"This was nothing I or my child deserved," says Baron Li, who survived an attempt on his life last summer

The last time Baron Li was able to leave home without getting anxious was the morning of July 10, 2020. Seconds later, he was struck by nine bullets in an ambush shooting in the parking lot of his Bellevue, Wash., apartment complex.

Li, who was on his way to work at a Toyota dealership in nearby Burien, recalls the shooting like it was yesterday. Speaking with PEOPLE, the devoted father remembers hearing a loud crack he thought was a firecracker, and then turned around to see a scrawny teenager he didn't recognize aiming a pistol right at him. The boy said nothing before fire eight more rounds.

Bullets hit Li in the chest, hips, legs, and arms, leaving several of his bones shattered. Li remembers the sirens of the approaching ambulance supplanting the fading footsteps of the fleeing shooter.

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Baron Li, displaying the wound on his right arm
| Credit: Meron Menghistab

After being rushed to a Seattle hospital, Li endured hours of life-saving surgery to remove three bullets. Today, three remain inside, Li says; the other three rounds fired that morning exited his body, leaving him with a dozen bullet wounds.

Li, 48, did not know his assailant, he tells PEOPLE, but knew almost immediately who had sent him. "I knew it wasn't random, which is what the police initially tried to suggest," Li explains. "This was someone my ex-wife sent." 

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Baron Li
| Credit: Meron Menghistab

Authorities would eventually come to the same conclusion. They have alleged Li's 30-year-old ex-wife, Shaerin Kelley, orchestrated the murder attempt amid a bitter custody battle over their only child — Arik, a 6-year-old boy with special needs.

In charging documents, investigators allege Kelley offered 17-year-old Joseph Good $13,000 in cash to kill Li, even providing the teen access to a GPS tracker she'd allegedly attached to her ex-husband's car. Detectives allege Good then enlisted Quincy Mendez, also 17, to drive him to Li's home the morning of the shooting, allegedly promising him $5,000 for his services.

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However, detectives confirm Good never received money from Kelley, who, weeks after the shooting, allegedly texted the teen that the "job [was] unfinished" and that he would "need to complete" it before getting paid.

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Baron Li with his son, Arik
| Credit: Meron Menghistab

The failed murder-for-hire plot, police allege, may have been part of a larger scheme to drain Arik's trust fund, which had been established years earlier, in order to cover his future medical expenses.

"My son could have been killed — that's what people don't see," Li insists. "Everyone sees a shooting — a woman disgruntled at her ex-husband. But I wasn't the target — my son has always been the target."

Prosecutors allege Kelley stood "to obtain significant funds if she had sole custody of their child, thus providing a possible motive for murder."

In October, Kelley, Good, and Menendez were charged with premeditated attempted first-degree murder. All three defendants remain in police custody — Kelley, without bail, and her teenage accomplices, on $2 million bond each. None has entered a plea and calls to their lawyers have not been returned. 

baron li suspects
The suspects being arrested in October
| Credit: bellevue police department

According to Li, he first met Kelley online in late 2008, when he was living in Las Vegas. The divorcee spent many evenings playing RuneScape, a medieval-themed massively multiplayer online role-playing game. After sending messages to each other for months, they met, and in Oct. 10, 2010, were married. Within a year, they had moved to Washington, and in 2014, Arik was born.

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Arik, who had a condition called hyperbilirubinemia, suffered severe brain damage after being misdiagnosed with jaundice. But even before Arik was born, Li says his relationship with Kelley started changing.

Kelley filed for divorce in 2015, and retained primary custody of Arik. Li moved out of his home, and the court ordered him to pay Kelley $6,000 a month in child support. By the fifth payment, Li found himself living out of his car.

"The state put her rights ahead of mine, which is why it came to this," says Li.

Then, in 2017, citing neglect, Child Protective Services placed Arik in foster care. Li was awarded primary custody of Arik in 2019, with Kelley only allowed overnight weekend visits — an arrangement that, following her arrest, was modified to once-a-month video visits from the jail. "I had to go through two years of fighting for my son, proving to the court I was the optimal parent," says Li, who is looking for a lawyer to help him sue the state. "This was nothing I or my child deserved."

After months of strenuous physical rehabilitation, Li's slowly regaining use of his right arm. Because Li's been unable to work since the shooting, a friend of his organized a GoFundMe campaign, to help him keep the rent paid and food on the table. "It had relieved a lot of the stress and anxiety we were living with," says Li, who now lives with his fiancée, Didee Phommoon, and her two children as well as Arik.

Despite all that he has been through, Li says the shooting hasn't broken his spirits — or effected his sense of humor.

"I'm in rare company," Li says. "The only other person I know of who was shot nine times and lived is 50 Cent. Too bad I can't release an album and make millions."