Episode 075: Wanzhen Lu

April 10, 2023

When an international student is abducted and held for ransom, investigators must race against the clock to find him. What happened to Wanzhen Lu?

Episode Media
Wanzhen Lu
Parking garage entrance at Riverside Uptown condos (CBC)
Surveillance images of the first three suspects (York Regional Police)
Dodge Caravan used in the abduction of Wanzhen Lu
Distance between where Wanzhen was abducted in Markham and where he was later found in Gravenhurst (Google Maps)
Abdullahi Adan (York Regional Police)
Muzamil Addow (York Regional Police)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a case that at first glance, seems like it came straight out of a movie. But the story is all too real. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

On the evening of Saturday, March 23, 2019, 22-year-old Wanzhen Lu pulled his new Range Rover into the parking garage of the Riverside Uptown condos in Markham, Ontario. He and a friend had just returned from a shopping trip and were planning to hang out in Wanzhen’s condo that night. But as they walked through the garage, they were suddenly ambushed from behind. Three men wearing masks grabbed Wanzhen, and when he tried to fight back, one of the men stunned him with a taser. They grappled with Wanzhen before shoving him into the back of a black van and speeding away.

Wanzhen’s friend was left behind, shocked by what she had just witnessed. Everything had happened so quickly and so unexpectedly. When officers from the York Regional Police arrived to question her, she was only able to give vague descriptions of Wanzhen’s abductors.

Thankfully, investigators had plenty of surveillance footage to go through, and they immediately released images of the suspects and the van they were driving – a distinctive black Dodge Caravan that had been modified for wheelchair access and had a handicap sticker in the rear window. The suspects – the three men who grabbed Wanzhen and the getaway driver – were clearly seen in the surveillance images, and descriptions of all four were released to the public.

Suspect number 1 was a man wearing a mask, blue pants, and a black jacket. Suspect number 2 was a dark-skinned male, approximately 6’1” and wearing a black Canada Goose jacket. Suspect number 3 was a dark-skinned male, approximately 6”2” with a heavier build, wearing dark blue jeans and a black jacket. Suspect number 4, the driver of the van, was a man wearing a greenish-yellow jacket with a hood. With the descriptions and images of the suspects and the van, police were hopeful they would have some answers soon.

Constable Andy Pattenden spoke with the media right away, stressing the importance of the public’s help. “There was a significant level of violence involved in this kidnapping. He was taken 100 per cent against his will from what we can see in the surveillance video… We are hopeful someone spots the vehicle. It has very unique markings on it.”

Police also released an image of Wanzhen that had been taken earlier that day, wearing the same clothing he had been abducted in: a black hoodie, black jeans, and white sneakers. The clothes also gave investigators a clue as to why Wanzhen may have been abducted – his Gucci sweatshirt alone retailed for $1,500. Wanzhen Lu was loaded, and his kidnappers must have known it.

Investigators began to dig into Wanzhen’s background and his life in Ontario. Originally from the island province of Hainan off the coast of mainland China, Wanzhen’s parents were wealthy Chinese nationals – his father, Lu Wenrong, was the vice chairman of the Taoist Association of China and director of the Yuchan Palace. He was also a local representative to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body of the Chinese Communist Party. Wanzhen’s mother came from generational wealth, and the Lu family enjoyed a very comfortable existence in Hainan.

Funded by his family’s wealth, Wanzhen was currently studying business administration at Yorkville University, a private school with multiple locations across Canada. In 2018, he had purchased his condo at Riverside Uptown for over half a million dollars in cash, and he had a rotating collection of expensive vehicles that he leased, including a Lamborghini, a Ferrari, a Rolls-Royce, and the Range Rover he had been driving at the time of his abduction.

Investigators believed that Wanzhen had been specifically targeted for his wealth, which would have been easy enough for an opportunist to spot. Police expected a ransom demand at any moment, but in the meantime, they had to figure out what exactly had happened to Wanzhen and where he might be now.

The first problem was how the kidnappers had accessed the parking garage in the first place. The Riverside Uptown was a luxury condominium complex with a concierge and security in each building. The underground parking garage could only be accessed with a resident’s key fob that raised a metal door. Investigators believed that the black van had already been inside the garage when Wanzhen and his friend arrived on Saturday evening, but how?

Through interviews with condo residents, investigators learned that when a key fob was scanned, the metal door stayed open for at least ten seconds as the vehicle pulled in. It would be very easy for a second vehicle to follow closely and sneak in before the door closed behind them. Surveillance video confirmed this to be the case with the black van.

