-robberies in the middle of the night in dark streets or alleyways of the city and his victims were all unaccompanied young women in their twenties, the paper said. He was also charged with wounding three other women in knife attacks and carrying out a series of robberies in the city. One woman was hacked to death with up to 38 thrusts of the knife, the paper said.

The suspected murderer was also wanted by Hubei police for the 1999 murders of nine young women and some 50 robberies in the province's Qiuyang region, where Duan was born. Duan was sent to a juvenile corrections institute for seven years at the age of 13 and was also subsequently sentenced to five years in prison in the mid-1990s for robbery, the paper said.


Blood In the Streets

By Matthew  Forney -

Monday, Jan. 27, 2003

After her regular Thursday-night game of mah-jongg, Wang Guiyu headed on foot for her home in the polluted industrial city of Wuhan in the eastern-central province of Hubei. The 41-year-old cut through a busy night market, then turned down a long, narrow road called Jinshui Alley. It was midnight, the street was dark, and safety was on Wang's mind.

Six months earlier she had stopped wearing gold jewelry whenever she had to take this walk. As Wang opened the metal gate to her new, middle-class apartment block, an attacker struck from behind, smashing her head with a brick. Wang stumbled, screamed and struggled desperately to get inside the apartment building. She didn't make it. Her assailant spun her around and plunged a watermelon knife into her chest seven times. Then, as neighbors peered out from above, the killer fled.

In the summer of 2001, six other women in Wuhan were attacked by a man with a knife, four of them fatally. The city's newspapers didn't cover the cases—they almost never write about unsolved crimes. But word spread rapidly through the local grapevine, and a rumor arose that the killer targeted his victims because they were dressed in red. "Everybody was so terrified of the Red Dress Killer," recalls a woman selling tomatoes in Wang's neighborhood, "that we started wearing a lot of blue."

They were right to be scared. The night after Wang's murder, a 20-year-old woman from neighboring Hunan province, who had been lured to Wuhan by its employment possibilities only three weeks earlier, headed home at 3 a.m. from a night market where she had a job washing dishes. At dawn, a neighbor discovered her corpse on the building's stairs. "She had just started climbing when he stabbed her," says the neighbor. She had 38 stab wounds. The Red Dress Killer had struck again.

When China was under the ultra-rigid control of Chairman Mao—with every adult reporting to a work unit or a nosy neighborhood committee—people could barely get away with bicycle theft. That overly restrained but safe China is now long gone. Big Brother isn't watching so carefully anymore (unless you're a political dissident) and tens of millions of Chinese are on the move, wandering to different parts of the country in search of jobs. Society is all shook up, and anonymity is now possible for the first time, especially in immigrant magnets like Wuhan. One of the darker results is a phenomenon once thought to exist only in the decadent West. "We've reached the age of serial killing in China," says Wang Dazhong, a famed criminal investigator who trains cops at the Chinese Peoples' Public Security University in Beijing.

China's police claim to solve 85% of the country's regular murder cases. But they're way behind when it comes to serial killings, a seemingly universal form of evil that flourishes most in societies under stress. The inexperience of Chinese investigators in this field was vividly exposed by a gang of four murderers in the central province of Henan who evaded capture for months in 2000. Their modus operandi was to break into homes using battering rams. Once inside, they killed the inhabitants, frequently castrating male victims with cleavers. They left behind calling cards: cloth masks with eye holes burned out by cigarettes. But the gang's deadly spree was province-wide, and there was insufficient coordination between police forces of the various towns and districts. In addition, the gang confused the police with a surprisingly simple ruse. "The killers changed shoes for each crime," says criminal investigator Wang. "The treads police collected didn't match." By the time the cops connected the dots, the gang had murdered 77 people.

One night in February 2001 in nearby Hunan province, six police officers in the city of Yueyang—200 kilometers southwest of Wuhan—paid a call on the cramped, three-bedroom apartment of Duan Guocheng, a 29-year-old security guard who lived with his parents. The officers wouldn't tell Duan's mother, Hu Yunxiang, why they were there, but they stayed all night, sitting in her living room where the only decoration is a poster of Chairman Mao. Next morning, Duan came home, peeked in through the window—and took flight. The officers chased him into a vegetable market, but Duan escaped.

