An Azusa man pleaded not guilty Friday to a federal charge alleging he took part in the kidnapping of a Southern California luxury car dealer who was held for $2 million ransom, beaten, killed and buried in the Mojave desert.
Alexis Ivan Romero Velez, 24, allegedly drove a minivan used in the scheme to abduct 28-year-old Ruochen “Tony” Liao from the San Gabriel Square shopping plaza.
Federal prosecutors allege that two Chinese nationals, Guangyao Yang and Peicheng Shen, orchestrated the July 16, 2018, kidnapping, using Anthony Valladares as “muscle” and Romero as a driver.
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After Liao was abducted, his parents in China received ransom demands suggesting he had been badly beaten, blindfolded and tied up with duct tape.
The parents were told to deposit a $2 million ransom payment into Chinese bank accounts within three hours, according to documents filed in Los Angeles federal court.
Liao's family did not pay the ransom, court papers show.
Investigators believe Liao was stashed in a closet at a home in Corona and shocked with a Taser until the battery ran out. After the car dealer died from his injuries a day or so later, Yang and Shen drove to the desert near the town of Mojave to bury the body, prosecutors allege.
In July 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.
Romero and Valladares both face one federal count of kidnapping, which carries a penalty of up to life in prison. Valladares, 28, of Pasadena is expected to be arraigned in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 30.
Yang, 26, and 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. They are currently in custody in China on charges filed there related to the kidnapping, prosecutors said.