Chinese exchange student found in Utah mountains in tent after ‘cyber kidnapping,’ police say

A Chinese foreign exchange student in Utah was found alone, “very cold and scared” in a tent in the mountains in frigid temperatures, after his parents abroad were extorted and threatened with his safety in a “cyber kidnapping,” officials say.

The parents of Kai Zhuang, 17, were sent a photograph that allegedly showed him abducted and received “continuous threats” from kidnappers, and they sent $80,000 to bank accounts in China as a ransom, the Riverdale Police Department in Utah said in a news release Sunday.

The parents notified Kai’s high school, which then contacted Riverdale police on Dec. 28. 

Kai Zhang, a Chinese foreign exchange student in Utah, was found alone in a tent in the mountains.
Kai Zhuang, a Chinese foreign exchange student in Utah, was found alone in a tent in the mountains.Riverdale City Utah

Police spoke with Kai’s host family in Riverdale, and they were unaware that he was missing. They said he was home the night prior and had heard him in the early morning hours of Dec. 28, and there was no evidence suggesting he was forcibly taken from the home. 

Police, working with the FBI, the U.S. embassy in China and Chinese officials, learned of the criminal trend called cyber kidnapping — when foreign exchange students, in particular those from China, are threatened and a ransom is demanded, Riverdale police said.

The victims are ordered to isolate themselves and are monitored via FaceTime or Skype, forced to take photos of themselves that make it appear that they are being held captive and the photos are sent to their frightened parents. Though the kidnapping is conducted apparently remotely, victims often comply out of fear that their families will be harmed, and parents are extorted for fear that the kidnappers are actually with the victim and could harm them.

Police looked into Kai’s whereabouts over the last month and found that he had been contacted by police in Provo, Utah, on Dec. 20. He was found trying to go camping, carrying camping gear. Provo police were “concerned for his safety” and returned him to Riverdale. 

Police talk with Kai Zhang.
Police talk with Kai Zhuang after he was located in the mountains.Riverdale City Utah

Riverdale police said they believed Kai was already being “manipulated and controlled by cyber kidnappers” on Dec. 20 — but he never disclosed it to police or his host parents. 

After Kai went missing, police weren’t able to find the camping equipment he had purchased and had in Provo. An analysis of bank records and phone pings showed he had visited the Brigham City canyon area. 

“We believed the victim was isolating himself at the direction of cyber kidnappers in a tent. Due to the cold weather in Utah at this time of year, we became additionally concerned for the victim’s safety in that he may freeze to death overnight,” the news release said.  

An overnight search was conducted, with the help of the Weber County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Drone team searching for Kai’s campsite the continued into the next day.

Kai was found on Sunday in a wooded area by Riverdale police who hiked on foot up the mountainside near Brigham City, police said in the news release.

A sergeant “contacted the victim inside the tent and found he was alive but very cold and scared. The victim was relieved to see the police,” the news release said.

He had no heat inside the tent, a heat blanket, a sleeping bag, limited food and water and several phones “that were presumed to be used to carry out the cyber kidnapping,” the release said. 

Kai was checked out by the Brigham City Fire Department and cleared of any major medical concerns.

“The victim only wanted to speak to his family to ensure they were safe and requested a warm cheeseburger, both of which were accomplished on the way back to Riverdale PD,” police said. 

The investigation is ongoing. 

Officials are now warning the public about cyber kidnapping, saying if ever targeted, to contact local police, do not send money and stop all contact with suspects.