Three Chinese students studying in the San Gabriel Valley will serve prison time for the kidnapping and assault of a classmate under a plea deal reached this week, ending a case that drew international headlines.
The attack in March of last year turned the spotlight on the growing number of so-called parachute kids — mostly Chinese students who live and attend school in Southern California while their parents remain in China.
Authorities alleged that Yunyao “Helen” Zhai, Yuhan “Coco” Yang and Xinlei “John” Zhang were part of a group of teens who forced Yiran “Camellia” Liu to use her hands to wipe cigarette butts and ice cream from the floor of a Rowland Heights ice cream parlor.
The three defendants, who are all now 19 years old, were charged with torture, kidnapping and assault. Attorneys for Zhai and Yang previously acknowledged that their clients participated in the attack. A lawyer for Zhang argued in court that his client was only a bystander.
At the preliminary hearing for the teens, a judge said the case reminded him of “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding’s 1954 novel about boys stranded on a deserted island.
Under the agreement with prosecutors, the trio will plead no contest to charges of kidnapping and assault, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Casey Jarvis, who is prosecuting the case. Zhai will be sentenced to 13 years in prison, Yang to 10 and Zhang to six, he said.
Jarvis said his office agreed to drop the torture charge, which carries a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole, because the teens had no criminal history.
“We felt in the interest of justice it was the right thing to do,” Jarvis said.
Attorney Rayford Fountain, who represents Yang, said the agreement was the best outcome for his client.
It was too much of a risk to go to trial.
“It was too much of a risk to go to trial,” Fountain said.
The teens are among thousands of students from mainland China who attend high schools in California without much in the way of parental supervision. In recent years, the number of parachute kids settling in the San Gabriel Valley has surged, mostly in Arcadia, San Marino, Rowland Heights, Temple City and Walnut.
The students pay for room, board and transportation from their hosts, who act as substitute parents. For parachute kids, living in the U.S. is a chance to learn a new language and culture and to escape China’s ultra-competitive college entrance exams. Some thrive in their new environment and go on to colleges such as UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. For others, struggles with dating, friendships or school can spiral out of control without the steadying influence of parents and other family members.
A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Feb. 17. A 20-year-old man, Zheng Lu, was arrested on similar charges related to the attack and is awaiting a preliminary hearing, the prosecutor said.