RAINANS/DALIAN (Reuters) - An elusive French architect is emerging as a key figure in China's biggest political scandal in two decades, with evidence suggesting he shared both an affectionate and close business relationship with the Chinese woman at the heart of the scandal.
Patrick Henri Devillers, 52, is one of two Westerners in China known to have had close business ties to the family of deposed Chinese politician Bo Xilai, specifically with Bo's wife who is accused of murdering the other expatriate, Neil Heywood.
Until now, only Heywood was alleged to have also had a close personal relationship with Bo's glamorous wife, Gu Kailai - a factor that has led Chinese police to treat his murder as one where intense feelings of betrayal played a part. Gu is alleged to have poisoned Heywood in November after a row over money.
But one man who knew Heywood and Devillers during the pair's association with the Bo family said Devillers had shown much more affection and intimacy towards Gu than Heywood had done, and that he had assumed Gu and the Frenchman were lovers.
"Heywood was an interesting and amusing character," said UK businessman Giles Hall. But he added, "Devillers was the one who used to pat her on the back and put his arm around her in a restaurant. They were definitely, I would have said, an item."
Hall had business dealings and socialised with Heywood, Devillers and Gu over a decade ago, mostly in the UK where Bo's wife was carrying out some business and her son was attending school. At the time, Bo was mayor of Dalian, in northeast China.
The suspicion Devillers had a romantic link with Gu - in addition to business ties - suggests the Frenchman could be more than a peripheral figure in the Bo scandal, details of which are sketchy. The police case against Gu has not been made public.
Devillers and Gu gave the same residential address when they set up a UK company in 2000: a top-story flat in an office building in the faded resort town of Bournemouth. Some office workers inside the building said they remembered Gu from that time but did not recall her having any male companions.
Devillers' whereabouts are unknown. He declined to comment through his lawyer, Stephane Biver of law firm Godfrey-Higuet, a specialist in international tax and finance law in Luxembourg.
His father and sister said they had had little or no contact with Devillers and did not know how to reach him.
Gu, a murder suspect, is detained. Her husband has not made any public comments since March when he was sacked as party boss of China's biggest municipality, Chongqing. Just before then, Bo accused his critics of pouring filth on him and his family.
Devillers' father did not dismiss the suggestion that his son might have been sexually interested in Gu.
"It is possible, all the more since, according to the photos, she seemed attractive," Michel Devillers said at his home in Rainans, a sleepy rural village in eastern France.
The Bo scandal is extraordinary on several levels, having brought down an ambitious Politburo member and ruffling a once-in-a-decade leadership transition in Beijing.
It has exposed the unusual extent to which an elite Communist Party family - Bo's father was a revolutionary comrade of Mao Zedong and Gu's father a military hero - allowed foreigners so far into its inner circle and raises questions about the family's murky financial affairs.
Sources familiar with the police case against Gu say Heywood was helping the family move money offshore, and that he was killed after threatening to expose her dealings.
UK businessman Hall, who sold a hot-air balloon to Gu for promotional use over Dalian, said he had been asked by Bo's wife to help in the illicit movement of 150,000 pounds offshore, a request Hall said he rejected.
Gu had suggested Hall's firm should add the 150,000 pounds to an invoice for the supply of a winch for the balloon, and that his company should use this sum to pay UK school fees for her son, Bo Guagua, Hall said. He added that Gu withheld a final payment for the overall balloon deal after his refusal.
"The whiff of scandal associated to it, we couldn't have it. That's when we said 'No'. She got very irked about it," said Hall who negotiated the balloon deal between 1998 and 2000.
Chinese citizens are only allowed to transfer $50,000 out of the country each year. Police believe Gu was using Heywood to help skirt this restriction, sources have said, though evidence of this has yet to emerge. Heywood's widow has no knowledge of any such transactions, according to a family friend.
"It's a little out of the norm," said Steve Vickers, head of business intelligence specialists Steve Vickers Associates, referring to a powerful Chinese political family allowing foreigners to become so close to its personal affairs.
"But it could be quite useful to have an expat "Mr fixit" who can move things around, cross borders and not be on the radar screen."
One other foreign businessman was also close to the Bo family: Larry Cheng, a Taiwanese American who was Gu's partner in her Horus Consulting business in Dalian. Cheng later set up a new consulting business of the same Chinese name, with the financial help of Xu Ming, a plastics-to-property entrepreneur described by executives as Bo's closest business ally.
Cheng, now based in Shanghai, said he had not worked with Gu since he left Dalian in 1999. Xu has been detained since the eve of Bo's ouster for reasons that have not been made public.
Tall and always well-dressed, Devillers entered Bo's inner circle while living in Dalian in the 1990s. A Chinese company had refused to pay the Frenchman for some architectural work and he and his Chinese wife wrote a letter to the mayor's office.
Then-mayor Bo Xilai intervened on Devillers' behalf and later referred work to him. In 2000, Devillers returned to France, leaving his wife to care for her aged parents and young son. The couple divorced three years later.
His ex-wife, Guan Jie, who still lives in Dalian, said she could not believe Devillers had had a romance with Gu or had been involved in moving large sums of money offshore for her.
"Patrick wouldn't have gotten mixed up with anything like this. He was a very straight person, very polite, very honest," Guan said, adding she had lost contact with him since the divorce. "He had a mental wall to block out anything bad. He didn't like complicated things, society things."
Devillers' sister also said she lost contact with him many years ago and had no idea of his whereabouts.
His only known business address suggests Gu may have known where to reach him until relatively recently.
In 2006, Devillers registered an investment firm, D2 Properties, in Luxembourg, using the Beijing address of the Ang Dao Law Firm - a firm affiliated with Gu Kailai, who had merged her own law practice with it. Staff at Ang Dao Law Firm, housed in a dingy office block not far from Beijing's Olympic stadiums, declined to comment when asked about Devillers.
D2 Properties owns minority stakes in boutique property projects in France, Monaco, Martinique and Geneva developed by Devillers' father, a real estate investor. The father's Rainans Investissements owns 2 percent of D2 Properties, according to a Rainans financial statement.
Before D2 Properties was formed, Gu and Devillers had been co-directors of a UK-based firm, Adad Ltd. Registered in 2000 and dissolved in 2003, its business purpose was unclear.
Devillers' paper trail shines little light on the extent of his business relationship with Gu, but businessman Hall said the Frenchman had represented himself as a fixer in Europe for Gu, who used the name Horus in many of her dealings, Hall said.
"Without me Horus is nothing," Hall quoted Devillers as saying.
Additional reporting by William Maclean in TAUNTON, Peter Griffiths in BOURNEMOUTH, Michael Martina in BEIJING, Marc Joanny in PARIS and Thomas Hals in BOSTON; Editing by Don Durfee and Mark Bendeich