Open Verdict by Ken Bridgewater

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Ken Bridgewater, author of a new thriller charting one of the most corrupt scandals in Hong Kong history, tells Arthur Tam about his search for the truth 

Picture this. It’s January 15, 1980, and a body is found in a Hong Kong apartment. There are five bullet holes in the torso. However, the apartment has been locked from the inside – and there’s no sign of anyone else having been in the flat. And there’s a suicide note – but it hasn’t been signed with the pen this victim is known to have always used. This is the scene that greeted city police when they found the body of Scottish Police Inspector John MacLennan, sparking one of the biggest scandals in our city’s history.

For days, police tried to piece together the puzzle. Some were convinced it was suicide, particularly as MacLennan had just been fired from the police force following allegations of being a homosexual. It was also thought he was due to be arrested on suspicion of soliciting male prostitutes. But many didn’t buy it. How does a man shoot himself five times? And, to make matters even more mysterious, when MacLennan’s inquest was opened, his body had already been conveniently cremated.

As the drama unfolded, it was alleged that evidence had been tampered with at the crime scene. A public outcry followed – and a handful of justice-seeking Hongkongers came forward to put pressure on the police and find out exactly what had happened. One of these was Aileen Bridgewater, a radio host who was helped by her husband Ken when it came to digging up new information. They pressured, rallied and reported – but eventually, following an open verdict at the inquest, a judge proclaimed it was suicide and shut the case. The Bridgewaters were left to personally return MacLennan’s belongings to his parents. “It was odd, it was supposed to be the governement’s responsibility,” says Ken Bridgewater.

Wind the clock forward 34 years and, ahead of the Bridgewaters’ 60th wedding anniversary, Ken has been delving back into the case so it shall never be forgotten. He’s just published a novel, Open Verdict, which is dedicated to the MacLennan family and aims to shed new light on to the whole saga. Yes, it’s a fiction but about 90 percent of the story is based on fact. “It’s a fiction because there are accounts that I felt must have happened but were never revealed,” says the 86-year-old author. “But most of the book is based on real accounts.”

Bridgewater, a former British Air Force man and Hong Kong physicist, remembers the drama unfolding back in 1980. “It felt like one of the most devastating times in Hong Kong’s history,” he says, adding that, when they were trying to tirelessly uncover new pieces of the puzzle, “our lives were threatened – Aileen’s especially. She received death threats. It was a rough time for about three years.”
But it didn’t hold the Bridgewaters back. For them the case meant something more than just a simple scandal. “We wanted to expose the obvious cover-up,” says Ken Bridgewater. “No judge could have taken the evidence and called it a suicide without being forced into it.”

The Bridgewaters helped bring massive publicity to the case – but it’s what they did next which may hold even more importance. They helped to improve Hong Kong’s human rights record. There have been multiple theories that surfaced as to the cause of MacLennan’s death. It was speculated that he was a scapegoat as some officials attempted to weed out homosexuals in the police and government. It was also theorised that he was about to expose an underground prostitution ring that powerful gay officials were behind – so they had to get rid of him. Or maybe the pressures of being a gay police officer really did get the best of him. Whatever the reason, Ken Bridgewater maintains that none of these theories would have grown legs if Hong Kong didn’t have a law that criminalised homosexuality in the first place.

“MacLennan might still be alive if there were gay rights back then,” says Bridgewater. “The laws were so draconian. Homosexuals were constantly hounded and the fact that MacLennan was homosexual – and especially a police officer – was a crime. Aileen and I have been married for many years and with her being a celebrity, we were in a privileged position to stand up for gay rights. Aileen, especially, was active for many years.” Thankfully, in 1991, the Legislative Council finally decriminalised homosexuality and many theorists believe that the catalyst for change came from the MacLennan case.

For now, though, Ken Bridgewater is channeling his energy into promoting Open Verdict, a riveting thriller filled with cliffhangers, corruption and vice. And he appreciates how society has changed – be it in the realm of police work or gay rights – since those seedy colonial days. “I think things are better now,” he says. “We’ve really stamped out corruption.”

Open Verdict is published by Trafford Publishing, priced $180 in hardcover and $150 in paperback. For more on Bridgewater, check out kenbridgewater.com.

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