US prosecutors weigh competing accounts in rape allegation against JD.com CEO Richard Liu

JD.com chief executive Richard Liu, who has maintained his innocence through representatives, was jailed for about 17 hours before being released.
JD.com chief executive Richard Liu, who has maintained his innocence through representatives, was jailed for about 17 hours before being released.PHOTO: REUTERS

MINNEAPOLIS/NEW YORK (REUTERS) - On the night of Aug 30, a 21-year-old University of Minnesota student said she was in a chauffeured black car, trying to keep billionaire JD.com chief executive Richard Liu from pulling off her clothes.

"I just begged him, 'Don't do that. You have wife and you have kids,'" the Chinese woman told police in a recorded interview days after that was reviewed by Reuters.

"He did not listen to me."

At around 3am, Minneapolis police responded to an "assault in progress" involving Mr Liu at the woman's luxury apartment, a police report showed, after a friend alerted the authorities.

Officers investigated and concluded that no crime had occurred. Precisely what the woman and Mr Liu told police has not been made public, but Reuters previously reported that she was afraid that Mr Liu would retaliate against her if she pressed charges.

Less than 24 hours later, when police were summoned again with the help of a university administrator, the woman was unequivocal: She said she had been raped by Mr Liu. The Chinese executive was arrested that night.

Mr Liu, who has maintained his innocence through representatives, was jailed for about 17 hours before being released. Hours later, he flew to China, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.

 
 
 
 

Local prosecutors are weighing evidence that would move the case beyond a "he said, she said" stalemate.

Among the issues being considered by the Hennepin County Attorney's office: the divergent accounts of what happened that night, the initial determination by police that there was no crime, and the woman's early hesitance to press charges against Mr Liu, Reuters has learned.

An attorney for Mr Liu, Ms Jill Brisbois, said in an e-mailed response that Mr Liu's innocence would become apparent once more evidence is disclosed.

"We are very disappointed that Reuters would choose to run a story with unsubstantiated information, from anonymous sources who clearly have an agenda, while Richard cannot defend himself out of respect for the judicial process," she wrote.

Mr Wil Florin, an attorney for the now 22-year-old woman hired four days after the alleged rape, would not make her available for comment.

Mr Florin said in response to questions that the case was "simple" - Mr Liu used force to have non-consensual sex - and the initial hesitance to press charges was understandable.

"No one can fully appreciate the hurricane of initial emotions that a rape victim suffers," he said. "Reluctance, fear and confusion are commonplace."

Asked if his client planned any civil suits, Mr Florin said:, "Our legal intentions with regard to Mr Liu and others will be revealed at the appropriate time."

Some legal experts say victims' initial reluctance to speak out plainly can deter prosecutors from charging due to concerns about how it would be seen by a jury.

"The decision to prosecute has a lot to do with the initial reaction of the victim, which is unfortunate," said Mr Roger Canaff, a former sex crimes prosecutor in New York.

Others said prosecutors should still be able to make a case, for example, with the help of expert witnesses.

"Prosecutors can still educate jurors on issues like fear of retaliation, avoidance and shame," said Mr Benjamin Andreozzi, a Pennsylvania-based attorney who frequently represents victims of sexual abuse.

The decision by prosecutors will likely affect JD.com, whose shares have already tumbled by more than a third since Mr Liu's arrest.

Also known as Liu Qiangdong, he maintains tight control of the company he grew from a humble electronics stall to an e-commerce giant with 2017 net revenue of US$55.7 billion (S$76.5 billion) and partners such as Alphabet's Google, Walmart and Tencent Holdings.

BUSINESS SCHOOL FOR BILLIONAIRES

As prosecutors and the woman consider their legal options, Reuters has uncovered new details about the night and its immediate aftermath.

Mr Liu, 45, travelled to University of Minnesota in late August to attend a doctor of business administration programme directed at Chinese executives.

Other students in the programme included Mr Ma Huateng, the billionaire chief executive of Tencent, and Mr Li Hua, the billionaire chairman of Excellence Real Estate Group, according to university materials.

After the alleged rape, a personal assistant for Mr Liu turned to Mr Li to request that he broker a peace with the woman, the woman told police in the recorded interview.

Mr Li did not respond to requests for comment. University of Minnesota representatives declined to discuss the case, citing student privacy law.

The alleged rape happened hours after the student sat next to Mr Liu at a dinner party that he had thrown at a Japanese restaurant. Near the end of the event, the woman said she was drunk and needed help getting home, according to the police interview.

Ms Alice Zhang introduced herself as Mr Liu's personal assistant, according to Mr Florin. Ms Zhang helped the student into a car, and got in along with Mr Liu, the woman told police in the recorded interview.

The woman said that Ms Zhang initially tried to seat Mr Liu and her separately in the car, but Mr Liu told Ms Zhang: "Don't interrupt me," and began touching the student in the back seat.

Ms Zhang, who sat in front, turned up the radio and flipped up the rearview mirror, according to Mr Florin, based on his investigation of the case, and a person familiar with the event.

When Reuters called Ms Zhang on her personal mobile phone in China, a woman who answered denied she was Ms Zhang and hung up after hearing a description of the reporting. Mr Liu's attorney did not respond to questions on the episode, or to other specific requests for comment.

The woman told police she was scared, drunk and unsure where she was. She thought she could "sit down and talk" with Mr Liu, and persuaded him to take her home in the car.

"'I know you are a good person,'" she said she told Mr Liu. "'You might calm down so that you can realise what you are doing right now.'"

When they arrived at her building, Mr Liu told the driver and Ms Zhang that he would be back soon, the student told police. He ended up spending about four hours inside her apartment, according to a person familiar with the situation, showering at one point and lying naked on her bed. She said she repeatedly resisted Mr Liu's advances and tried to get him to leave.

"He was trying to pull me inside the shower," she told police in the recorded interview. "I tried my best to battle against him."

She told police that he eventually held her down and raped her with some of her clothes still on, according to a person familiar with the situation. The woman later told police she preserved his semen on her sheets as evidence.

SWIFT REACTION

The day after the incident, another of Mr Liu's assistants contacted the woman, according to her recorded interview with police.

The student told this assistant, Ms Vivian Yang, that she wanted to talk about "things that happened yesterday", according to a Reuters review of WeChat messages which Mr Florin said are authentic. She told Ms Yang she hoped for "justice" and was considering finding a lawyer.

In the subsequent police interview, the student said she thought Mr Liu could apologise to her. Police were provided with the same WeChat messages as part of their investigation, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Ms Yang proposed that the woman meet Mr Li that night, the woman said in her interview with police.

"You say your side, and then we say our side," Ms Yang told the student in a conversation that was recorded by a friend of the woman's and reviewed by Reuters.

"By letting Boss Li speak to you first, a person who is trusted by both our sides, he can communicate a little with you first."

Reuters was not able to determine what, if anything, Mr Li was told about the event that prompted Ms Yang's request. Reuters also could not ascertain if Mr Li agreed to be a peacemaker, or if he knew about the plan.

The woman told police that she rejected the proposal, saying she only wanted to talk to Mr Liu. She said she wanted to do so with a friend present, according to the recorded conversation.

Ms Yang ultimately agreed to bring Mr Liu to meet the woman at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management around 10.30pm on Friday, WeChat messages showed. By the time Mr Liu arrived, the woman was giving a statement to police. They arrested Mr Liu at around 11pm.

Mr Liu was released the following day, Sept 1, at around 4pm, pending an investigation. Ms Yang, reached in China, referred questions to the company's public relations department. The spokesman referred Reuters to past public statements.

Hours after his release, Mr Liu was on a private jet, flying home to China.