To Irvine detectives, Cheng Zhang’s story initially strained perception. His spouse and 12-year-old stepdaughter had been lacking — kidnapped from their condo, he claimed — and he had waited greater than per week to report it.

Zhang, a 42-year-old Uber driver, stated he had been knocked out by a stranger at his door with an unidentifiable mist. He cleaned blood from the carpet. He adopted kidnappers’ directions to behave as common, posing as his lacking spouse on WeChat. He advised his stepdaughter’s faculty that the lacking seventh-grader was sick at dwelling.

All of this helped to determine Zhang as Suspect No. 1 when he approached police on Dec. 2, 2019. Interrogating him for hours, police advised him his story was unimaginable. Expertise advised detectives {that a} husband who killed his spouse and stepdaughter was a far less complicated and extra plausible situation.

Irvine advertises itself as America’s most secure midsize metropolis, and for a yr and a half its Police Division stated little in regards to the unsolved disappearances of 34-year-old Amber Aiaz and her daughter, Melissa Fu, a pupil at Rancho San Joaquin Center Faculty. A pair of bare-bones information releases generated few leads.

Amber Aiaz and daughter Melissa Fu disappeared from an Irvine condo complicated in late 2019. Aiaz’s husband stated he was drugged by their assailants.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Occasions)

However now, after what they name an exhaustive investigation, together with greater than 40 hours of interviews with Zhang and a parallel investigation by the FBI, detectives say they haven’t been capable of disprove Zhang’s weird account. As an alternative, police say, it has proved constant on level after level.

“We have now exhausted each lead that we’ve got to attempt to tie him to this disappearance,” Irvine Police Det. Haldor Larum stated Friday. “We have now to be open to alternate potentialities.”

One principle: a “gone lady” situation wherein Aiaz fled along with her daughter, for causes unknown, to a different metropolis or nation. However there are arguments towards it.

The seventh-grader, who used to speak to her grandmother each day, has not contacted her since. Aiaz has not touched her financial institution accounts in America. Their passports had been nonetheless on the condo. The Chinese language authorities says she hasn’t touched accounts in her native China, both, nor has she or her daughter entered the nation since they vanished.

“At no level since their disappearance have they surfaced on any database,” stated Irvine Police Detective Supervisor Mark Andreozzi. “It’s actually onerous to remain off the grid with a group of detectives and the FBI searching for you for this lengthy.”

That makes one other principle appear likelier by the day — that Aiaz and her stepdaughter are lifeless, the victims of an uncommonly environment friendly and complex broad-daylight kidnapping that turned a double murder.

Story of a stunning kidnapping

Zhang, who was by no means charged within the case, couldn’t be reached for remark. Police say he now lives in Los Angeles and fears organized crime, which he blames for the kidnappings.

In line with police stories and interviews with Irvine detectives, Zhang stated it started with a knock on the door of his small condo on Michelson Drive about 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, 2019.

Zhang was at dwelling along with his stepdaughter, he stated. His spouse was driving dwelling from Las Vegas with a carload of fruit and fish they deliberate to promote at an area market.

By Zhang’s account, he answered the door to discover a man and a lady he didn’t acknowledge. The lady held one thing in her proper hand. He felt one thing moist and misty on his face and collapsed. He awoke on the eating room flooring hours later and located blood stains on the carpet and a bloody handprint on the kitchen wall. His stepdaughter was gone. His spouse, who ought to have been dwelling by then, was gone too.

In a carpeted room, numbered tags on the floor mark pieces of evidence.

A police crime scene picture reveals the condo from which Amber Aiaz and her daughter, Melissa Fu, vanished.

(Irvine Police Division)

Zhang, a Chinese language immigrant who speaks little English, stated he discovered a handwritten be aware on white-lined paper in Chinese language. It advised him his spouse and stepdaughter had been OK, that they might be dwelling in just a few days. When you contact police, you received’t see them once more, the be aware stated. Clear the condo. Act regular. We’re watching you.

He discovered his spouse’s Ford Explorer exterior in its common spot, with its anticipated freight of fruit and fish. He contacted consumers on WeChat and offered the meals.

Within the days that adopted, he would wake to search out somebody had slipped notes below his door. They repeated key themes: They’re fantastic. You will note them quickly. Clear the carpet. Tidy the home. Do as we are saying.

Zhang had the bloody patches of carpet lower out and changed. He tried to take away the bloody handprint on the wall with bleach, then painted over it. He went to his stepdaughter’s faculty and lied that she was unwell.

On Wednesday — 5 days after the disappearances — he obtained a fifth be aware. It reassured him that his spouse and stepdaughter had been OK however instructed him to depart city for 2 days. He drove to Las Vegas and stayed with a relative and returned two days later to discover a sixth and remaining be aware. They’re fantastic. Clear the carpet once more. Clear the home once more. You will note them Monday.