Because the van was so recognizable, investigators suspected that the kidnappers would switch vehicles as soon as they had the chance. And they were right – within 24 hours, the abandoned Dodge Caravan had been located in downtown Toronto, the license plate removed. The van was processed by a forensic team, and the hunt for Wanzhen and his abductors continued.

Adding another layer of complication to the search was the fact that Wanzhen was a Chinese citizen, and relations between China and Canada were not great at the time. The two countries were locked in a diplomatic dispute over the detention of a Chinese telecoms executive in December of 2018, and tensions were still high. But York Regional Police stayed in contact with the Chinese consulate in Toronto, which acted as a go-between for investigators and Wanzhen’s family.

A spokesperson for the consulate issued a statement, saying, “We have been in close contact and communication with the police, urging them to rescue the kidnapped student as soon as possible. The police said that they are doing their best to solve the case. We have also contacted the student’s parents in China.”

Wanzhen’s parents were on a plane to Toronto as soon as they heard the news of their son’s abduction. They were obviously concerned about his safety and hoped that he would be found soon. I can only imagine how frightening it must be for your child to be lost in a foreign country, and how the language barrier would add frustration on top of fear. But it seems as though both countries were trying to make the situation as bearable as possible for Wanzhen’s family. Constable Pattenden told reporters, “We have been in touch with the family… They’re asking for their privacy to be respected at this point in time. They’re obviously very concerned for Mr. Lu’s well-being as are we.”

The Chinese consulate issued another statement, saying, “We contacted the YRP for all relevant details, asked them to spare no efforts to rescue the victim safely and take concrete measures to protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens within our consular district.”

At this point, investigators were working around the clock to find Wanzhen. On March 26th, three days after the abduction, York Regional Police announced that they had made an arrest. But according to Canadian law, police can only hold a suspect for 24 hours before they have to lay charges, and at the time, there wasn’t enough evidence. The suspect was released without charge.

Investigators were keeping some details close to the vest, including the fact that a ransom demand had come in – the kidnappers were requesting millions of dollars in Bitcoin in exchange for Wanzhen’s safe return.

The demand was reminiscent of a ransom scam that had been circulating in the area back in 2017. Multiple Chinese students in Canada fell victim to the scam, in which the scammers told the students to go into hiding or else their family members in China would be hurt. Then, the scammers contacted the families in China and demanded a ransom. Thankfully, the students were all found safe, but it caused a fair amount of panic at the time, and it wasn’t that much of a stretch to think that perhaps Wanzhen had fallen victim to this scam as well.

However, after some digging, it seemed as though Wanzhen’s case was not connected. None of Wanzhen’s bank accounts had been touched, and his digital footprint didn’t reveal any messages from potential scammers. Constable Pattenden told reporters, “At this point in time, our investigators have not provided us with any other information linking it to any other cases that they may be aware of. They are treating this as a unique situation.”

Around 9pm on Tuesday, March 26th, a man was in his front yard in the town of Gravenhurst when suddenly his dog started barking frantically. As the man looked around for what had spooked the dog, he heard a voice coming from the darkness. “Help me, I’ve been kidnapped.”

The man quickly put the dog inside and grabbed a flashlight. At the edge of his property, he found a young Asian man, disoriented and confused. His jeans were ripped and pieces of duct tape were stuck to the hood of his sweatshirt, as if it had been taped around his head. He had a gash on his knee and scratches on his arms.

Thankfully, the homeowner had heard about the young Chinese student who had been abducted near Toronto, and he was able to fill in the gaps. “He was quite shaken up, which I don’t blame him… I rushed him into the house and called 911 on the way… And then everybody showed up.”

Ontario Provincial Police responded to the home and were able to identify the young man as Wanzhen Lu. He was safe, and mostly unharmed. He was taken to the hospital to be treated for minor injuries, and was then released into the custody of the York Regional Police.

At a late-night press conference, Constable Pattenden told reporters that while they were grateful for Wanzhen’s safe recovery, they were also still focused on finding his abductors. “We’re very concerned that they’re still out there, and I can tell you that the investigative efforts are far from over. We’re going to continue with this until those four suspects are found and brought into custody.”

He also stated that they were determined to figure out why Wanzhen had been targeted. “There’s a lot that we need to learn… Mr. Lu is obviously going to be the best source of information.”

While Wanzhen recovered from his ordeal, he told investigators what he could remember about the past few days.

