Kidnapping of Orange County car dealer in San Gabriel Valley still a mystery 5 weeks later
The nightmare began shortly after the couple awoke at their home in Sichuan, a China province better known for giant pandas than crime mysteries.
It was there, on July 17, that they received a shocking photo showing their only child, 28-year-old Rouchen “Tony” Liao of Santa Ana, tied up and in obvious distress. That was followed by a cryptic message from Liao’s kidnapper ordering them to pay a $2 million for his release.
And then, perhaps most frightening of all, there was nothing.
“They haven’t heard anything else from the kidnappers,” said Matthew Lombard, a Los Angeles attorney who represents Liao’s parents. “They are terrified.”
The kidnappers provided no instructions about how to deliver the ransom and leads are few in the puzzling abduction of Liao, president of Real Cars LLC, a fledgling luxury car dealership in Costa Mesa. FBI officials say he was snatched by three men from the San Gabriel Square shopping center at 140 W. Valley Blvd. on July 16 following a possible robbery or business deal gone bad.
Witnesses have reported that Liao got into a black minivan, likely a Toyota Sienna, with one of the men at about 7:30 that night. The two other men hopped into a black SUV believed to be a Range Rover.
Both vehicles then left the shopping center.
Was he acquainted with kidnapper?
One of the men suspected in the kidnapping, known only as “David,” is believed to be Chinese and speaks Mandarin, according to the FBI. Although a motive for the kidnapping has not been determined, authorities believe Liao and David are acquainted.
However, David is neither a friend nor business partner of Liao, Lombard said.
Lombard, who previously represented Marilou Danley — the girlfriend of Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 people and injured more than 500 others in the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas — added there are many reasons why Liao may have gone to the shopping center.
“Tony may have gone to work out an existing payment on a car or purchase a car,” he said. “It could have been a revenge kidnapping or to resolve a business dispute.”
Liao’s parents remain hopeful that he is still alive.
“The kidnappers wanted money and we don’t believe they intentionally meant they harmed him,” Lombard said. “What good would that do?”
FBI officials have not determined a motive for the kidnapping, but said Liao may have been involved with some disreputable people through his business.
However, a close friend who asked to be identified only as Chris said Liao didn’t seem to be involved in anything nefarious.
“Tony works hard for every dollar,” Chris said. “He is not the type of person to try to take advantage of others. I think the reason he got kidnapped is that someone tried to take advantage of him.”
Although statistics for adult kidnappings in the U.S. are not readily available, because they are handled by multiple law enforcement agencies, abductions involving ransoms are rare, FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said.
Came to U.S. in 2008
Liao, came to the U.S. in 2008 to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He graduated in 2014 with a degree in business management.
Soon after leaving school, he moved to Boston and established WeCar Auto Group, a high-end, boutique used-car business. However, the company experienced difficulties and closed in 2016.
Then, in July 2017, drawn to Southern California’s sunny climate and its car culture, Liao opened Car Rules, a company that specializes in the sale of Bentleys, Porsches and other high-end vehicles.
“California has the most cars in the world and he is a car, guy,” Chris said, adding Liao drives a 2014 Mercedes S-12.
Car dealership closed
Car Rules, situated in a nondescript office building in Costa Mesa, remained closed this week.The only high-end automobile visible at the business was a white Audi parked behind a chain-link fence.
Meanwhile Chris misses Liao’s easygoing personality and can’t help but worry about his friend’s safety. “One day my close friend was here and the next he was gone,” Chris said. “It’s very hard to accept.”
Liao’s parents, who asked not to be identified, are offering $150,000 for any information that could lead to his safe return, while the FBI is offering an additional $25,000 reward.
Anyone with information about the kidnapping or Liao’s location should contact FBI agents in Los Angeles at 310-477-6565 or call a phone line set up by his family at 626-371-4976.Tipsters may remain anonymous.