To most people, the tree is just another part of the landscape at the Methodist fellowship center. But Wineman remembers when it was just a sapling planted here by friends of Zihui “Linda” Liu, a college student who was killed here in 1996.
For 14 years, Wineman was the man tasked with finding her killer.
“I came by this morning and looked at that tree and said ‘Linda, I told you I’d never forget you,’” said Wineman, the assistant chief of the Jacksonville Police Department.
Wineman and many other Jacksonville residents have been feeling a flood of emotions since the arrest this week of Chen Shi, the man suspected of killing Liu.
The U.S. Marshals Service nabbed Shi at his job at a restaurant in Minnesota, the arrest marking the end of an astounding 14-year flight from authorities. Shi managed to live and work in the U.S. for more than a decade without a passport and was picked up twice by police — and released — before anyone got wise to the accuations against him.
A representative of the victim’s family says a “bungled” local investigation led to Shi’s years on the run. But Wineman and other law enforcement officials say it was local work in the face of a sometimes frustrating lack of leads that ultimately led to the arrest.
What she left behind
Zihui Liu’s roommate and sister were the first people to report her missing back in October of 1996, a friend of her family says.
A quiet, serious student, Liu had come from a well-educated family in China. Her parents were respected surgeons, according to sources who know the family. Liu was 27 years old when she arrived at Jacksonville State University to study. And she knew — it’s not clear how well — another Chinese student in the area named Chen Shi.
Shi was seen with Liu before her disappearance on Oct. 18, 1996. Days later, a friend of the family said, Liu’s sister, was on the phone with Jacksonville police, insisting something was amiss.
“She was the one who pushed this,” said Ellen Reier, a California resident and friend of Liu’s family. “She told the police this was not at all like her sister. She wouldn’t just walk away.”
But Tommy Thompson had heard that story before. As police chief of Jacksonville, a college town, he often got reports of young adults vanishing for days on end. They were good, studious kids who’d never done anything strange or criminal before. They usually turned up days later, after a bender or an unplanned road trip with friends.
“It’s hard to sort these out,” he said. “Everyone who calls says, ‘He would never have gone off like this.’ But usually we find that they’re just visiting a friend.”
Still, wherever she was, Liu had left too many things behind. Her keys. Her passport. Her credit cards.
Within a week, fellow students were posting flyers around campus, and Bill Wineman, then a detective with the department, was assigned to the case.
From the start, there was really only one suspect.
Too little evidence
Wineman said he brought Shi and at least one other person in for questioning shortly after the disappearance. He wouldn’t reveal the details of that interview to The Star, but he said that in his gut, he knew something wasn’t right. There were conflicting stories about Shi’s last contact with Liu. And there was the stuff Liu left behind.
“Does your wife ever leave the house without her purse? For days?” he asked a Star reporter. “Something wasn’t right about that.”
Still, Wineman said, there wasn’t enough evidence to hold Shi. There wasn’t even a body. Wineman let Shi go — he said he had to — but he hung on to the student’s passport.
Shi fled town almost instantly, police said.
On Dec. 16, 1996, someone found Liu’s body in a ravine near a roadside in Glencoe. Now police knew there was a death, and they were confident — for reasons Wineman still won’t divulge — that it was a homicide.
But Shi was nowhere to be found. Liu’s family was not happy.
“What they’ve told me is that there was a small-town police force with only two or three investigators who bungled the investigation,” said Reier.
Wineman said he heard that same accusation many times from Liu's sister, who came to Jacksonville to push for a more intense investigation into her sister’s disappearance.
“The family is upset with me,” he acknowledged.
‘America’s Most Wanted’
In 1997, the TV show America’s Most Wanted began working on a story about the disappearance of Shi.
Wineman said Shi’s mother wanted to find him. Still not facing charges in the killing, Shi was officially a missing person and a material witness. Wineman said he went along with the missing persons angle in order to get his man.
“The mom says he’s missing, and we have another student missing, so we want to find him and make sure he’s alright,” he said. “I can go with that, if it finds him.”
