Man escaped custody through hospital ceiling 'to get back to sick son'

Leon Li Lihua appears at Eastern Court.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

A mainland Chinese businessman who triggered a 36-hour manhunt in Hong Kong after escaping police custody through a ceiling has pleaded guilty to a string of absconding charges.

Lawyers for Leon Li Lihua, a merchant educated in Cambridge in Britain, pleaded for leniency, painting the defendant as the sole caring father of four children, all aged 5, one of whom suffered from a potentially fatal form of epilepsy.

Li, 34, appeared at Eastern Court on Wednesday and was ordered to surrender his bail of HK$1 million (S$170,000). He pleaded guilty to one count of escaping legal custody and resisting a police officer for his escape in November 2018.

He also pleaded guilty to using a forged identity card and failing to surrender to custody after absconding mid-trial four years ago.

The court heard Li came to the city on June 8, 2015 and presented a fake Hong Kong ID card at the American consulate.

The card, produced with an inkjet printer, was of such poor quality staff immediately called police.

Li stood trial two months later. After attending the morning session on October 26 that year, he went missing in the afternoon.

He was next seen in Hong Kong when he was intercepted at the airport on May 14, 2018.

While in custody, he was taken to Queen Mary Hospital in Pok Fu Lam after complaining of feeling unwell.

Li escaped through a ceiling at Queen Mary Hospital in Pok Fu Lam. Photo: South China Morning Post

There, he escaped through a ceiling during a toilet break, sparking a citywide search.

The court heard he was found smoking on the podium of the Renaissance Hong Kong Harbour View Hotel in Wan Chai the next day and assaulted an officer who tried to subdue him.

Defence counsel Cheng Huan SC read out a letter written by his client, who spoke of regret and shame.

Li, a non-practising doctor, said he came to Hong Kong to apply for a US visa because he wanted to take his son there for treatment. But he got caught up in the court case because of a fake ID card given to him by a Chinese agency.

He said he left his trial because his son had been admitted to a Beijing hospital.

His account was challenged by magistrate Lee Siu-ho, who recalled the case at the time. Lee said Li kept saying through his solicitors that he was on his way back to court without actually returning, which prompted Lee to issue an arrest warrant.

Li said since he had been banned from entering the US, he decided to bring his son to Hong Kong for treatment instead.

He said he was aware of the risk of being caught again.

"But I took it in the hope of saving my son," he said.

Cheng said Li's story might raise eyebrows, but asked the magistrate to consider the medical document which supported the son's condition.

Lee adjourned the case to February 8 for further mitigation.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.