China's 'Jackie Kennedy' under scrutiny

Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, right, accompanied by his wife Gu Kailai
Image caption Gu Kailai, here with beleaguered husband Bo Xilai, is being investigated in connection with a murder

The woman accused of involvement in the murder of a British businessman has been described as the "Jackie Kennedy of China".

A US lawyer who worked with Gu Kailai several years ago told the BBC that she was attractive, charismatic and funny.

Ed Byrne, from Denver in Colorado, said he was "shocked" to hear that she was embroiled in a murder investigation.

But that is exactly what has happened.

Ms Gu has been "transferred to judicial authorities" because she is a prime suspect in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.

It is a case that has also led to the downfall of her husband, Bo Xilai, who until recently was one of China's most senior politicians.

Groundbreaking lawyer

Ms Gu, who is Mr Bo's second wife, studied law at the prestigious Peking University before opening her own law firm.

Mr Byrne first met her when he visited the Chinese coastal city of Dalian - where Bo Xilai was the mayor.

He went with a client and met Ms Gu to talk about a business venture.

"I was very impressed with her. She is very attractive, very charismatic and very funny."

Later, she got in touch with him and asked him to represent several companies from Dalian that were involved in a case in Mobile, Alabama. It was 1997.

Fluent in English, Ms Gu played a major role in the lawsuit, which went in favour of the Chinese firms.

She even wrote a book about her legal battles in the United States called "Winning a Lawsuit in the United States".

Mr Byrne then worked with Ms Gu - whom he knew by the name of Horus Kai - on a number of other cases, meeting her in both the US and Dalian.

He also met her husband and was an "honoured" guest at lunches and dinners.

"People likened her and her husband to the Jack and Jackie Kennedy of China. They were the modern liberal element there."

A source close to Mr Bo's family also described Ms Gu, who is about 52 years old, in glowing terms.

He said she closed down her law firm when her husband became the Communist Party chief in Chongqing to avoid the impression that she was benefiting from his position.

"She shut down the law firm just when it was getting very big and very exciting for her," said the family contact.

But he also painted a picture of a woman whose health has not been good in recent years and who hardly stepped outside the family home in Chongqing.

"She stayed at home reading books," he said of Ms Gu who, like her husband, is the child of a senior official.

Her father was General Gu Jingsheng, a prominent revolutionary in the years before the Chinese Communist Party took power.

Image caption Bo Xilai met Gu Kailai almost 30 years ago in Liaoning province

He held government positions when the party took over China but, like many others, was put in prison during the Cultural Revolution, a chaotic period of political turmoil.

Ms Gu, who plays the lute, was just a young girl when it began, but she too suffered. She was forced to work in a butcher's and a textile factory.

This did not ruin her education though. She gained her degree in law and then got a masters in international politics from Peking University.

She qualified as a lawyer in 1988 and then opened the Kailai law firm in Beijing.

'Conflict of interest'

She met Mr Bo in 1984 while on a field trip looking into environmental art in Jin county in Liaoning province. Bo Xilai was the county's communist party secretary at the time.

The couple have one son, Bo Guagua, who went to Britain's exclusive private school Harrow, before studying at Oxford University. He is now at Harvard University in the US.

The family contact suggested that the accomplished and intelligent Ms Gu withdrew from society and business after her husband took charge in Chongqing in 2007.

But the idea that she had completely detached herself from any business seems to be false.

China's state-run news agency Xinhua said she had "economic interests" with Mr Heywood. It said there had been conflict over those interests that had "intensified".

Gu Kailai is now a suspect in a murder investigation.