Kidnap-murder or a ‘gone girl’ case? Chinese pair’s disappearance in California remains unsolved after 20 months
- When Cheng Zhang, an Uber driver in California, waited a week before reporting his wife and stepdaughter missing from the familly home, suspicion fell on him
- But police can’t disprove his story about being knocked out by a spray and waking up to a kidnapper’s note and, 20 months on, are seeking new leads
Cheng Zhang’s story initially strained the belief of detectives in Irvine in the US state of California. His wife and 12-year-old stepdaughter were missing – kidnapped from their flat, he claimed – and he had waited more than a week to report it.
Zhang, a 42-year-old Uber driver, said he had been knocked out by a stranger at his door who used an unidentifiable spray. He then followed kidnappers’ instructions to behave as usual, cleaning the blood from the house and posing as his missing wife on WeChat. He told his stepdaughter’s school that the missing seventh grader was sick at home.
All of this helped to establish Zhang as the top suspect when he finally approached police on December 2, 2019. Experience told detectives that a husband who killed his wife and stepdaughter was a far simpler and more believable scenario than a mystery kidnapping.
Irvine advertises itself as America’s safest midsize city, and for a year-and-a-half, its police department said little about the unsolved disappearance of 34-year-old Amber Aiaz (also known as Mei Yi Wu) and her daughter, Melissa Fu.
But now, after what they call an exhaustive investigation, including more than 40 hours of interviews with Zhang and a parallel investigation by the FBI, detectives say they have not been able to disprove Zhang’s bizarre account. Instead, police say, it has proved consistent on point after point.
“We have exhausted every lead that we have to try to tie him to this disappearance,” Irvine Police Detective Haldor Larum says. “We have to be open to alternate possibilities.”
One theory: a “gone girl” scenario in which Aiaz fled with her daughter, for reasons unknown, to another city or country. But the seventh grader, who used to talk to her grandmother daily, has not contacted her since her disappearance. Aiaz has not touched her bank accounts in America. Their passports were still at the flat. The Chinese government says she hasn’t touched accounts in her native China, either, nor has she or her daughter been to China since they vanished.
Another theory is that Aiaz and her stepdaughter are dead, the victims of an uncommonly efficient and sophisticated broad-daylight kidnapping that became a double murder.
Zhang, who was never charged in the case, could not be reached for comment. Police say he now lives in Los Angeles and blames organised crime for the kidnappings.
According to police reports and interviews with Irvine detectives, Zhang said the saga began with a knock on the door of his small flat about 4.30pm on November 22, 2019.
Zhang was at home with his stepdaughter, he said. His wife was driving home from Las Vegas with a carload of fruit and fish they planned to sell at a local market.
He says he answered the door to find a man and a woman he did not recognise. The woman held something in her right hand. He felt something wet and misty on his face and collapsed. He woke up on the dining room floor hours later and found bloodstains on the carpet and a bloody handprint on the kitchen wall.
His stepdaughter was gone. His wife, who should have been home by then, was gone too.
Zhang, a Chinese immigrant who speaks little English, said he found a note written in Chinese on white-lined paper. It told him his wife and stepdaughter were OK, that they would be home in a few days. “If you contact police, you won’t see them again, the note said. Clean the flat. Act normal. We are watching you.”
He found his wife’s Ford Explorer outside in its usual spot, with its expected freight of fruit and fish. He contacted buyers on WeChat and sold the food. In the days that followed, he would wake to find someone had slipped notes under his door. They repeated key themes: “They are fine. You will see them soon. Clean the carpet. Tidy the house. Do as we say.”
Zhang had the bloody patches of carpet cut out and replaced. He tried to remove the bloody handprint on the wall with bleach, then painted over it. He went to his stepdaughter’s school and lied that she was ill.
On the Wednesday – five days after the disappearances – he received a fifth note. It reassured him that his wife and stepdaughter were OK but instructed him to leave town for two days. He drove to Las Vegas and stayed with a relative and returned two days later to find a sixth and final note. “They are fine. Clean the carpet again. Clean the house again. You will see them Monday.”
When they did not appear, Zhang said, he decided to call police, who say he was conspicuously nervous that he might be seen talking to them. He insisted on spending the night on a couch at the police station.
Zhang said there had been no demand for ransom money but he was afraid the kidnappers were watching him.
From the day Zhang reported his wife and stepdaughter missing in December 2019 until mid-January 2020 – 44 days in all – dozens of detectives worked in shifts to surveil him around the clock. Zhang did very little.
He woke at 7am but rarely left his flat, except for cigarette breaks on the patio. Investigators followed him by foot into the Zion Mart across the street, where he shopped. They followed him in an unmarked car when he jogged. During that time, Andreozzi says, “we never saw him do anything suspicious”.
People who knew Zhang described him as a man who avoided conflict and typically acquiesced to his wife. Zhang said they married in 2017, broke up after he discovered she had an affair in China, then got together again.
It bolstered his credibility that he was “100 per cent cooperative” with the investigation, Andreozzi says. He let police search his flat, directing them to the bloody handprint under the paint on the kitchen wall. Forensic techs found the replaced patches of carpet, peeled them up and found blood on the padding underneath. Tests led them to believe it was Zhang’s wife’s blood.
Detectives interviewed Zhang’s neighbours at the sprawling flat complex. One had seen him carrying out a large cooler, another a large storage container. Had these contained the bodies, detectives wondered? No, Zhang said – he was cleaning out his flat.
What about the jagged cut near his left thumb, which had been conspicuous when police met him? He said his cleaver had slipped as he cut meat.
One element of his story seemed, at first, easy to debunk: the “mystery spray” Zhang said had rendered him instantly unconscious.
But the FBI said such substances did exist. One is an anaesthetic called Fluothane, and its use suggested a kidnapping of unusual sophistication.
Hudson said Zhang came to the station and voluntarily answered questions from morning to midnight on January 15, 2020, while an FBI behaviourist studied him. Investigators surprised him with a request for a polygraph – he agreed immediately, and showed no deception.
Through it all, Zhang’s account remained the same during six weeks of interrogations. If it was an elaborate lie, police said, it had been so flawlessly memorised that it would have challenged the memory of a professional actor, much less a seemingly simple man.
Detectives think the solution may lie in Amber Aiaz’s past, in her history with men in Las Vegas or in China, or in what they believe were her habitual exaggerations about money.
According to police reports, she had convinced Zhang that she had millions of dollars in investments and hundreds of thousands in cash. Zhang reacted with disbelief when police showed him proof that his wife had been virtually broke.
“Amber told everybody in her life she had money,” Detective Larum says. And interviews suggested that she had angered people who felt she had swindled them. Some had even made threats.
The FBI put Aiaz and Fu on its “Most Wanted Kidnappings/Missing Persons” list, but Larum says there have been just four tips.
Insisting on his innocence, Zhang made the point that if he had been involved in the kidnappings, there was no reason for him to report the crime at all. Police might not have learned about it without him.
“He said, ‘I’m a nobody in this country, I can disappear’,” Detective Chang says.