What started out as a relatively simple case of high school bullying escalated quickly to what prosecutors describe as torture, kidnapping and assault.
On March 30, 18-year-old Yiran "Camellia" Liu was the victim of a violent attack in the Los Angeles suburb of Rowland Heights.
Liu testified last week at a preliminary hearing that Yunyao "Helen" Zhai, Yuhan "Coco" Yang and Xinlei "John" Zhang took her to Rowland Heights Park, where they stripped her naked, kicked her, slapped her hundreds of times and burned her nipples with cigarettes.
The motive for the attack?
“It’s a bit difficult to understand,” explains Los Angeles Times reporter Cindy Chang, who has been covering the case. “Purely from the court records, the only reference is to a dispute over a dinner bill. One of the attorneys told me that it also had to do with a boy and with some social media posts that the victim may have made disparaging one of the other girl’s hometowns."
The teenagers are all “parachute kids”.
“They’re sent here by their parents to study high school in the US with hopes of getting into a US college,” says Chang. “But the parents don’t come along with them. They stay in private homes that are kind of like boarding houses.”
Many of these kids make friends, get good grades and go on to college. For others, though, being away from their parents is a struggle. Of the 15,000 or so foreign high school students in California in 2014, more than 9,200 were from China.
Chang says this is the second wave of parachute kids.
“Back in the 1980s and 90s, there were a lot of kids from Taiwan who were being sent here under similar circumstances. Although they would tend to live with an aunt and uncle — or sometimes the parents, who were rich, would buy them a house in a nice suburban area and the kids would just stay there by themselves. And we saw back then, some of the issues back then, some of the issues, where some kids did fine and others got involved with gangs and things like that.”
At the preliminary hearing for the three defendants being tried as adults, Judge Thomas C. Falls said the case reminded him of "Lord of the Flies," the 1954 novel where prep school boys from England end up stranded on a tropical island and without adult supervision, the kids regress to a violent, primitive state.