Missing Kids

‘I Still Think About Her Every Day’


One of the last photos taken of Jiezhao before she disappeared in 1988.

Yan Li is haunted by the
disappearance of her daughter
10 years ago

By Craig Gima

The last time she saw her 12-year-old daughter, Jiezhao, Yan Li gave her her wristwatch so she would know when to return home.

"I'm going to watch my time and come back," Jiezhao promised.

That was 10 years ago next month.

And the disappearance of Jiezhao Li remains a mystery.

It haunts her mother, who may never know for sure whether her daughter is dead or alive.

"I still think about her every day," she said through a translator. "I'm still hoping she can return, because they can't find her body and there is no proof she is dead."

This is an age progression photo of Jiezhao, based on a 1995 poster showing what she would have looked like at age 19.

The Royal Elementary School student was last seen selling benefit chili tickets near the 7-Eleven store on Nuuanu Avenue at Kuakini Street about 4:45 p.m. Feb. 11, 1988.

Her mother remembers that Jiezhao was excited about raising money for a school trip to the Big Island.

"She promised not to go far and to be home early," Li said.

At 6:30 p.m., Jiezhao still had not returned. Li began searching for her. By 9 p.m., she called police.

The next morning, police began an intensive search, going door-to-door, scouring the neighborhood.

"They were very nice. They told me, 'don't worry, we'll try our best to find her and we'll help you'," she said.

But by the weekend, Jiezhao was still missing.

Spurred by reports in the newspapers and on television, hundreds of volunteers joined the search. The search went on for months all over Oahu, but turned up nothing. No sign. No solid clues to what happened to the girl.

Mementos from elementary school are all that Li has left to remember her daughter by. She has only one picture of Jiezhao. The others were given to the news media in the effort to find her and were never returned.

The picture is part of a Valentine's Day card Jiezhao made just before she disappeared. It sits on a bureau in Li's bedroom facing away from the room.

Li cannot bear to look at it every day. "When I see the picture, my heart aches," she said.

The picture is of a girl with bright eyes and a shy smile. She has short, straight hair and is wearing a bright yellow, flowered dress. The one-inch picture, taken from a packet of school photos, is surrounded by a hand-drawn heart with the words "Be Mine" written in pencil and crayon.

It's encased in a three-sided acrylic frame. On one side is the cover of the card, where Jiezhao wrote "Happy Valentine's Day." The third side has Jiezhao's name written in a child's hand in block letters on lined, school notepaper.

In China, Li had to protect Jiezhao by hiding her from the authorities, even before she was born. She is the second daughter, born two years after her older sister.

Only two children were allowed per family in China. If children were to be born less than four years apart, mothers were told to get an abortion.

"I didn't want to have an abortion, so I had to hide my pregnancy," she said.

Because the birth was not reported, the family could not get extra rations of food and milk for Jiezhao, and Li sold her engagement ring to buy food.

The family emigrated to Hawaii two years before Jiezhao's kidnapping.

In spite of the tragedy in her new homeland, Li still dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen. She has permanent resident status.

"There's no freedom in China. In the U.S., there's freedom," she said.

But her immigration counselor and teacher, Yuk Pang Law, said the trauma of what happened to Jiezhao has affected Li's ability to learn.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Jiezhao's photo is part of a Valentine's Day card that she made for her mother. The card sits on a bureau in her mother's bedroom, facing away because the mother can't bear to look at it every day.

Six years ago, a clinical psychologist agreed.

In a letter to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Lavay Lau, Ph.D, wrote: "Mrs. Li was found on evaluation to be suffering from symptoms of anxiety and depression . . .

"It is very difficult for Mrs. Li to retain new material she has learned. It is therefore hoped that an exception can be made in testing her for U.S. citizenship."

Li's application was denied.

Now, Law is helping Li try again for citizenship. Under a new law, she could qualify for an exemption from the English language, U.S. history and civics tests based on disability.

"Because of her missing daughter, she is not able to remember things and she has trouble learning," Law said.

Li has an on-call job as a maid at a Waikiki hotel chain.

Her husband has a heart condition and cannot work. Her oldest daughter is 24 and sells clothing in Waikiki. Between the two incomes, the family survives.

A third daughter is in high school.

"They still give her fund-raising tickets to sell," Li said with a touch of anger.

The Jiezhao Li case is still open at the Honolulu Police Department. But there are no leads left to follow. Yan Li has not talked to police investigators in years.

Police believe Jiezhao was kidnapped and probably murdered.

In her head, Li thinks that after 10 years, if Jiezhao were still alive, she would have returned by now.

"My feeling is Jiezhao is not on this Earth," Li said.

But in her heart, she cannot abandon the hope that Jiezhao may still be alive.

Though the family has moved from its original Nuuanu apartment, Li has not changed her telephone number in 10 years. There's still a chance, she thinks, that one day, maybe, Jiezhao Li will call home.

Boy's kidnapping
turns out to be a fib

A 6-year-old boy who had the community looking for a kidnapper in a black truck told detectives yesterday that he made up the story.

Thge Puohala Elementary School first-grader originally reported he was abducted after school on Tuesday and dropped off at Windward Mall.

Police, school officials, parents and residents searched for the kidnapper, who was precisely described by the boy, down to a scar and a dragon tattoo.

"We're not upset at all," said police Maj. Rapplee Fitzsimmons. "He's a young boy in the learning stages now. A positive comes out of this."

School officials said the boy will receive help and support rather than discipline for his actions.

"I'm just so relieved he's OK," said principal Ruth Silberstein. "When a child does something like this, he needs help rather than being reprimanded. It's not an ordinary thing for a child to do. I'm just happy it didn't happen."

The boy told detectives he did not want to attend his A+ after-school program, so he walked to Windward Mall, said Capt. Doug Miller.

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