Killing in the heartland; heartbreak in China

On the nights the father can sleep, he awakes crying.

The grief becomes even more overbearing during the day, when his only daughter stares back from photographs in the family home. Her presence lingers in every room. Sometimes, the father must close his eyes.

His daughter was an extraordinary student. Loved the arts. Played piano. Dreamed of becoming a sculptor. She devoured her mother’s homemade dumplings and hot pots.

Mother and father scrimped and saved. Part of China’s burgeoning middle class, they tucked away their life savings, more than $100,000, for her education. They were thrilled to send her to the United States for college; she hoped to repay them one day.

Tong Shao majored in chemical engineering at Iowa State University in Ames, a field that made her father happy because not many women are brave enough to enter the male-dominated profession.

Like so many of today’s Chinese youth, Tong was the product of Beijing’s one-child policy. She had grown up the only child in a coastal city in northeastern China. Her mother and father were sold on the idea of sending their daughter to a bucolic setting in rural America. In central Iowa, they believed she would be safe.

But last September, the 20-year-old college junior was found stuffed in the trunk of her car. Killed more than 6,500 miles from her home. Her body rotted in the heat for three weeks before the gruesome discovery.

“We’ve given all our love to our daughter,” Chunsheng Shao says through an interpreter. “I feel my life is meaningless after losing her.”

It’s been more than six months since Tong’s mother and father were notified of her death. They remained quiet in their sorrow and figured U.S and Chinese authorities would find their daughter’s killer. They decided to speak up now, hoping it might force investigators to do more.

“We are miserable, as the killer is still at large,” the father says.

The last person to see Tong alive, police records show, was her 23-year-old boyfriend, Xiangnan Li, a Chinese student studying business at the University of Iowa. Iowa authorities say they want to talk with Li. He and Tong stayed in a hotel together in early September. The same weekend, police say, Li bought a one-way plane ticket to China and vanished.

Tong’s father weeps. “What has she done to deserve such a crime? Why?”

No extradition treaty complicates case

Iowa and China have an exceptionally strong relationship, one that dates back more than 30 years. Iowa and the province of Hebei formed a sister-state relationship to build trade relations, forge business ties and form global friendships.

A young Xi Jinping — now the president of China — traveled to Iowa in 1985 on an agricultural tour, getting a firsthand look at America’s farming technology. When Xi visited the United States in February 2012 before becoming the leader of the world’s most populous nation, he visited three places: Washington, California and Iowa.

At a private dinner in the town of Muscatine, Xi ate with friends he met on his trip decades before. “You were the first group of Americans I came into contact with,” Xi told his Iowa friends. “To me, you are America.”

Those strong ties can be seen on the campuses of Iowa’s two flagship universities, Iowa State University in Ames and the University of Iowa in Iowa City. At both, 1 in every 10 students is Chinese.

The killing of Tong Shao has shaken the more than 5,000 Chinese students across the state. Many wonder whether authorities have done enough to seek justice.

Some ponder: What would happen if I went missing? Would anyone be held accountable?

There is little precedent for a case like this — when a Chinese student is wanted for questioning in the killing of another Chinese student on U.S. soil.

There is no extradition treaty between the nations, and the likelihood of China handing Li over for questioning — if he can be found — is slim, according to legal scholars.

“China generally does not in any case extradite Chinese citizens, so the most likely outcome were this person to be found would be prosecution within China,” says Ben Liebman, director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies at Columbia Law School.

“China will prosecute people within China for crimes they commit against citizens overseas.”

A murder case in 2010 in which a Chinese citizen killed a taxi driver in New Zealand and fled to Shanghai was eventually tried in China, over the objections of Auckland officials who wanted the suspect tried in their country. The man was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Media reports at the time said it was the first time a killing in New Zealand was tried outside its borders.

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness is leading the prosecution in Iowa City. When quizzed about the case, she was guarded. She said Li is wanted for questioning and “certainly a person of interest” because he “would have information that would be helpful to the investigation.”

“When somebody who may be a witness is not in this country, obviously that adds to the complexity,” Lyness says.

The FBI would not comment on the case, saying only that agents are assisting in the investigation. China’s Ministry of Public Security has not responded to CNN’s questions about what it is doing in the hunt for Li.

Tong’s family is left to wonder whether justice will ever prevail.

Her father issued a plea in late January for U.S. officials to share everything they know with Chinese authorities. He puts the blame for the killing squarely on his daughter’s boyfriend.

“We now plead with you, the U.S. authorities, to issue an arrest warrant … and share the evidence you have gathered with the Chinese authorities,” he wrote. “This honorable act could very well save the life of other innocent and vulnerable victims, and will most assuredly allow the soul of our precious daughter to be comforted and rest in peace.”

Her father is aided by hundreds of Chinese who have taken to WeChat, an instant messaging tool and social media platform, and Weibo, Beijing’s version of Twitter. They post photographs of Xiangnan Li and ask for anyone who has seen him to turn him in. They use the hashtag #FindLi.

“Everybody please #FindLi,” one Chinese graduate student from Boston University wrote recently.

Roommate: Her boyfriend was a problem

About 10 inches of snow blanket the field at Innis Grove Park in Ames. Tong and her roommate came here on their last Sunday together with about 20 others from their church. They ate stir fry vegetables, mixed fruit, grilled meat and hot dogs. Tong brought frosted cookies.

While others played kickball, Tong quietly nibbled on her treats.

“I never imagined that would be my last memory,” says Jean, who asked that only her American name be used for her own security.

The snow serves as a reminder of another memory. At the end of last winter, Jean and Tong tried to make a snowman after a storm swept through. The snow was soft, not wet enough to make a snowball. The two went to YouTube and learned how to make a proper snowman. They pledged to try it during the next snowfall.

“We were going to do it again this year,” Jean says, before adding softly, “But it never worked out.”

The killing has taught her to appreciate special moments, to live for today because you never know when will be your last. “One day you’re here,” she says, “the next …”

Tong was known as “Little Sister.” At 20, she was the oldest of three roommates, but her nickname stuck because of her diminutive 5-foot-2 stature.

Jean laughs when looking at a family photograph of her roommate from 2007. It shows Tong dressed in a T-shirt and with short hair. Tong embraced America and shed T-shirts for clothes with frills. Her hair was long, almost down to her waist, with a dyed brown streak and curls. “That is the her I remember.”

In the classroom, she was one of those supersmart students who drove the others crazy. You know, the smart kid who always complains of being behind and then gets straight A’s.

“I’d be, like, seriously! That’s not cool.”

Jean and Tong met their freshmen year. Their friendship blossomed over the next two years. When Jean introduced her roommate to friends at church, Tong interrupted: “We’re friends first; roommates, second.”

“That has always stuck with me,” Jean says.