In February 2017, the MSC Magnifica set sail from Italy for an eleven-day cruise around the Mediterranean stopping for day trips in Greece, Malta and Cyprus. On board for a family holiday was married couple Xing Lei Li and Daniel Belling with their two young sons. Xing was born in China and Daniel in Germany, and the family had settled in Ireland.
The family flew to Italy and boarded the ship without incident. It wasn’t until the MSC Magnifica arrived back in Italy and Daniel with his two sons disembarked alone did staff realise that Xing was no longer aboard the ship. Although cruise ships typically stop at various destinations along the route, and count people off and back on, they sometimes don’t do an official head count until the end of the cruise when the ship has returned. Concerned, staff alerted the authorities who arrested Daniel as he was about to board a Ryanair flight back to Ireland under suspicion of the disappearance of his wife. The other staff and passengers couldn’t recall seeing her after the second day of the cruise.
So what did Daniel say? He claimed that Xing had taken some of her luggage and left the ship of her own accord whilst he was on a day trip in Greece with the boys. He wasn’t worried, however, because during an argument the night before she said she wanted to “quit the trip” (independent.ie). Their marriage wasn’t perhaps the best, Daniel admitted, but they had no plans to divorce. She had voiced a desire to return to China and he assumed that’s what she had done.
One aspect of his story that didn’t ring true was that she had left her mobile and purse on the ship, and a substantial amount of her luggage. The cruise issued key cards to passengers to use when leaving the ship to help keep track of numbers and there is no record of Xing’s having been used on that day. Furthermore, how had she disembarked with her luggage without anyone seeing her? Why hadn’t he informed the cruise staff she had left? In court, Daniel’s lawyer argued that he did inform staff when he told housekeeping to only make up one of the beds, instead of two.
Daniel remained in custody for fourteen months while police tried to build a case, during this time the children were living with his parents in Germany. Daniel’s lawyer uncovered documents relating to Xing’s medical assessments in Ireland written prior to the family going on the cruise which back up Daniel’s innocence: “In the statements, which I have copies of, she says in her own words, ‘My life in Ireland is like a prison. I want to go back to China and leave the children with Daniel‘.” (independent.ie). In 2018, Daniel was released from Italian prison due to lack of evidence and he returned to Ireland with his children.
In March 2017, a suitcase was found in the sea near Italy with the body of a female of Asian descent inside and many people believed it to be Xing. An autopsy was carried out and determined it was not, the person had been much taller and younger than Xing. She was also incredibly emancipated at the time of her death, so much so that emancipation was listed as the most likely cause of death. The suitcase would also have travelled roughly 750 miles to arrive where it was eventually recovered.
Xing’s mother heard of her daughter’s disappearance through an English speaking friend who read the news. She hadn’t heard from her daughter since she disappeared and knew nothing of any plans to return to China, although Daniel maintains that’s what happened. “I think my wife is most probably in China. There is a small probability that something happened to her in Greece, but I believe she is in China. I was worried about my wife for the first few weeks, but not anymore” (independent.ie). Although she doesn’t know where her daughter is, Xing’s mother does believe Daniel to be innocent. The case is still open and investigators are actively trying to find Xing in China, or elsewhere in the world.
If you’re curious, the body in the suitcase was eventually identified as that of former model Katerina Laktionova (27) who was living in Italy at the time of her death. All her life, she had suffered with anorexia and this was ultimately what caused her death. When her mother failed to get a reply from her daughter for several days, she flew over from Russia to check on her daughter, and unfortunately found her body. In shock, and unsure what to do in a foreign country with a dead body she decided to put Katerina in a suitcase and then in the sea.