Parents charged in death of 5-year-old daughter in court for custody hearing on other child

Posted at 9:50 AM, Jan 11, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-12 17:42:19-05

The parents charged in the death of 5-year-old Ashley Zhao appeared in Stark County Family Court Thursday for a hearing related to custody of their other child.

The court ruled that since no family members were found to take custody of the couple's 6-year-old daughter, she will remain in the care of Stark County Children Services.

Ashley's body was found hidden inside the coupe's Chinese restaurant Tuesday afternoon. Investigators believe she was beaten to death by Chen and Liang Zhao helped hide the body.

Federal court documents indicate the North Canton mother faced deportation in 2012. Jackson Township police confirm Chen is not a U.S. citizen.

She is charged with murder and felonious assault. Zhao is charged with complicity to commit murder and complicity to commit felonious assault.

Chen twice petitioned to stay in the U.S. Both times a panel of federal judges denied her requests. The 29-year-old applied for asylum in 2009, claiming she had suffered persecution by the Chinese government over her affiliation with a Chinese spiritual group, Falun Gong.

But the judges' panel determined she was inconsistent in her reasons why she needed to stay in the U.S.

"It is believed that Ms. Chen may have some sort of deportation order in place or that there may be something related to deportation with her," said Andrea Scassa, the city of Massillon's law director. "It is also believed that the family has relatives in the state of New York, so there are concerns with the deportation issue and then any possibility of leaving the jurisdiction."

An attorney for the Stark County Division of Children Services said the department has had no prior cases with the family. It currently has custody of the couple's second daughter who is seven years old.

An autopsy was performed on Ashley Wednesday. A ruling on the cause of death is pending toxicology results and could be weeks or months away.

Chen and Liang Zhao, Ashley's parents, remained in jail Wednesday on a $5 million bond. Both appeared in Massillon Common Pleas Court in red jump suits with their hands and feet shackled. They were separated by an attorney as they stood at the podium before Judge Edward Elum during a Wednesday court hearing. 

Chen is accused of striking her daughter several times in the head with her right fist. After Ashley was struck on the floor by Chen, Zhao allegedly found the girl with green fluid coming from her mouth. He took her into the bathroom to wash the fluid off of her face, according to Stark County Sheriff's Department. 

Zhao attempted CPR but it was unsuccessful. 

RELATED: 5-year-old girl reported missing from Jackson Township found dead in restaurant, parents charged

A statewide child advisory was issued after Ashley was reported missing from the family restaurant after she went to go lay down around 5 p.m. Monday. She was later found dead inside the restaurant.

Chen is charged with murder and felonious assault. Zhao is charged with complicity to commit murder and complicity to commit felonious assault. 

"The one person that we believe will take care of you is your mother and in this case, that's who took her life," said Jackson Township Police Chief Mark Brink. "He (the father) was involved, from the information we have, with the concealment of that child, so he's as much at fault as the mother would be."

RELATED: Missing 5-year-old found dead in family restaurant, parents charged

Zhao was appointed a lawyer and only spoke when Elum asked him a question regarding his length of stay in America.

"Twenty plus years," Zhao said. 

Zhao and Chen are scheduled to appear in court Jan. 19 for a preliminary hearing. 

The Massillon law director said the murder could be pursued as a death penalty case. That will be up to a grand jury. 

Watch the court hearing here: