2 San Gabriel Valley men charged in violent $2 million kidnapping scheme; victim’s remains found in Mojave Desert

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Ruochen “Tony” Liao is seen in an undated photo released by the FBI on Aug. 20, 2018.

Ruochen “Tony” Liao is seen in an undated photo released by the FBI on Aug. 20, 2018.

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Two more men were charged Wednesday in a businessman’s violent kidnapping from a San Gabriel mall parking lot in 2018, part of a $2 million extortion plot that ended with the victim’s death, federal prosecutors said.

Anthony Valladares, a 28-year-old Pasadena man, is accused of acting as the “muscle,” while 24-year-old Alexis Ivan Romero Velez of Azusa allegedly drove the vehicle used to kidnap car salesman Ruochen “Tony” Liao, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.

A criminal complaint filed Wednesday morning charges each with one count of kidnapping. Valladares and Romero were taken into custody Tuesday by FBI agents in the San Gabriel Valley, officials said.

The new charges come after two other men — Guangyao Yang, 26, and Peicheng Shen, 34, who were last known to live in West Covina — were indicted in the case in February 2019. Yang and Shen face four counts each in the U.S., but are currently in custody in China, where additional charges have been filed in the kidnapping.

Liao, 28, was abducted during at business meeting at the San Gabriel Square shopping center on July 16, 2018.

Investigators said he was a Chinese national who lived in Santa Ana for several years after originally coming to the U.S. to attend college. He was living in the U.S. on a visa and ran a business selling high-end vehicles.

Witnesses at the mall reported seeing Liao driven away in a dark-colored minivan.

The FBI has since uncovered evidence that Liao was repeatedly beaten and Tasered into submission while Valladares and Romero kidnapped him, prosecutors said.

Liao’s parents in China were subsequently told to deposit $2 million into Chinese bank accounts in exchange for their son’s life. Prosecutors say the family was sent “proof-of-life” photos in which Liao appeared to have been badly beaten, blindfolded and tied up with duct tape.

Investigators believe Liao was kept in a closet at a home in Corona, where he was beaten frequently and died the day after his abduction. Yang and Shen are accused of burying Liao’s body in the desert near the town of Mojave in the early morning hours of July 18.

A month later, Liao’s family was still searching for him and offered $150,000 for information leading to his safe return. The family’s attorney, Matthew Lombard, said Liao was an only child and “deeply loved.”

Liao’s remains were recovered in a FBI search, and they were positively identified through DNA testing on July 26, 2019.

Valladares has allegedly admitted to being paid $1,000 to assist in the kidnapping, and Romero admitted to being recruited as the driver, according to prosecutors.

Both men could face up to life in federal prison if convicted on the kidnapping charge.

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