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Mysterious ‘kidnapping’ in Irvine intrigues police, FBI

For Irvine’s detectives, Cheng Zhang’s story initially strained belief. His wife and 12-year-old daughter-in-law were missing – kidnapped from their apartment, he claimed – and he had waited more than a week to report it.

Zhang, a 42-year-old Uber driver, said he was knocked out by a stranger at his door with an unidentifiable haze. He cleaned the blood from the carpet. He followed the kidnappers’ instructions to behave as usual, posing as his missing wife on WeChat. He told his daughter-in-law’s school that the missing seventh grade student was home sick.

All of this helped make Zhang the No. 1 suspect when he approached the police on December 2, 2019. Interrogating him for hours, the police told him his story was impossible. Experience has shown detectives that a husband who killed his wife and daughter-in-law was a much simpler and more believable scenario.

Irvine bills itself as America’s safest midsize city, and for a year and a half its police department has said little about the unresolved disappearances of Amber Aiaz, 34, and her daughter, Melissa Fu, student at Rancho San Joaquin Middle School. A pair of rudimentary press releases generated few leads.

Amber Aiaz and her daughter Melissa Fu went missing from an apartment complex in Irvine in late 2019. Aiaz’s husband said he was drugged by their attackers.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

But now, after what they call a full investigation, including more than 40 hours of interviews with Zhang and a parallel FBI investigation, detectives say they haven’t been able to refute Zhang’s bizarre account. . Instead, according to police, it turned out to be point-to-point consistent.

“We have exhausted all leads we have to try to link it to this disappearance,” said police detective Irvine. Haldor Larum said Friday. “We have to be open to other possibilities. “

One theory: a “missing girl” scenario in which Aiaz fled with her daughter, for unknown reasons, to another city or country. But there are arguments against it.

The seventh grader, who spoke to his grandmother daily, has not contacted her since. Aiaz did not touch his bank accounts in America. Their passports were still in the apartment. The Chinese government says she has not touched any accounts in her native China either, nor that she or her daughter has entered the country since they disappeared.

“At no time since their disappearance have they surfaced in a database,” said Irvine Police Detective Supervisor Mark Andreozzi. “It’s really hard to stay off the grid with a team of detectives and the FBI looking for you that long.”

This makes another theory more likely by the day – that Aiaz and her stepdaughter died, victims of an exceptionally efficient and sophisticated daylight kidnapping that turned into a double homicide.

Tale of a shocking kidnapping

Zhang, who has never been charged in the case, could not be reached for comment. Police say he now lives in Los Angeles and fear organized crime, which he blames for the kidnappings.

According to police reports and interviews with Irvine detectives, Zhang said it started with knocking on the door of her tiny apartment on Michelson Drive around 4:30 p.m. on November 22, 2019.

Zhang was at home with his daughter-in-law, he said. His wife was driving home from Las Vegas with a car full of fruit and fish they planned to sell at a local market.

According to Zhang’s account, he opened the door to find a man and a woman he did not recognize. The woman was holding something in her right hand. He felt something wet and hazy on his face and collapsed. He woke up on the dining room floor hours later and found blood stains on the carpet and a bloody handprint on the kitchen wall. Her daughter-in-law was gone. His wife, who should have been home by then, was also gone.

Mysterious ‘kidnapping’ in Irvine intrigues police, FBI

A photo from the police crime scene shows the apartment from which Amber Aiaz and her daughter, Melissa Fu, disappeared.

(Irvine Police Department)

Zhang, a Chinese immigrant who speaks little English, said he found a note handwritten on white paper in Chinese. This told him that his wife and daughter-in-law were fine, that they would be home in a few days. If you contact the police, you won’t see them again, the note says. Clean the apartment. Act normal. We are watching you.

He found his wife’s Ford Explorer outside in its usual place, with its expected cargo of fruit and fish. He reached out to buyers on WeChat and sold the food.

In the days that followed, he would wake up to find that someone had slipped notes under his door. They repeated the key themes: They are fine. You will see them soon. Clean the carpet. Clean the house. Do as they say.

Zhang had the bloody patches on the carpet cut out and replaced. He tried to remove the bloody handprint from the wall with bleach, then painted over it. He went to his daughter-in-law’s school and lied that she was sick.

Wednesday – five days after the disappearances – he received a fifth note. This reassured him that his wife and daughter-in-law were okay, but asked 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 on Monday.

When they didn’t show up, Zhang said, he decided to call the police, who noticed he was visibly nervous that he could be seen talking to them. He insisted on spending the night on a sofa at the police station, rather than going home.

