The beating started soon after 18-year-old high school student Yiran “Camellia” Liu entered the park in the wealthy community of Rowland Heights, California.
Surrounded by a group of 10 mostly high school students, Liu, who was attending Oxford School, a private high school for international students, was slapped, doused with water and pulled to the ground by her hair. At one point, one of Liu’s attackers suggested they slow down the beating and not hit her so hard so they “can do it a longer stretch of time.”
One of the girls allegedly attempted to set her hair on fire but couldn t do it because her hair was wet. Another girl allegedly kicked her in the legs and stomach with her high heel shoes, and used lit cigarettes to burn her.
She didn’t cry because “I felt that they make a mistake in beating me,” she testified at a preliminary hearing in Pomona last month for her alleged attackers Yunyao “Helen” Zhai, 19, Yuhan “Coco” Yang, 18, and Xinlei “John” Zhang, 18. “I don’t want to show them the fact that I was weak.”
In total, six girls and four boys participated or watched the attack. Zhai, Yang and Zhang were charged with torture, kidnapping and assault. All three defendants have pleaded not guilty. Zhai and Zhang also pleaded not guilty to charges in the beating and burning of a 16-year-old Chinese girl at a tearoom in Diamond Bar, California, three days before Liu’s beating. Two more teens admitted in juvenile court to assault in one or both incidents, according to the Los Angeles Times. The other teens fled back to China, Yang’s attorney Rayford Fountain tells PEOPLE.
At the June preliminary hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Thomas C. Falls said the case was reminiscent of the Lord of the Flies, the 1954 dystopian novel by William Golding about a group of British boys who are stranded on a deserted island and have to govern themselves with horrific consequences.
The attack on Liu put a spotlight on so-called “parachute kids,” high school students mostly from China, Taiwan and Korea who attend high school in the U.S. without parental supervision.
“I have been doing this a long time and I have never encountered a story like this,” says Fountain. “They kind of drop these kids off and they are on their own. They have no parental supervision and they have some sponsors or legal guardians that live with them and they allegedly go to school. It is a tough situation and it invites this type of thing.”
Joaquin Lim, the President and CEO of American International Education Foundation, says there are currently 30,000 students from China attending high school in the U.S.
“They send them here so their kids can learn English and be Americanized and they hope their kids can go to a good college in America,” says Lim. “In theory the parents are right if the kids go to a legitimate school or if the kids are in a good home-stay situation. It is a win-win for all.”
Lim says the common belief is that Chinese students are from wealthy families but most are from the middle class. “For the parents, it is their lifetime savings to send their kids to America,” he says. “Why are the Chinese parents doing that? Because they think America is the next hope for their kids.”
But, the move can be traumatic for teens, psychotherapist Stephen Wong tells PEOPLE. “There are a lot of issues they have to face,” he says. “They are growing up as teenagers, they have to adjust to a new culture and they are forced to make adult decisions. There are a lot of risk factors. They are alienated from their own family, alienated from the mainstream culture, they don’t speak English as well, and they don’t fit in.”
Liu testified that the incident started after she received a text from an old friend asking her to meet at a nearby ice cream parlor. There had been a misunderstanding involving her ex-boyfriend and an unpaid restaurant bill and she wanted to clear things up.
At the ice cream parlor she says she was ambushed by three girls who allegedly took her keys and phone and made her clean up ice cream drippings and cigarette butts off the floor.
“She was asked to beg for forgiveness,” Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Elizabeth Padilla tells PEOPLE.
Two hours into the beating at the park, Liu testified that three of the girls grabbed her by the hair and dragged her to a more secluded spot where she was stripped naked and given a choice of who would burn her and on what part of the body.
She chose her hip, she says, “because if they do it on the other area, first of all, it would be painful, and then the second time is that it would be conspicuous, and it leaves a scar. People can see it.”
She was also burned on the nipples with a lit cigarette.
At one point, Zhai allegedly asked Xinlei “John” Zhang to go get a pair of scissors. Once he returned, the scissors were used to cut her hair off.
“They took out chunks,” says Padilla. “Different people took turns.”
After they finished chopping her hair, Liu was ordered to eat it. “This doesn t compare to any case I have prosecuted before,” says Padilla. Some of the attack, she says, was photographed and put on the Internet.
“[Coco] has totally ruined her life,” says Fountain. His client, he says, is potentially facing years in prison and deportation. “She didn’t know the victim. Why she would get involved with this is amazing. I am having her analyzed as to why she would be involved in it.”
Zhai’s attorney, Evan Freed, says he also plans to have his client’s mental health evaluated. She was treated in China for psychological issues in the past, he says.
“What happened here is consistent for what she was treated for in China,” says Freed. “Her mother wanted her to have a good education and sent her over here. She experienced psychological issues here and she returned Helen to China and she received some treatment there. I guess the family felt it was resolved and sent her back here.”
Freed says the March 30 attack centered on allegations that Liu had been involved with some of the girl’s boyfriends and bragged about it on the Internet.
“These kids form cliques and you have insiders and outsiders and Camellia was an outsider and she allegedly did things that made her disliked,” he says.
During the hearing, Zhang’s attorney, Darren Cornforth, said his client didn’t actively participate in the attack. “He’s merely present at both of these incidents where these assaults are occurring,” he said.
The next court hearing for the defendants is scheduled for July 27.