In the hours before Elizabeth Zhong's body was found in the boot of her Land Rover in November 2020, former boyfriend David Zheng packed his bicycle into his own vehicle and went searching for her along a trail they used to enjoy walking together, he recalled today.
Despite no longer being in a relationship they were still good friends and he feared it might have been another suicide attempt, he told jurors at the murder trial of Zhong's estranged business partner, Fang Sun.
"Ever since we got to know each other she told me why she was depressed - because the business was in jeopardy," testified Zheng, who worked as a police detective in China before immigrating to New Zealand 22 years ago. "And that was actually a big reason why I cared for her so much. I feel like she was honest and she was so helpless."
But in addition to their relationship, which lasted about six months, Zheng was also another business partner of Zhong's whose relationship was strained over money, according to the defence.
He is the first acquaintance of Zhong's to have testified at the trial, which is expected to last five more weeks.
Prosecutors acknowledged that Zhong, 55, had tried committing suicide in the weeks before her death as her companies went into liquidation. But the cause of her death was clearly not suicide, having been stabbed more than 20 times during a knife attack in her bedroom in the middle of the night at her east Auckland home, Gareth Kayes said during opening statements.
Sun, the defendant, has been described by prosecutors as an embittered former business partner who believed that Zhong owed him and his family up to $24 million.
The defence, however, has suggested there are plenty of "suspicious characters" the jury will hear about during the trial. If jurors determine there are others who wanted Zhong dead and can't be sure which one was responsible, they must acquit Sun, lawyer Sam Wimsett said during his opening statement last week.
During cross-examination by the defence today, Zheng repeatedly denied owing money to his ex-girlfriend. But he did acknowledge $50,000 being tied up in a film company they started together and another $20,000 that he said was frozen in a Chinese bank account.
"This company we registered, it was for Elizabeth and I to pursue our dream," he said.
"This $50,000 was transferred to me [instead of directly into the business]...because she thought she would not appear in this company because she was in a lawsuit with this defendant.
"I don't know whether the defendant has killed her, but if yes, he has also killed our dream."
But the defence pointed to a series of text messages between Zheng and Zhong's daughter in which she asked him to return the money to her mother.
"Her relationship with you has hurt her so much," Zhong's daughter told him in one message translated from Mandarin and read aloud in court.
"I have told you she needs the money now. As a person of a younger generation, I should not be asking for the money directly, however you just declined it with all sorts of excuses."
The defence also suggested that Zheng broke up with Zhong shortly after she gave him the money for the film business. The witness chastised Wimsett for suggesting his intentions were less than noble.
"I explained to Elizabeth's daughter the break-up had nothing to do with money - it was about a different lifestyle," he said, insisting that the $50,000 is locked away in a business and has never been for his personal use. "Elizabeth is a loving, caring person and I loved her when we were in a relationship."
They were close enough even after the break-up that he stayed at her house through the duration of New Zealand's first nationwide lockdown because, he said, she was frightened and depressed.
"Ever since we met all I've done is support her unconditionally..." he said. "If I did not spend that much time to support her, I could make a lot of money potentially."
Zheng is expected to continue testifying tomorrow.