On Monday, 55-year-old Zhen Jie Zhang of Sydney was sentenced to seven years in prison by the Southport District Court in Queensland. This stemmed from a 2018 incident in which Zhang, a former Chinese solider, kidnapped the 12-year-old son of an associate in an attempt to recoup $5.5 million in gambling debts.

How It All Started

Ten years prior, Mr. Zhang became acquainted with the father of the victim. The two became fast friends, often going to casinos together. However, the father in question wasn’t an especially lucky gambler, and he started racking up major debts to the casinos. He would then, in turn, borrow money from Mr. Zhang.

This pattern of behaviour continued for quite some time, and eventually Zhang wanted to recoup some of his funds. By this point, the victim’s father reportedly owned Zhang $5.5 million.

Things Take a Turn for the Worse

Sometime in 2018, things took a turn for the worse in the relationship between the two men. Zhang became more insistent about the $5.5 million debt, and he began sending threatening messages over a three-month period. As mentioned in court, one of these messages was a direct threat against his former friend’s child, and it stated “Watch out…wait for pick up the body.”

The Kidnapping

The kidnapping occurred on a Friday in May of 2018. The 12-year-old victim was returning home from Somerset College in Mudgeeraba. CCTV images showed him carrying a tennis racket, totally unaware of what was about to take place.

When the boy was only metres from his home, Mr. Zhang made his move. He emerged from a dark Jeep, shoved a jacket over the head of the victim, and then forced him into the waiting vehicle. Moments later, the pair were speeding away towards an unknown destination.

Zhen Jie Zhang enters courthouse

A 16-Hour Ordeal

As soon as the police were notified of the kidnapping, they issued an Amber Alert and began a frantic search. Luckily, the Main Roads camera network was helpful in determining which direction Zhang and the victim were headed. Queensland and NSW authorities coordinated to set up various checkpoints.

Zhang’s plan was to ransom the boy back to his father, thereby recouping some of the money owed to him. They sped across Queensland and into New South Wales, with the victim being forced to wear a bag on his head and only being given minimal water.

Despite his situation, the boy repeatedly tried to get away. According to prosecutor Matt Hynes, “On the first attempt, his ankles were tied. The second a towel was placed in his mouth. The third his head was tied to a chair with the rope around his neck.”

Sixteen hours after the kidnapping, police discovered the boy in Grafton. He was 240 kilometres away from home and restrained in the back of Zhang’s vehicle. Luckily, his physical injuries only amounted to minor cuts and scratches.

Zhang was taken into custody and eventually extradited from Grafton. Police in Queensland charged him with assault occasioning bodily harm, deprivation of liberty, torture, kidnapping for ransom, and two counts of extortion.

The Trial

During the trial, Zhang’s defence barrister pointed out that his client had no previous criminal convictions. He stated that Zhang was desperate to recover the money, as he needed funds to help his sick mother and put his own son through flight school.

The victim’s mother delivered an impact statement to the court, speaking about the effects the incident had on her son. She stated that he was once “happy-go-lucky” but had now become “sad, frightened, and miserable.” She added that he often hides under a table when dark vehicles pass their home.

Zhang also addressed the victim through an interpreter. He said, “I want to say I’m deeply sorry. If you feel afraid, please forgive me for that. Your father was acting terribly and owed me a substantial amount of money. I felt I had no other option.”

Judge Catherine McGuinness sentenced Mr. Zhang to seven years in prison. Factoring in time already served (2 ½ years), Zhang will become eligible for parole in February of 2023.

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