On Saturday evening, he and his friend had gone shopping and were planning to spend the next few hours cooking dinner and hanging out. Then, out of the blue, masked men had come up behind them and hit him with a taser, stunning him, then had thrown him into the back of a van. Wanzhen had no idea how long they drove or where they ended up, but he told investigators that the men had kept him tied up, his hands duct taped in front of him, for several days. He was given a mattress to sit on and was fed a diet of pizza and rice.

On Tuesday, the men put Wanzhen in another vehicle and began driving north. Wanzhen knew this might be his only chance to escape. Somehow, he managed to open the door and jump out of the moving vehicle, rolling into the grass before taking off running, hiding behind some bushes. He wasn’t sure if the men would chase after him, but he waited a while before finally making his way to a nearby house, where the homeowner took him in and called the police.

As Wanzhen was reunited with his family, investigators searched the area where he was found, hoping for some clues as to where the kidnappers may have gone after Wanzhen escaped. They roped off a large section of Doe Lake Road, a rural highway that runs through the small town of Gravenhurst. Constable Mike Lacroix explained their strategy. “What we’re looking for is any evidence or clues that might lead to the direction by which the kidnapping victim traveled or any clues leading to the identities of the suspects… Perhaps there could be some footprints in the snow that might determine the path that the victim had taken, anything that might’ve been dropped… We know tire impressions can sometimes be very helpful clues… anything like that might be evidentiary in nature.”

Although investigators would not say what evidence was found at the scene, there must have been something, because a few days later, they named their first suspect.

On April 1st, York Regional Police issued a Canada-wide arrest warrant for 37-year-old Abdullahi Adan: the original suspect number 3. He was being charged with kidnapping, forcible confinement, and two counts of assault. Adan turned himself in later that day.

Constable Pattenden praised investigators on their hard work, but reminded the public that three suspects were still at large. “I can tell you our investigators have been working very, very hard on this investigation and it’s only a matter of time before these three additional suspects are identified. So we’re encouraging them now to seek legal counsel and turn themselves in right away… We’ve got those images out… somebody is going to recognize who they are. We need you to call us. Let us know their names so that we can close in on them and get these three suspects in custody as well.”

On April 2nd, police announced another arrest. While executing a search warrant in the neighboring city of Brampton, York Regional Police arrested 33-year-old Hashim Abdullahi, the alleged getaway driver. He also faced charges of kidnapping, forcible confinement, and assault.

On April 4th, another name: 28-year-old Muzamil Addow, believed to be suspect number 1, was now wanted by police. Constable Pattenden told reporters, “We need to bring him into custody. He is clearly capable of violence… He is considered armed and dangerous. If you do spot him please call 911.”

On April 26th, police made a third arrest: 22-year-old Nathan Plater was charged with kidnapping, forcible confinement and possession of a prohibited firearm. He later pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to four years in prison with credit for time served.

On July 9th, there was a bit of a surprise: a fifth suspect, previously unknown to the public, had been arrested. Thirty-one-year-old Kyle Main was charged with kidnapping, forcible confinement, and multiple counts of assault and weapons violations.

Although it seemed like investigators were on a roll, there was still one piece of the puzzle missing: Muzamil Addow was still on the run. It would be another 18 months before he was finally brought to justice.

On January 14, 2021, police across the border in Minnesota pulled over a Chevy Silverado for speeding. When the trooper approached the vehicle, he noticed a strong smell of marijuana, and the two men in the truck were acting strangely. They gave the trooper an odd story about working in construction in North Dakota, and the story just didn’t add up. When the trooper searched the vehicle, he found over 60 guns and several magazines of ammunition. Both men were taken into custody and charged with illegal firearms possession. The first man, Dayne Sitladeen, was also wanted for first-degree murder in Canada. The second man was Muzamil Addow, the final suspect in the abduction of Wanzhen Lu.

Too many times, stories like these end in tragedy for the victims and their families. But thankfully, Wanzhen escaped his captors and was reunited with his loved ones. The perpetrators will face the consequences, and investigators can close the case knowing they did their best to bring them to justice.

From what I can tell, Wanzhen Lu appears to be living a quieter life now. His Instagram is private, and he doesn’t seem to have much of a presence on the internet. While researching this case, I was saddened to see how much vitriol has been spewed in his direction, blaming him for his own abduction, saying that he shouldn’t have flaunted his wealth, he deserved what he got. But no one deserves to be kidnapped and held against their will, no matter how much money they have or what lifestyle they live. I hope that Wanzhen and his family can find peace, and that we as a true crime community can stand up for all victims and help their voices be heard.