When they didn’t seem, Zhang stated, he determined to name police, who seen that he was conspicuously nervous that he may be seen speaking to them. He insisted on spending the night time on a sofa on the police station, relatively than return dwelling.

Zhang stated he didn’t know who had kidnapped his spouse and stepdaughter or why — there had been no demand for ransom cash — however he was afraid the abductors had been watching him.

‘The story appeared very unimaginable’

“I knowledgeable Zhang that the story appeared very unimaginable,” a detective wrote in a report. “He stated he understood and stated sure that it appears unimaginable however denied being concerned of their disappearance or hurting them.”

Beginning the day Zhang reported his spouse and stepdaughter lacking in December 2019, till mid-January 2020 — 44 days in all — dozens of detectives labored in shifts to surveil him across the clock.

Possibly he would meet with a co-conspirator or a paramour; perhaps he would lead cops to the our bodies. However his predictable routines prompt an existence of small compass.

He woke at 7 a.m. however hardly ever left his condo, apart from cigarette breaks on the patio. Investigators adopted him by foot into the Zion Mart throughout the road, the place he shopped. They adopted him in an unmarked automobile when he jogged. Throughout that point, Andreozzi stated, “we by no means noticed him do something suspicious.”

Individuals who knew Zhang described him to police as a nonassertive man who averted battle and usually acquiesced to his spouse. Zhang stated they married in 2017, broke up after he found she had an affair in China, then acquired collectively once more.

Three men in suits and ties, with badges on their belts, pose for a photo in front of a building.

Irvine police Dets. Victor Chang, from left, Haldor Larum and Gavin Hudson are investigating the disappearance of Amber Aiaz and her daughter, Melissa Fu.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Occasions)

It bolstered his credibility that he was “100% cooperative” with the investigation, Andreozzi stated. “He would say, ‘What do you guys want?’ He has helped us discover proof that he destroyed.”

As an illustration, he let police search his condo, directing them to the bloody handprint below the paint on the kitchen wall. Forensic techs discovered the changed patches of carpet, peeled them up and located blood on the padding beneath. Assessments led them to consider it was his spouse’s blood.

Detectives interviewed Zhang’s neighbors on the sprawling Michelson Drive condo complicated. One had seen him finishing up a big cooler, one other a big storage container. Had these contained the our bodies, detectives puzzled?

No, Zhang stated — he was cleansing out his condo.

What in regards to the jagged lower close to his left thumb, which had been conspicuous when police met him? He stated his cleaver had slipped as he lower meat. He demonstrated with the knife, indicating the uninteresting edge that caught him.

‘We can’t tie him to this’

One aspect of his story appeared, at first, straightforward to debunk — the “thriller spray” that he stated had rendered him immediately unconscious.

“I’d by no means heard of a sprig knocking somebody out,” stated Irvine police Det. Gavin Hudson. However the FBI stated such substances did exist. One was an anesthetic known as Fluothane, and its use prompt a kidnapping of surprising sophistication.

Hudson interrogated Zhang within the firm of Det. Victor Chang, who translated the Mandarin. Hudson stated the turning level for him — the second he started to noticeably think about that Zhang won’t be the offender — was on Jan. 15, 2020.

He stated Zhang got here to the station and voluntarily answered questions from morning to midnight, whereas an FBI behaviorist studied him. Investigators shocked him with a request for a polygraph — he agreed instantly to take it, and confirmed no deception.

By way of all of it, Zhang’s account remained the identical one he’d advised for the final six weeks of interrogations. If it was all an elaborate lie, police stated, it had been so flawlessly memorized that it could have challenged the reminiscence of knowledgeable actor, a lot much less a seemingly easy man.

“He didn’t waver,” Hudson stated. “All of us got here again and stated, ‘We are able to’t tie him to this.’”

‘I can disappear’

Detectives suppose the answer might lie in Amber Aiaz’s previous, in her historical past with males in Las Vegas or in China, or in what they consider had been her ordinary exaggerations about cash.

In line with police stories, she had satisfied Zhang that she had tens of millions of {dollars} in investments and a whole lot of hundreds in money. Zhang reacted with disbelief when police confirmed him proof that his spouse had been nearly broke.

“Amber advised everyone in her life she had cash,” Det. Larum stated. And interviews prompt that she had angered individuals who felt she had swindled them. Some had even made threats. One principle is that kidnappers took her within the expectation that she would make them cash she didn’t, in reality, possess.

Among the many many puzzles is the dearth of ideas the case has generated, even though the FBI put Aiaz and Fu on its “Most Wished Kidnappings/Lacking Individuals” listing. “In a yr and a half, we’ve gotten simply 4 ideas,” Larum stated.

Insisting on his innocence, Zhang made the purpose that if he had been concerned within the kidnappings, there was no motive for him to report the crime in any respect. Police won’t have realized about it with out him.

“He stated, ‘I’m a no one on this nation. I can disappear,’” Det. Chang stated.

The FBI is providing a $10,000 reward for data that helps clear up the crime. The tip line is (310) 477-6565.





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