Elizabeth Zhong homicide: Mystery foreign backers financed film company deal – accountant

An Auckland businesswoman in dire financial straits and now believed murdered had earlier bought a film company in “strange” circumstances.

Elizabeth (Ying) Zhong is understood to have paid millions for Digipost in September 2017 with the aid of mystery financial backers believed to be from mainland China.

An accountant, who managed Digipost’s sale to Zhong on behalf of its former owners, found it strange how little homework was done on the purchase.

“There was hardly any due diligence done, no one really seemed to care too much about the business,” Auckland accountant Matthew Bellingham said.

Fifty-five-year-old grandmother Zhong was reported missing on Saturday before police made a grim discovery that evening.

It’s believed her body was found in the boot of her own car, about 500m down the road from her Suzetta Place, Sunnyhills, home.

Police have launched a murder inquiry but are yet to formally identify the body.

Since coming to New Zealand in 1997, Zhong had bought businesses with interests ranging from film to winemaking.

However, she was understood to have been falling into ever greater financial troubles.

Bellingham said he’d heard snippets of conversation leading up to the September 2017 sale of film production company Digipost that Zhong intended to forge connections with the Chinese film industry.

Digipost had earlier been founded 30 years ago by Garry Little and operated as a successful and key player in Auckland’s film industry.

Bellingham had helped manage the company’s accounting and so also managed its sale on behalf of the former owners.

He said they had been ready to retire so took the chance to sell when approached by people on behalf of Zhong.

Bellingham never met Zhong but dealt with her accountant Sam Chan and lawyer Jean Ong.

Chan told Stuff the matter was confidential and he couldn’t comment.

Bellingham said he didn’t know the source of Zhong’s money.

But the sale was not subject to finance approval from a Kiwi lender.

“I don’t know who they were or what the details were, but there was pieces of conversation that she had backers from mainland China.”

Bellingham wouldn’t confirm how much was paid for Digipost and the commercial building it operated out of but said it was significant.

“It wasn’t a massive transaction, but for a transaction of that size you would normally expect a little bit more involvement, a little bit more digging and looking at what you are actually buying,” he said.

Financial troubles

Zhong Sunbow Group described itself online as running the Kennedy Point and Carrick vineyards, and the Digipost film production company – but all three businesses had recently been sold or placed into receivership or liquidation.

On October 30, Andrew McKay and Andrew Bethell of BDO were appointed as receivers of Sunbow.

In February 2019 Zhong announced “reluctant’ plans to sell her Carrick vineyard and winery in Central Otago, describing it as her “dream vineyard”.

“I love it because it’s purely organic,” she said in a press release at the time.

The winery, 500-barrel cellar and 70-seat restaurant rest on 34ha overlooking Lake Dunstan’s Bannockburn Inlet and the Carrick Mountains.

The 2019 press release noted Zhong had established wine distribution ties with China and other countries in Asia

Staff at Carrick would not comment to the Otago Daily Times.

Receiver Andrew Bethell said he was “very saddened” to hear of Zhong’s death and his thoughts went out to those who knew her and to her family.

Bethell declined to discuss the company’s debt.

The vineyard did not sell in 2019 but was back on the market under instruction from the receivers.

Still no arrest

Meanwhile, a neighbour of Zhong’s today said she was surprised no arrest had been made.

The neighbour, who did not want to be named, said there was “quite a bit going on” at the property with police and forensic officers coming and going.

“I’m a little surprised that there’s been no arrest yet, but I don’t have a real safety concern because the I know what happened was directly linked to Elizabeth,” she said.

“Like everyone else, I’m hoping they can get to the bottom of the case.”

The neighbour described Zhong as a very private person.

“I’ve never spoken to her, other than giving her the odd wave which she would return,” she said.

A man who confirmed he was Zhong’s partner refused to answer questions when the Herald went to his Beach Haven home today.

A friend who knew Zhong said that she had been in a relationship with the man after her separation from ex-husband Frank Fu.

The friend said Zhong had been looking forward to a new life with her new partner.

“The last time we met, she introduced me to her new partner and we also talked about her daughter and grandchild in Wellington, and she was looking forward to living her new life,” the friend said.

Police say they expected the scene examination to take some time, and a team of investigators were examining CCTV footage to track movements to and from the Sunnyhills property.

“Police continue to ask anyone that may have information to contact 105 and quote the file number 201128/1909,” said Detective Shaun Vickers of Counties Manukau CIB.

Zhong came to New Zealand with her then husband and daughter in 1997. Her daughter now works for the Treasury in Wellington.

Her friend described her as a smart businesswoman who was respected by many in the film industry.

She had been a sponsor of some community projects and also a 2017 Chinese film festival, and used to host delegations, such as one from Shanxi that came in 2018, at vineyards she owned.

But Zhong’s businesses appeared to have run into commercial difficulties in the months leading up to her death.

Her Sunbow Group, described as running the Kennedy Point and Carrick vineyards, and the Digipost film production company – have recently been sold or placed into receivership or liquidation.

Zhong’s residential home in Kumeu also began to have creditors place caveats across it from July last year.

Her partner’s property on Elizabeth St, Mt Eden, was also sold about three weeks ago.

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