Two men from the San Gabriel Valley were charged Wednesday in federal court for allegedly participating in the kidnapping of Ruochen “Tony” Liao, a Chinese national who was violently abducted from a mall parking lot in San Gabriel two years ago, and whose parents were extorted for $2 million in ransom before Liao died from his injuries.
Anthony Valladares, 28, of Pasadena, and Alexis Ivan Romero Velez, 24, most recently a resident of Azusa, were taken into custody Tuesday during the execution of search warrants by FBI agents and members of the San Gabriel Valley Safe Street Task Force. Federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint Wednesday morning in United States District Court that charges both Valladares and Romero with one count of kidnapping.
Previously in this investigation, two Chinese nationals were charged in a four-count indictment alleging they kidnapped Liao and attempted to collect $2 million in ransom from Liao’s family in exchange for the victim’s life. Guangyao Yang, 26, and Peicheng Shen, 34, whose last known U.S. residences were in West Covina, were charged with conspiracy to kidnap, kidnapping, attempted extortion in violation of the Hobbs Act, and threat by foreign communication. Yang and Shen are currently in custody in China on charges filed there related to the kidnapping.
During the investigation, the FBI learned that Valladares and Romero worked with Yang and Shen to conduct the kidnapping, during which Liao was repeatedly beaten and tased into submission, according to the affidavit in support of the complaint. Valladares was the “muscle” hired to intimidate, beat, and subdue Liao during the kidnapping, and Romero was the driver of the vehicle used in the kidnapping, according to the affidavit.
Valladares and Romero were arrested Tuesday after making statements about their roles in the kidnapping to investigators. According to the affidavit, Valladares admitted that he was hired to assist in the kidnapping, agreed to accept $1,000 for the job, and restrained Liao during the kidnapping. Romero admitted, according to the affidavit, that he was recruited by Valladares and was the driver during the kidnapping.
After Liao was kidnapped on July 16, 2018, his parents in China received ransom demands and “proof-of-life” photos suggesting that Liao had been badly beaten, blindfolded, and tied up with duct tape. Liao’s parents were told to deposit the ransom payment into Chinese bank accounts within three hours, according to court documents.
Investigators believe Liao was held captive in a closet at a residence in Corona. During his captivity, investigators believe Liao was frequently beaten and ultimately died the night of July 17. During the early morning of July 18, investigators believe Yang and Shen drove to the desert near the town of Mojave to bury Liao’s body.
On July 26, 2019, the FBI laboratory used DNA testing to identify Liao’s remains, which were recovered following a search by the FBI’s Evidence Response Team.
Valladares and Romero are expected to make an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles this afternoon.
A criminal complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The kidnapping charge carries a statutory maximum penalty of life in federal prison.
The investigation into the kidnapping is being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with significant assistance by members of the FBI’s Safe Street Task Force, which includes the Pasadena Police Department.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Julia Choe of the Cyber and Intellectual Property Crimes Section and Frances Lewis of the Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section.