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In 1988, 12-year-old Jie Zhao Li from Honolulu, Hawaii disappeared while raising money for a school fundraiser. She has not been seen since.
About the Case
After school on February 11, 1988, 12-year-old Jie Zhao Li was excited to hit the streets of her neighborhood selling benefit chili tickets to raise money for a school trip. Her mother, Yan Li gave her a wristwatch so she would know what time to return home.
“I’m going to watch my time and come back,” Jie Zhao promised.
But Jie Zhao Li never returned home.
She was last seen selling tickets near the 7-Eleven store on Nuuanu Avenue at Kuakini Street in Honolulu about 4:45 p.m.
When she did not return home by 6:30 p.m., her mother began searching for her. By 9:00 p.m., she called police. The following morning, police began an intensive search by scouring the neighborhood and going door-to-door asking residents if they had seen the young girl.
Posters and fliers went up, and hundreds of volunteers joined in the search after seeing Jie Zhao in the local media. The search went on for months all over Oahu, but police and volunteers never found her.Over the years, tips came in to the Honolulu Police Department’s Homicide Unit. There were composite sketches, possible getaway vehicles, even sightings, but nothing panned out.
Police did have a person of interest, a mentally ill man who had a run-in with another little girl at the same 7-Eleven.
“He would tell us on several occasions ‘I’ll show you where she is,’ or ‘I’ll show you where she’s buried,’” Retired Detective Gary Dias said in a 2018 interview with local news station, KHON. “But his conversations with us led us to conduct and extremely extensive search of the Nuuanu Stream area, utilizing our SWAT team and the dogs we had with the department at the time. And we came up with nothing.”
Another tip came in by someone who thought they saw a young Asian girl get into a 1950s Chevy.
“So what we did was run a computer check through our research department and came up with a list of all registered Chevrolets between 1953 and 1959. And we made physical checks of every single Chevrolet,” Dias said.
But nothing came that. Police believe that Jie Zhao was kidnapped and then murdered. Some believe Jie Zhao was taken by someone from China.
China’s Policy on Children
Jie Zhao Li was born in China on April 10, 1975. She was the second child of her parents. Her older sister was born in 1973 and another daughter was born after Jie Zhao. Around the time of her birth, China adopted the slogan, “late, long and few”, encouraging couples to have only one child, and urging them to have no more than two. If they did have two children, there needed to be a four-year gap between them. If children were born less than four years apart, mothers were told to get an abortion. By 1979, it became law, and a one-child policy became part of a birthing planning program designed to control part of the population.
Yan Li did not want an abortion, so she hid her pregnancy, which meant the family could not get extra rations of food and milk for Jie Zhao. Yan Li had to sell her engagement ring to buy food.
In 1985, a relative of the Li family was able to get visas, so the family moved to the United States shortly after.
When Jie Zhao disappeared, some thought that a person from China, perhaps a government official, traveled to Honolulu and either kidnapped her and took her back to China or murdered her. This theory has never been proven.
Yan Li Becomes a U.S. Citizen
After her daughter’s disappearance, Yan Li wanted to earn her U.S. citizenship. Several times, she took classes to study for the citizenship tests, but the tragedy of losing her daughter was too much for her.
“She couldn’t’ absorb everything,” said Yuk Pang Law, Li’s immigration counselor in a 2000 interview with StarBulletin.com. “She tried and tried. She tried very hard. But the mental stress was very difficult for her.”
Each time Yan Li took the citizenship test, she failed, but she did not give up. She kept trying and paying the then-$95 application fee for every two tries.
According to the Honolulu-Star Bulletin, Law discovered a new statute that offers exemptions to immigrants suffering from disabilities and helped arrange for psychological exams in Chinese for Li. Dr. David Lam, who conducted the exams free, submitted a report testifying to her mental stress. Last year, immigration officials waived the test on American government and history, and asked Li to come for a simple interview.
“After the examiner told her she passed the interview and asked her to sign the paper, she was still shaking. Her hand was shaking so much. She was both happy and nervous,” Law said.
Afterwards, Yan Li went home and offered prayers and incense to a porcelain statue of the Goddess of Mercy, a source of hope and comfort for her.
Three Decades Later
Yan Li has never given up hope that her daughter will come home. But the heartache of losing her daughter is still as raw as it was 31 years ago. All she has left of her long-lost daughter are school mementos and one picture. She gave the other pictures to the media, but they were never returned. The picture is part of a Valentine’s Day card Jie Zhao made before she disappeared.
The Li family moved from the apartment they shared with Jie Zhao, but they have the same phone number they had in 1988 in case Jie Zhao ever calls.
If alive today, Jie Zhao would be almost 44 years old.
If you have any information that can help solve this case, please contact Crimestoppers at (808) 955-8300, or Missing Child Center Hawaii at (808) 586-1449.
True Crime Diva’s Thoughts
I don’t have much to say on this case. But I thought it needed more attention on it outside of Hawaii. This girl was from a close-knit family, and it’s just a shame someone robbed her of them and a long life of her own.
I’m with the police on this one. I think someone kidnapped and murdered Jie Zhao. It could be the homeless guy but I’m not convinced. It sounds like he could have just been playing with police. But it is strange that he had a run-in with another girl at the SAME 7-Eleven Jie Zhao was last seen by.
I think the sighting of her getting into the 1950s car is probably credible. It would have been easy to lure her into the car by simply offering her a ride or to help her with her fundraiser. Whoever drove that car – male or female – is the one I think took her. What if she knew the driver and that’s why she got in the car?
This was 1988, so parents were more relaxed with their children going places alone. Hell, I remember walking alone around a crowded shopping mall at Christmas when I was 12 (1982), while my parents ventured on their own. Not to mention riding my bike all over town alone. Jie Zhao was almost 13 so she was old enough to go fundraising by herself. I did that as well when I was a little bit younger than her. Parents didn’t think anything of it.
I don’t really buy that someone from China took her. Would the government really go that far to punish the parents? Fly all the way to Hawaii? If that were the case, wouldn’t they have taken the 3rd daughter, too?
I think this is probably a stranger abduction. What do you think happened to Jie Zhao Li?
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