Riverdale missing student found safe after case of ‘cyber kidnapping,’ police say

A missing 17-year-old Chinese foreign exchange student was found safe in a tent in a canyon.

(Riverdale Police Department)

Missing 17-year-old Chinese foreign exchange student Kai Zhuang, living in Riverdale, was found safe and unharmed, after what police said was an instance of “cyber kidnapping.”

On Thursday, Zhuang’s family in China reported the student missing to Riverdale police after receiving a ransom note that contained a photo of Kai, saying that he had been kidnapped. The family paid the ransomers $80,000 due to the photograph, which showed the minor “being held captive” and “in danger,” according to police.

When police went to the residence of Zhuang’s American host family in Riverdale, the family said they were unaware of the kidnapping, because Zhuang had slept in his bed the night before and they heard him in the morning.

So what happened? Riverdale Police Chief Casey Warren said Zhuang was the victim of a scheme called “cyber kidnapping.” Warren said that the FBI briefed Riverdale police on a number of incidents across the United States in which Chinese foreign exchange students were targeted. The students were told their families in China were threatened unless they did what they were told. Via FaceTime or Skype, the students were told to isolate themselves and take photos that looked like they were being held captive, which were then sent to the family with a ransom note.

Zhuang first attempted to camp away from his host family on Dec. 20, when he encountered Provo police while carrying camping gear. Provo police arranged transportation for Zhuang back to his host family in Riverdale but didn’t learn he was being threatened.

After Zhuang was reported missing on Thursday, police searched the host family’s residence for the camping gear he carried in the Provo incident, but couldn’t find it. Police used cellphone records and bank statements to learn he had visited the Brigham City canyon area, and they believed the student was likely camping nearby. At that point, the Weber County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Drone team, along with helicopters from the Utah Division of Public Safety Aero Team, were enlisted to find Zhuang.

The search began overnight Saturday before a Riverdale detective, hiking up the mountains on foot, found the student’s tent. Zhuang was reportedly relieved to see police, “but (was) very cold and scared.”

Zhuang’s tent contained a sleeping bag, blankets, “limited” food and water, and several phones, which police believed were used to take the photos and carry out the cyber kidnapping. Brigham City’s fire department cleared Zhuang medically after checking him for hypothermia.

Zhuang requested to speak to his family to ensure they were safe. He also “requested a warm cheeseburger,” police say, which they picked up on his trip back to the Riverdale police department.

Warren, after the incident, asked the public to contact local police immediately if they became a target of or aware of incidents similar to Zhuang’s. “Do not send money, discontinue contact with the suspects, and contact police immediately,” Warren said. “I want foreign exchange students to know they can trust police to protect them and to work with police to ensure their safety as well as their family’s safety abroad.”