Two men charged in $2-million kidnapping of luxury car dealer whose body was found in the Mojave desert
Federal authorities Wednesday charged two men with helping to abduct a Southern California car dealer who was held for $2-million ransom, beaten, killed and buried in the Mojave desert.
Anthony Valladares, 28, and Alexis Ivan Romero Velez, 24, were arrested Tuesday and charged in federal court with kidnapping. An attorney for Valladares declined to comment, and an attorney representing Velez didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The evening of July 16, 2018, a friend dropped off Ruochen “Tony” Liao, a Chinese national who sold high-end cars in Southern California, at the San Gabriel Square shopping plaza on Valley Boulevard to meet a man he believed would help him collect a debt, an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit. The friend watched Liao, 28, climb into a dark-colored minivan and drive off. It was the last he — or anyone else — would see of Liao.
In court documents, prosecutors and agents have alleged that two Chinese nationals, Guangyao Yang and Peicheng Shen, orchestrated Liao’s abduction, using Valladares as “muscle” and Romero as a driver.
Yang, 26, and Shen, 34, have been charged in Los Angeles with kidnapping and extortion. Both men are currently in Chinese custody. Shen was arrested in January 2019 and began talking to Chinese authorities. FBI Special Agent Alejandra Sanchez described his account in an affidavit filed in federal court.
Shen told the authorities that he and Yang had recruited Valladares, who worked at a UFC gym in Rosemead that the two frequented, by promising him cash and marijuana for his help in abducting Liao.
Valladares had asked if anyone was going to get hurt, Shen said. He told Valladares no. The two bought a Taser at a gun shop, and Valladares purchased an old revolver and six bullets, Shen told Chinese authorities.
“If there were problems with the kidnapping attempt, they would blame everything on Valladares,” Shen said, according to the affidavit.
The day of the abduction, Shen, Valladares and Romero drove to the San Gabriel Square shopping plaza and parked outside a 99 Ranch Market, Shen told Chinese authorities. Yang was sitting in his Range Rover nearby, he said.
Liao got into the minivan and Valladares grabbed him by the neck, shocked him with the Taser and wrapped black packaging tape around his eyes and mouth, Shen told Chinese authorities.
Shen and Yang drove Liao to a house in Corona, where they stashed him in a closet and shocked him with the Taser until the battery died, Shen said, according to the affidavit.
The next day, Liao’s father received two photographs on his WeChat messaging application. They were of his son — legs bound, hands tied behind his back, eyes covered with tape, Sanchez’s affidavit said. He fielded a call five minutes later.
“Father save me, help me, I have been kidnapped,” Liao said, according to the affidavit. An unfamiliar voice then came on the line, saying, “Your son has made me very poor. I have lost everything and suffered a divorce because of him. I have been looking for Tony for a long time.”
The man demanded he pay $2 million to save his son’s life. Liao’s father was sent wiring instructions for several bank accounts in China and the words, “Three hours.”
For reasons left unexplained in the affidavit, Liao’s family did not pay the ransom.
Shen has admitted kicking Liao and sealing his mouth with tape after the ransom call, the affidavit said. He and Yang realized, at some point, that Liao had stopped breathing.
Shen and Yang drove the body to the desert, he told the authorities. After taking $500 from the dead man’s wallet, they buried him there, he said.
Shen asked a contractor to “do a rush job” and replace the carpet in a closet of a house in Corona, the contractor has told the FBI.
Yang left the United States for China and was arrested by the Chengdu Public Security Bureau, FBI Special Agent Cara Sammartino wrote in an affidavit. Chinese investigators searched his phone and found WeChat messages sent to Shen that, among others, read, “Tape up the eyes and mouth,” “Has he been screaming nonstop?” and “I have been kicking him.”
On July 18, the affidavit said, Yang searched on the internet: “Time frame for a corpse to decompose in soil.”
FBI agents found remains in the Mojave Desert and identified them as Liao’s in July 2019, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles.
On Tuesday, after agents served search warrants at his Pasadena home, Valladares acknowledged taking part in Liao’s abduction, Sanchez’s affidavit said. He thought he would be helping collect a debt from Liao, he told the agents, but he didn’t intend for Liao to be killed and he didn’t help bury the body.
Romero also spoke with agents voluntarily Tuesday, the affidavit said. Romero told them Valladares had offered him $600 to do “an undisclosed job.” He needed the cash and he didn’t ask specific questions, Romero said.
The day of the abduction, they met a Chinese person Romero didn’t know at the UFC gym, Romero said. He drove the two men in a Toyota minivan to the shopping center in San Gabriel. A man got into the minivan, speaking Chinese. It was then, Romero said, that Valladares and Shen started beating and shocking the man with a Taser.
Romero drove to the UFC gym with Liao facedown on the floor of the van, his hands tied and a hood over his head, he told the agents. When they got to the gym, Romero said, he left in his own car.
It wasn’t until the agents informed him Tuesday, Romero said, that he knew Liao had died. Although he realized he was taking part in a kidnapping once Liao was assaulted in the van, he never intended for anyone to get killed, he said, according to the affidavit.
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