A Pasadena man admitted to conspiring with three other men to kidnap a luxury car dealer in San Gabriel — a failed heist that led to the victim’s death, prosecutors said Thursday.
Anthony Valladares, 28, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and told prosecutors he accepted cash from two other defendants to act as the “muscle” in the brutal beating and kidnapping of Ruochen “Tony” Liao, a Santa Ana resident and Chinese national, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.
Liao had been living in the U.S. on a visa and ran a luxury car dealership, prosecutors said.
In July 2018, Guangyao Yang, 26, and Peicheng Shen, 34, allegedly hired Valladares to help them kidnap Liao from a San Gabriel shopping center parking lot, prosecutors said. Valladares told prosecutors he recruited 24-year-old Alexis Ivan Romero Velez of Azusa.
Yang and Shen attempted to extort $2 million from Liao’s family and sent them a photo of Liao badly beaten, tied up and blindfolded, according to federal prosecutors. They had allegedly taken him to a house in Corona where they held him captive.
But the family never sent money and never received any other demands, prosecutors said.
Two days after kidnapping Liao, Shen and Yang allegedly drove to the Mojave Desert to bury Liao’s body, according to prosecutors. Yang and Shen are Chinese nationals who previously lived in West Covina. They are currently awaiting trial in China on kidnapping charges related to the case.
According to federal prosecutors, Shen met Liao three times throughout the summer of 2018, offering to help Liao collect a debt from someone. During their third and final meeting, on July 16, 2018, they met at the San Gabriel parking lot where Shen turned on Liao. She had been using an alias, according to prosecutors.
Witnesses later told investigators they saw Liao being driven from the shopping center, located at 140 West Valley Boulevard, in a dark-colored minivan around 7:30 p.m., according to the FBI.
Shen had lured Liao into the van, where Valladares and Romero were hiding, prosecutors said.
In a newly reached plea agreement, Valladares gave prosecutors new details about how the defendants violently abducted Liao from the parking lot.
When Liao entered the van, he was speaking in Chinese with Shen, according to the plea agreement. But then Shen allegedly gave Valladares a signal to begin attacking Liao — a specific word which prosecutors have not disclosed.
Valladares and Shen both violently assaulted Liao, using a taser to subdue him and then binding and restraining him with a black hood and ties, according to Valladares’ plea agreement.
Valladares admitted to helping Yang obtain the taser, a revolver and bullets that were used in the kidnapping, prosecutors said. Romero allegedly drove the minivan to a location in Rosemead, where the kidnappers placed Liao into another car, the plea agreement states.
From there, Shen and Yang took the victim to a house in Corona, where they bound his legs together, taped his eyes shut and restrained his arms behind his back while he was kept inside a closet, prosecutors said. Liao’s father received a demand for $2 million ransom the next day.
Prosecutors said the kidnappers demanded that the money be deposited into three Chinese bank accounts within three hours. Liao’s father also received photographs of his son while he was still alive. Investigators believe Liao was killed sometime while he was with Shen and Yang.
Valladares was not physically present at the time of Liao’s death, according to prosecutors.
Just two days after the violent kidnapping, Shen and Yang drove to an area of the Mojave Desert to bury or otherwise dispose of Liao’s dead body, according to prosecutors.
Shen allegedly had the closet of the Corona home re-carpeted the same day while Yang did an Internet search on how fast a corpse decomposes in soil, prosecutors said.
About a month later, the FBI announced the search for Liao and his family’s attorney announced a $150,000 reward in addition to $25,000 being offered by the FBI.
“We’re negotiable with the reward that we’re willing to pay for this,” said Matthew Lombard, the family’s attorney. “He’s a deeply loved person by his family. He’s their only child, and they’re very, very concerned for him.”
“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,” Lombard said.
The FBI said investigators chose not to release details of Liao’s case earlier over fears media attention could jeopardize certain leads they were following.
Valladares has been in federal custody since July 14, when he was arrested for his role in the case.