The 'Lord of the Flies' bullying case that's sending three Chinese parachute kids to California prison

Washington Post

They ganged up on a girl to brutally beat her, now they'll be spending years in prison

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Helen Zhai Yunyao

In the spring of 2015, 18-year-old Camellia Liu Yiran stood outside an ice cream parlor in Rowland Heights, California, and waited.

She was there to settle a minor argument with another teenage girl - about an unpaid dinner bill, of all things.

The girl arrived accompanied by a handful of others. Like Camellia, they were all "parachute kids," Chinese high schoolers who had come to the US to study - paying steep international tuition fees - while their parents remained overseas. They clung to one another out of a sense of shared isolation.

But on that day, as afternoon turned to night, this bond did little to protect Liu.

Coco Yang Yuhan
Photo: TNS

At the ice cream shop and later at a nearby park, she was brutalised for more than five hours. According to court testimony, the other teenagers forced her to kneel and wipe cigarette butts and ice cream smears off the floor with her bare hands. They also slapped and kicked her.

"Can you just get the hell out of Los Angeles?" one girl asked Camellia. "No, you know, you shouldn’t - you should not be leaving Los Angeles because if you do, then it will be no fun for us. We can’t hit you anymore."

After taking Camellia's cellphone and car keys, the group drove her to Rowland Heights Park in her own car and forced her to strip before continuing to beat her. While Camellia was naked, they burned her nipples, hip and chest with cigarettes. They cut her hair and made her eat it.

When it was all over, they asked Camellia to give three of the girls a ride back, and she did, because she was too scared to do anything else.

John Zhang Xinlei
Photo: TNS

Recently, three of the attackers - John Zhang Xinlei, Coco Yang Yuhan and Helen Zhai Yunyao, all 19 - were sentenced on counts of kidnapping and ashn was sentenced to six years in California state prison, Coco to 10 years and Helen to 13. Ts degree of involvement.

Two days before ambushing Camellia, Helen and John had also assaulted a 16-year-old girl in Rowland Heights. All three had previously pleaded no contest to the charges against them.

A 16-year-old girl and 17-year-old boy were sentenced to juvenile camp for the attacks on Camellia, while Zheng Lu, 20, is awaiting trial on the more severe charge of torture. Authorities believe that the other attackers have fled the country.During the initial hearings, California Superior Court Judge Thomas Falls likened the case to Lord of the Flies, a 1954 novel about British school boys stranded on an otherwise uninhabited island, isolated from civilisation and without adult supervision.

The result is utter anarchy, violence and destruction.

While extreme, Falls' comparison was an apt one: both Camellia and her attackers were living an ocean away from their immediate families, in an environment largely foreign to them. America was their island.At the sentencing this week, John, Helen and Coco shielded their faces from reporters. The case has attracted a lot of attention in China, where many applauded the punishment.


Helen Zhai Yunyao
Photo: TNS

"I've heard that I'm hated here and in China, and I probably deserve to be viewed that way," Helen said in a statement read by her attorney, according to reports from the Times and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. “I hope [the victims] do not carry the wounds from what I did for the rest of their lives."

She added that she "owes everything" to her parents: "They sent me to the US for a better life and a fuller education. Along with that came a lot of freedom, in fact too much freedom . . . Here, I became lonely and lost. I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t want them to worry about me."

John's father, who lives in Shenzhen, spoke to reporters in Putonghua before the sentencing. A labourer-turned-businessman, he expressed regret about sending his son abroad.

"If he'd never left my side," Zhang said, "that would have been better."