Zhang said he didn’t know who kidnapped his wife and daughter-in-law or why – there had been no ransom demands – but he was afraid the kidnappers would be watching him.

“The story seemed very impossible”

“I informed Zhang that the story seemed very impossible,” wrote a detective in a report. “He said he understood and said yes it seemed impossible but denied being involved in their disappearance or harming them.”

From the day Zhang reported his wife and daughter-in-law missing in December 2019, until mid-January 2020 – 44 days in total – dozens of detectives worked in shifts to monitor him for 24 hours. on 24.

Maybe he would meet a co-conspirator or a lover; maybe he would lead the cops to the bodies. But his predictable routines suggested the existence of a little compass.

He wakes up at 7 a.m. but rarely leaves his apartment, except for cigarette breaks on the patio. Investigators followed him on foot to the Zion Mart across the street, where he did his shopping. They followed him in an unmarked car when he was jogging. Meanwhile, Andreozzi said: “We never saw him do anything suspicious.”

People who knew Zhang described him to the police as an unassuming man who avoided conflict and generally nodded to his wife. Zhang said they got married in 2017, broke up after finding out she was having an affair in China, and then reunited again.

Mysterious ‘kidnapping’ in Irvine intrigues police, FBI

Retail Irvine Police Station. Victor Chang, left to right, Haldor Larum and Gavin Hudson investigate the disappearance of Amber Aiaz and her daughter, Melissa Fu.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

This bolstered his credibility that he was “100% cooperative” with the investigation, Andreozzi said. “He was like, ‘What do you need?’ He helped us find evidence that he destroyed.

For example, he let the police search his apartment, directing them to the bloody handprint under the paint on the kitchen wall. Forensic technicians found the replaced carpet pieces, peeled them, and found blood on the padding underneath. The tests led them to believe it was his wife’s blood.

Detectives interviewed Zhang’s neighbors in the sprawling Michelson Drive apartment complex. One had seen him make a large cooler, another a large storage container. Did these contain the bodies, the detectives wondered?

No, said Zhang, he was cleaning his apartment.

What about the jagged cut near his left thumb, which was evident when the police encountered him? He said his cleaver slipped while he was cutting meat. He demonstrated with the knife, indicating the blunt edge that caught him.

“We can’t link it to that”

One piece of his story seemed, at first, easy to debunk – the “mystery spray” that he claimed had made him instantly unconscious.

“I had never heard of a spray knocking out anyone,” said Police Detective Irvine. Gavin Hudson. But the FBI said such substances exist. One was an anesthetic called Fluothane, and its use suggested an unusually sophisticated removal.

Hudson interrogated Zhang along with Det. Victor Chang, who translated Mandarin. Hudson said the turning point for him – the moment he began to seriously consider Zhang might not be the culprit – was January 15, 2020.

He said that Zhang came to the station and voluntarily answered questions from morning to midnight, while an FBI behaviorist studied him. Investigators surprised him with a request for a polygraph – he immediately agreed to take it and showed no deception.

During this time, Zhang’s account has remained the same as the one he had told during the past six weeks of interrogation. If it was all just an elaborate lie, police said, it had been memorized so perfectly it would have defied the memory of a professional actor, let alone a seemingly simple man.

“He didn’t hesitate,” Hudson said. “We all came back and said, ‘We can’t tie it to that. “”

“I can disappear”

Detectives believe the solution may lie in Amber Aiaz’s past, her affair with men in Las Vegas or China, or what they think are her usual exaggerations about money.

According to police reports, she convinced Zhang that she had millions of dollars in investments and hundreds of thousands in cash. Zhang reacted in disbelief when the police showed him proof that his wife was practically broke.

“Amber has told everyone in her life that she has money,” the detective said. Larum said. And interviews suggested that she angered people who thought she had cheated them. Some had even uttered threats. One theory is that the kidnappers took her away in the hopes that she would lead them to money that she did not in fact have.

Among the many puzzles is the dearth of advice the case has generated, despite the FBI placing Aiaz and Fu on their “Most Wanted Abductions / Missing” list. “In a year and a half, we’ve only gotten four tips,” Larum said.

Insisting on his innocence, Zhang stressed that if he had been involved in the kidnappings, there was no reason for him to report the crime. The police might not have found out without him.

“He said, ‘I’m no one in this country. I can disappear ”,” Det. Chang said.

FBI offers $ 10,000 reward for information that helps solve crime. The tip line is (310) 477-6565.

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