BEIJING -- The survivors of a British businessman poisoned to death in the most sensational murder case in China in years have been trying to collect more than $1.6 million in civil damages, according to lawyers familiar with his case.

Neil Heywood, 41, left behind a wife, two young children, a hefty mortgage and a meager bank account at the time of his death in November 2011. Gu Kailai, the wife of then-Politburo member Bo Xilai, pleaded guilty last year to poisoning him at a hotel in Chongqing, where her husband was Communist Party secretary.

Bo and his wife, both scions of prominent Chinese political families, are alleged to control a fortune acquired by parlaying their connections into profits. Bo is expected to stand trial shortly on corruption charges. The Chinese media have reported allegations that he accepted $3.2 million in bribes.

The family is believed to own expensive real estate throughout the world -- an elegant courtyard home in Beijing, two apartments in a posh neighborhood of London as well as a large villa with a swimming pool in Cannes on the French Riviera.

Nevertheless, the Heywood family has not succeeded in getting near the money.

"They are asking for 10 million yuan [$1.6 million]. Even if she were not in prison, I don’t think it is possible for her to come up with that kind of compensation,’’ said Shen Zhigeng, a Beijing lawyer who had been retained last year by Gu’s family to represent her.

Another complication, Sheng said, is that any large payment to Heywood’s family would constitute a virtual admission to the corruption charges, for which Bo has not yet been tried. “If they could pay 10 million, people would ask where did they get that kind of money?” Shen said.

Another Beijing lawyer, Li Xiaolin, retained to represent one of Gu’s confidants, said that under Chinese law people serving prison time do not have access to their money.

"She probably only has access to a few thousand yuan. She doesn’t have the power to give away that kind of money,’’ Li said.

An attorney representing the Heywood family in China said he would not be able to comment until after Bo stands trial.

Heywood’s mother, Ann Heywood, issued a statement over the weekend to the Wall Street Journal, deploring the way the family had been treated in China.

"Given the circumstances of Neil's murder, I have been surprised and disappointed that, despite repeated discreet approaches to the Chinese authorities, there has been no substantive or practical response," Heywood said in a statement from London to the newspaper. "I hope and trust that the leaders of this great nation, which Neil loved and respected, will now show decisiveness and compassion, so as to mitigate the consequences of a terrible crime and to enable my family finally to achieve some kind of closure to our ongoing nightmare.’’

A well-born young Briton, Heywood moved to China in the 1990s and became friendly with Bo, then mayor of the port city of Dalian, and his wife. He also helped Bo Guagua, the couple’s son, get into Harrow, the elite British boarding school.

Over the years in China, Heywood held various sales and consulting jobs -- most recently before his death working for a Rolls Royce and Aston Martin dealership. He also did occasional work for Hakluyt & Co., a British strategic intelligence firm founded by a former officer of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency.

During Gu’s trial, Chinese prosecutors said Heywood had been helping Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai funnel their money out of China and that he was murdered after he threatened to talk. At the time of his death, Heywood was also believed to be short of money and had been demanding that the Bo family pay him $22 million in fees allegedly promised for failed real estate developments.

Gu, who was godmother to Heywood’s son, lured him to Chongqing for a business meeting and, after getting him drunk, poured poison from a soy sauce pitcher into his mouth, according to evidence in the trial. The Heywood family was initially told he had died of excess alcohol consumption and was pressured to have his body cremated.

The bizarre murder case eventually prompted Chongqing’s police chief, Wang Lijun, to flee for fear of his life to a nearby U.S. Consulate, setting off the biggest political scandal in recent Chinese memory. Bo, who had been a contender for the top Chinese leadership, has not been accused of complicity in the murder although he faces charges of dereliction of duty for allegedly trying to suppress the subsequent investigation.

Heywood’s wife, Lulu Wang, still lives in Beijing with the couple’s children, ages 8 and 12. A Chinese national, she has been unable to obtain British citizenship because the couple had lived in China throughout their marriage, according to an official involved with the case.

The family is reported to be short of money because of the debts Heywood left at the time of his murder. The Times of London reported last year that friends had raise the $8,000 for the widow and her two children to fly to London for Heywood’s memorial service.

ALSO:

Bo Xilai's wealth on trial in China

Philippine leaders want U.S. troops back as bulwark against China

Japan-China row over islands heats up as WWII anniversary nears

barbara.demick@latimes.com