Court details Shao murder


The Johnson County courthouse has scheduled a construction for a new entrance to the building. The Johnson courthouse has been a part of Iowa City since 1901. (The Daily Iowan/Glenn Sonnie Wooden)

New details from the investigation of Tong Shao’s murder case revealed that Xiangnan Li’s motive for murder was Shao’s wish to date another individual, which Li overheard during a phone call, Iowa authorities said Monday.

Tong Shao (File)
Tong Shao (File)

The court in China debated whether the murder was premeditated and it was concluded it was.

An assistant Johnson County county attorney and two investigators traveled to China on March 23, where they observed the trial. The trip marks one of the first cases in which U.S. prosecutors and law enforcement were invited to collaborate with the Chinese government.

Officials said Shao, 20, was last seen alive on Sept. 6, 2014, and was reported missing after she had said she was visiting friends in a Sept. 8 text early in the morning, but did not return home.

The Iowa City police said Li’s motive for murder was Shao’s wish to date another individual, which Li overheard during a phone call that Shao had on Sept. 3. On Sept. 5, Li and Shao checked into a hotel called the Budget Inn. That same day, Li purchased a one-way ticket to China.

Li took a yellow cab from Iowa City to the Eastern Iowa Airport after the slaying at 2:52 a.m. Officials said his Sept. 8 flight to Beijing was delayed, causing Li to leave on a flight to Los Angeles. He left for Beijing from LA and arrived in China on Sept. 9.

Li had also purchased hand weights, officials said, which they believe he planned to sink the suitcase into the Skunk River, but water had receded at the time. Police followed Li’s route from Ames to Iowa City via cell-phone technology.

Shao was likely killed by suffocation on Sept. 7, authorities said.

“My only concern is to hold Mr. Li responsible,” said David Gonzalez, an investigator who attended the trip. “Whether that happened in a U.S. court or in a China court at this point doesn’t make a difference to me. We believe that Ms. Shao and her family deserve that justice.”

Shao was found in a suitcase in the trunk of her 1997 Toyota Camry, which Li often drove, officials said. Her body was found outside the Dolphin Lake Point Enclave apartments, 2401 Highway 6 E., on Sept. 26, 2014.

The trial took place in Wenzhou, China. The U.S. Embassy had provided an interpreter and guide for the trip, who helped explain the context of the trial after it occurred for the officials.

Elizabeth Dupuich, an assistant county attorney, said Li and his prosecutor attempted to contest documents and evidence provided by the Iowa City police and other U.S. groups, but the judge decided to hear arguments on the murder itself.

RELATED: Xiangnan Li pleads guilty to Tong Shao murder

“Our interpretation of that ruling was the judge was saying, ‘Look, we’re going to accept these documents; you need to move on,’ ” Dupuich said.

She said a death sentence is unlikely, but Li may face 20 years up to life for the crime, which will be determined within six months.

“Unlike in the United States, where it doesn’t matter whether you turn yourself in, over there, that’s a big consideration in the court,” Dupuich said. “The fact that he was willing to offer a confession, cooperate, and ultimately turn himself in those are facts that might be considered by the judge.”

Officials said the criminal-justice process in China was strikingly different from the ways in which the U.S. handles such crimes. Officials said the judge reviewed the evidence and documents prior to the trial, which is not something done in the U.S.

Among those involved in the investigation were the Iowa City police, Ames police, the Story County Sheriff’s Office, the Division of Criminal Investigations, and the FBI.

County Attorney Janet Lyness said she felt relieved to see the case being pursued by the Chinese government. She said an extradition treaty does not exist between the U.S. and China, and the Chinese government did not have to cooperate with the U.S. or its laws.

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