Two Chinese nationals have been indicted in a $2 million kidnapping scheme in Southern California involving a victim who was physically restrained inside a closet and is now believed dead, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday.
Guangyao Yang, 25, and Peicheng Shen, 33, are facing charges of conspiracy to kidnap, kidnapping, attempted extortion in violation of the Hobbs Act and threat by foreign communication, according to a DOJ news release. Their last known U.S. residences were in West Covina, but they are both believed to currently be in China.
Using an alias, Shen had told the victim, Ruochen Liao, he would help him collect a debt from someone else and the two met multiple times, according to federal prosecutors. FBI officials have said Liao, a Santa Ana resident and Chinese national who also goes by “Tony,” ran a luxury car dealership and was living in the U.S. on a visa.
Shen and Liao met a third and last time in San Gabriel on July 16, 2018, according to federal prosecutors.
Witnesses have reported seeing Liao driven away from a shopping center located at 140 West Valley Boulevard by a man in a dark-colored minivan around 7:30 p.m. that day, according to the FBI.
Federal prosecutors now allege Shen kidnapped Liao from the shopping center, taking him to a home in Corona where Yang and Shen would go on to hold him hostage.
“At that house, Shen and Yang allegedly confined the victim by binding his legs together, taping his eyes shut, restraining his arms behind him, and confining him in a closet,” the DOJ news release states.
The next day, Liao’s father received a demand for $2 million ransom in exchange for his son’s life, according to prosecutors. The suspects allegedly demanded the money be deposited within three hours into three Chinese bank accounts.
Liao’s father also received photos of him, showing he was being kept inside a closet, according to court documents cited by the news release.
That demand was never followed up and no other attempts were made in the following weeks, FBI officials have said.
Authorities believe Liao died at some point during the kidnapping.
Two days after Liao was kidnapped, Shen and Yang drove to an area of the Mojave Desert “to bury or otherwise dispose of the victim’s body” and get rid of other evidence, the news release states. Shen also allegedly had the closet of the Corona home re-carpeted that same day.
Meanwhile, Yang did an Internet search on how fast a corpse decomposes in soil, according to federal prosecutors.
It’s unclear how Liao would have died but investigators are reaching out for the public’s help in finding his body while search efforts in the Mojave Desert continue.
About a month after the kidnapping, FBI officials reached out to the public for help tracking down Liao and any possible suspects. The FBI had offered $25,000 for information that could lead to finding Liao — dead or alive — while his family put up $150,000 for information that leads to his safe return.
At the time, Liao’s family was still holding onto hope he survived the incident, as their attorney told reporters.
“Our hope is that Tony is still alive, and we’re operating under the premise that he is still alive, which is why this reward and this publicity is so crucial to the case,” attorney Matthew Lombard said.
The kidnapping-related charges facing Shen and Yang carry a maximum possible sentence of life in federal prison, according to prosecutors. The charges of extortion and threat by foreign communication each carry maximum penalties of 20 years in prison.
While authorities have previously said there was believed to be three suspects involved, the DOJ only identified two suspects in a news release issued Thursday.
The FBI continues to investigate the kidnapping while federal authorities seek prosecution of Shen and Yang. FBI officials are asking anyone with information about the crime or the whereabouts of Liao to call 310-477-6565.