Cosmetic mogul's slaying grips Malaysia; police say her body was burned, ashes discarded

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysians have been captivated this week by the slaying of a self-made cosmetics mogul whose remains were disposed of on a poultry farm owned by two lawyer brothers with an alleged history of shady land deals, according to police.

Sosilawati Lawiya and three of her aides went missing late last month; her BMW sedan was later found abandoned outside a Kuala Lumpur apartment building.

It wasn't until earlier this week, however, when police announced that all four were probably murdered, their bodies burned and the ashes discarded in streams near the lawyers' property that the case exploded into a full-scale media sensation.

On Wednesday, police combed a vast oil palm estate, which includes a poultry farm owned by one of the brothers, hoping to find evidence linking them to what appears to be a rare case of mass murder in Malaysia. A day earlier, investigators fished a knife from a muddy stream and seized computers from the lawyer's office in a nearby town.

The motive for the killings, police say, could be a land deal gone bad, and they are looking into whether the two lawyers may have been involved in other killings. The two have been detained for questioning, but authorities have barred the media from naming them until they are charged. Six farm workers were also arrested but not charged.

The case has dominated Malaysian media this week.

"Killer lawyers?" read Monday's headline in The Star daily. "Killed and Burnt," ''Their Throats were Slit," proclaimed others. The case has also dominated news bulletins of state TV.

Even Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has weighed in, saying he has been shocked by the case and condemns "the inhuman act."

"These are unbelievable things that took place in a quiet neighborhood," said Denison Jayasooria, a social scientist and honorary fellow at the National University of Malaysia who attributes the outsized media attention to the "personalities involved, the victim and also the circumstances of the death."

Sosilawati, a 47-year-old mother of six, was small-town girl from a humble upbringing in Malaysia's southern Johor State who started off selling cosmetic products door-to-door.

In 1998, she founded her own company, Nouvelle Beauty Care, opening several stores and developing the Nouvelles Visages cosmetics line, which sells facial wash, creams and other products across the region.

She left her house on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on Aug. 30, according to police, headed for the town of Banting, near Malaysia's western coast, to discuss a land deal with the brothers, one of whom carries the state title of "Datuk," given to citizens with a history of service to the community.

Sosilawati was accompanied by her driver, Kamarudin Shamsuddin, 44, financial adviser Noorhisham Mohammad, 38, and her lawyer Ahmad Kamil Abdul Karim, 32, all of whom are also missing.

Her BMW was found a week later in Kuala Kumpur. Another luxury car belonging to Ahmad Kamil was later found nearby.

Local media reports have speculated that one of the brothers may have been handling a land deal for Sosilawati in the northern state of Penang. The deal apparently went sour, and Sosilawati may have gone to his farm to demand her money back.

But police are also reportedly investigating whether the two main suspects, both ethnic Indians, may have killed others, including a businessman from India who went missing after coming to Malaysia to meet the brothers.

Both were prominent lawyers who were disbarred last November following a complaint over a property transaction. They are appealing the decision.

Indians make up 8 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people and are frequently stereotyped as criminals, laborers or lawyers. Jayasooria warned against drawing any such conclusions based on ethnicity.

In an opinion piece Wednesday, The Star, Malaysia's biggest daily, called on police to investigate the slayings competently without "lapse or bungling in police procedures that will lead to embarrassment or worse, no conviction later on."

"We do not need more lives to be brutally and senselessly lost," it said in an opinion piece, adding the killing had "all the makings of a chilling blockbuster."