Utah police explain how exchange student went missing and was found, reunited with his family

Jan 2, 2024, 4:02 PM | Updated: Jan 3, 2024, 3:12 pm

RIVERDALE — Riverdale police provided new details Tuesday in the case of a foreign exchange student who was the victim of a cyber kidnapping.

Kai Zhuang, disappeared from his family sponsor’s home last Thursday and was safely found in the mountains near Brigham City on Sunday.

Riverdale Police Department Chief Casey Warren said the cyber kidnappers first contacted Zhaung more than a month ago. He said the kidnappers started with Zhaung, who was transporting money to them from his family.

In cases such as this, cyber kidnappers target young foreign exchange students, according to Warren. The cyber kidnappers tell their victim if they don’t do as they say then their family will be harmed.

Eventually, Zhaung’s family became targeted directly, according to Warren and that’s when Zhaung isolated himself. Warren said through three-way phone calls, the family was made to believe that the victim was with the kidnappers.

Warren also said the reason Zhaung secluded himself from society so that the kidnappers wouldn’t harm his family.

How police became aware

Zhaung’s family in China first contacted a point-of-contact person with the school in Weber County about the situation, who then notified authorities. Police then reached out to his host family, who were unaware he was missing. Members of the host family told police they remembered  hearing him in the basement in the early hours of Dec. 28, but went about their day, according to Warren.

Through pinging his cellphone authorities were able to track his movements.

“It doesn’t give you exact locations,” Warren said. “But if gives you gives you several roundabouts geotags of where it could be.”

He said the 17-year-old didn’t go to many places, from Provo to home to a Chase Bank in Ogden.

He said on Dec. 20, Zhaung was spotted in Provo with a bunch of camping gear. Provo police reached out to Riverdale police to see if he was supposed to be there. Warren said at that point Zhaung made no mention of being threatened or manipulated. He was returned to Riverdale.

Warren said on Dec. 23,  Zhaung made a trip to the Chase bank, which was the last location of a ping on his phone before it turned off. Four hours later, police noticed his phone began to ping in the mouth of the canyon in Brigham City, which lasted for about eight minutes.

Warren said when you are traveling in a vehicle, your phone will ping off several different towers. In this case, however, he said there were several pings in the area off of one tower.

To view Tuesday’s news conference, click here.

“When you get several pings in a certain area, a geographical area,” he said. “It will tell you that when they are in that area for that amount of time, they are probably walking.”

Warren suspects Zhaung went up and dropped off his camping equipment on Dec. 23 and then possibly called for a ride.

Searching for the missing foreign exchange student

With the help of the Weber County search and rescue team, Riverdale police searched the mountains near Brigham City on Dec. 30 with no luck. On Dec. 31, a detective was able to locate Zhaung.

“One of the first things he wanted to do was contact his family in China and make sure they were OK,” Warren said.

Inside the tent there was very few supplies that included a sleeping bag, a blanket, a couple of cellphones and limited food and water.

“I think we were very fortunate that we found him when we did,” Warren said. Police were more concerned about the weather elements than the kidnappers.

Zhaung has been reunited with his family, who traveled to Utah, and have returned to China. He said the suspects responsible are in China.

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Utah police explain how exchange student went missing and was found, reunited with his family