BEIJING — Chinese authorities say they suspect that the woman who gouged out a 6-year-old boy's eyes was his aunt who later killed herself, adding a surprising twist to a gruesome case with conflicting details.
The attack on the boy horrified the Chinese public and added to outrage over violence against children in the wake of a scandal earlier in the year involving teachers sexually abusing young girls. This time, heart-wrenching images and footage of the wailing child in hospital, his eyes bandaged and parents distraught, have circulated on the Internet as news commentaries slammed the brutality of the attack.
"Mama, why is the sky still so dark?" the child has been quoted as saying while recovering in hospital, his parents unable to bring themselves to tell him about his condition.
On Wednesday, police in the city of Linfen in northern Shanxi province confirmed an official Xinhua News Agency report that the boy's aunt Zhang Huiying had been identified as a suspect because his blood was found on her clothes. Six days after the boy was attacked, Zhang killed herself by jumping into a well.
In an interview with the Beijing News published Thursday, Zhang's husband described how the woman's mental state unraveled in her final days.
Xinhua did not cite a possible motive for the aunt to attack the boy.
Initial reports said the boy, Guo Bin, whose also goes by the nickname Bin Bin, had been playing outside his home on the evening of Aug. 24 when he was lured by an unidentified woman into a field where she used a tool to gouge out his eyes. Family members found the boy late at night in a remote area, his face covered in blood, eyelids swollen.
The police finding seemed to conflict with the family's earlier comments on the boy's assailant, which cited him as saying that the woman spoke with an accent from outside the area and had hair that was dyed blonde.
Bin Bin's mother said in a phone interview that the boy was disoriented after the traumatizing attack.
"It is easy to understand that he wasn't clear about the situation," Wang Wenli told The Associated Press. "He said her accent was from another region, but he later amended that. He then said it was a local accent, but he did not say that it was his aunt."
She declined to talk about the police evidence against her sister-in-law, saying: "The police did not tell us anything. I do not know." She also said reports of a dispute between the families were false.
Bin Bin was recovering steadily after a week of treatment, his mother said, while help has poured in from the Chinese public and elsewhere in the form of donations and gifts.
State broadcaster CCTV aired fresh footage of the boy in hospital being guided by a doctor to feel his way around a room with his hands. He's seen singing a children's song to a doctor and playing with a plush toy elephant, teddy bear and other toys.
"He talks to me, and he plays with toys that people have sent him," Wang said. "He still doesn't know that he likely will be blind the rest of his life."
One of the case investigators reached by phone, a police officer in Fenxi county surnamed Liu, referred only to the Xinhua report and refused to answer further questions, saying he was not authorized to speak to the media. Calls to the city and county's police bureaus' propaganda departments rang unanswered.
Wang's brother Wang Wenjun, one of the boy's uncles, also said by phone that Zhang, the aunt, might have been mentally ill, saying it was unclear why she committed suicide.
Speaking to the Beijing News, Zhang's husband Guo Zhicheng said his wife had been a timid person and that he "simply could not understand" how she could be the suspected assailant.
Guo described how a full day of police questioning left his wife frazzled, with her saying she was having difficulty breathing and heard an elderly woman's voice in her head urging her to leave the house.
On the morning of Aug. 30, after telling her husband she'd been taken outside of the house by "that old lady" until 3 a.m., she jumped in the well in the courtyard at home, Guo was quoted as saying.
Associated Press researchers Zhao Liang in Beijing and Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.