The police then broke the news to Duan's family that they suspected him of murdering nine women—most of them dressed in red at the time of death.

Duan was a bit of a dandy, fond of neatly pressed Western-style suits. But he had led a troubled life. He had twice been sentenced to jail for robbery, and he was estranged from his father, Duan Shengqing, a trash collector whom he blamed for the family's poverty. "He'd say other people's dads earned money, but that I can't read and can't do anything," recalls his father.

Duan's mother, however, had doted on him—her fourth and final child—and he used to confide in her about his frustrations over women. "We'd talk about this often," Hu says. But only once did he bring a woman home. "She saw we had no money, so she left him."

Convinced that Duan had fled the city, the police in Yueyang locked his mother in a cell with prostitutes and drug addicts for a week in hopes that she would tell them his whereabouts. She didn't. So they sent a bulletin on the nationwide police-computer network with Duan's particulars. Wuhan's police received the notice, but since they routinely ignored bulletins from other provinces, "they didn't pay much attention," says a source who has seen the Wuhan police reports. "They lost their best chance to crack the case early."

On the run, Duan checked into a series of $5-a-night hotels in Wuhan using his mother's surname.

On May 7 a young woman was stabbed to death after midnight on her way home from work. By early June three women, including Wang Guiyu, had been killed and another three survived nearly identical attacks, all within a few kilometers of one another. Then, a few hours after midnight on June 4, a waitress at a Sichuan restaurant was attacked after entering the front gate of her apartment building. She was just meters from her door, on which she had tacked a poster featuring the Chinese character for fortune. The assailant stabbed her repeatedly in the chest, stripped her and sliced off her breasts, say neighbors who saw police photos.

In early May, Wuhan's police formed a special investigation team, which eventually grew to more than a thousand cops. The cases were such a high priority that the team members were made to work overtime and cancel their vacations. Young female officers walked the empty streets at night as bait.

But the Red Dress Killer continued to strike, thanks in part to police slip-ups and lost opportunities. Despite the rising body count, Wuhan's police didn't check with neighboring cities, including Yueyang, for similar cases.

The summer murders took place in a district crammed with migrants, but Inspector Zhang Dehua admits that his officers didn't check the cheap hotels in his area. Local reporters covering the cases had their stories spiked, but the reports were distributed internally to city officials. The news blackout choked off possible leads from ordinary citizens—and kept potential victims clueless as to the dangers of walking home from work at night. "If we'd known there was a killer around, we would have been more careful," says Yao Ping, the truck-driver husband of victim Wang Guiyu. "But nobody told us."

On Aug. 10, three months after the killings in their city began, Wuhan's police finally sent a bulletin to nearby cities, including Yueyang, describing the cases. Yueyang's police immediately responded with information on Duan Guocheng, including his alias Hu Cheng.

Three days later, Wuhan's police found a Hu Cheng registered at the 719 Aerospace Institute Inn, a military-run guesthouse minutes from Zhang's police station. Zhang and two other officers burst through Duan's door and found him standing in the room in his underclothes. Duan attacked them, says Zhang, and "it took all three of us to hold him down." They asked Duan if he knew why they had come. "I robbed people," he replied.

In a drawer they discovered bloodstained shorts and a pair of shoes that matched a print taken from the last murder. Police say he confessed to the killings a few hours later. They charged him with the "Red Dress Murders."

At present, Duan is confined in the Wuhan No. 2 Detention Center, a quiet prison surrounded by two-story walls. His trial began on Dec. 16 and is expected to end sometime in February. In all likelihood he will be convicted and swiftly executed. On Christmas Eve, Duan's mother went to the prison to bring him some clothes. She received a receipt signed by her son—the only form of contact they have been permitted. The family doesn't even know if he has a lawyer.

The day after Duan's capture, the news blackout was lifted and the front page of Wuhan's main newspaper hailed the nabbing of the "Psycho Killer" accused of murdering 13 women. It showed Hubei's top cop, Chen Xunqiu, handing $20,000 in reward money to Inspector Zhang and a handful of colleagues involved in the investigation. "This is a typical example," Chen said, "of successfully breaking a case using high-tech methods and strategies." It was deft p.r., but the reality is more chilling: monsters are on the prowl in today's China—and someone's got to learn how to stop them.



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