Shi was found. He was in North Carolina working for a restaurant. Police there held him as a material witness in the Liu case. But under the rules for holding such witnesses, they can be detained only while an investigator is en route, Wineman said.
“If you want them to hold him, you have to be on the road now,” Wineman said.
Wineman wasn’t on the road instantly. He blames some sort of bureaucratic foul-up for preventing him from going to North Carolina on the spot. He won’t say what the foul-up was, but he’s still mad about it.
“Let me say that there’s someone I no longer speak to,” he said. “The details will come out in the trial, I’m sure.”
For whom the bell tolls
For years, the Liu disappearance dropped out of the headlines. But it was often on the minds of people close to the case.
“It’s something that has haunted me, and I’m sure it has haunted Bill Wineman,” said Angie Ayers Finley, a JSU spokeswoman who covered the case during her years as a reporter for The Jacksonville News.
Finley said there are few in Jacksonville who remember the mood in town when the case was fresh. It’s a college town, and a lot of people cycle through over 14 years. But for those who have stayed, she said, there’s a sadness that hasn’t gone away.
“It’s a small community,” she said. “One person’s death has an impact on everyone.”
In 2005, Shi was picked up by police in Minnesota. Wineman said Shi ran afoul of security at a casino after pestering a young woman there and asking her to go off with him. The casino reported him for trespassing, a misdemeanor.
Shi gave police a fake name, Wineman said. His fingerprints were taken and run through a police database. But by the time a result came back, Shi had been released on bond.
Again, he vanished.
Back in Alabama, investigators were finally making some headway. Calhoun County’s cold case unit — a joint effort of the Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s office, manned by veteran investigators from various police forces — took up the case. They found a witness, a passerby who reportedly saw Shi dumping something at the site where Liu’s body was found. There was enough evidence there to seek a murder indictment in absentia, which the district attorney got in 2005.
Local law enforcement officials say Shi had survived all these years on “under-the-table” work at restaurants around the country. Typically, police say, he would live with other undocumented workers in homes owned by restaurant owners, taking his pay in cash and keeping his head down.
U.S. Marshals found him at a restaurant called Fresh Wok in Minnesota. Thompson said earlier this week that Shi had been turned in by someone, but police are being tight-lipped about further details.
When marshals arrived to question Shi, Wineman said, he stayed in place. But then they asked Shi to roll up his sleeve.
“He had a sort of brand on his arm, like you’ll see in some fraternities,” Wineman said. “When they asked him to show his arm, he knew what was going on and he bolted for the door.”
Shi was caught and handcuffed before he left the building, Wineman said.
Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson said Wednesday morning Shi is still in jail in Minnesota. He’s awaiting an extradition hearing and won’t be leaving, Amerson said, because Immigration and Customs Enforcement has him on hold.
Reier, who had acted as a spokeswoman for the Liu family in 1997, said she hadn’t heard about the arrest until The Star called her Wednesday.
“I’m a little surprised to hear this,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “I didn’t even know he was under indictment.”
Family members didn’t reply to The Star’s messages. Reier said her Liu's sister needed “time to process” the information before speaking. In an e-mail, Reier said her sister didn’t know about the arrest or indictment until Reier forwarded her a story from Wednesday’s edition of The Star.
Thompson said he’s not surprised the indictment wasn’t known. It was sealed, he said, and kept secret until the arrest was made.
Despite the family’s criticism of their work, Jacksonville police say missing persons cases are difficult, particularly when there’s a language barrier and few local contacts for the victim.
“The family is right,” said Wineman. “I am a small-town police officer. I don’t have a lot of resources. I didn’t have the reach … to do what I knew needed to be done.”
Wineman credits the cold-case unit and the marshals for catching Shi.
Whether there will be enough evidence to convict is another matter. Investigators have kept mum on what evidence they do have, saying it will come out at trial.
Wineman said he’s never given up on the case.
“I’ve always kept the file right at hand, so that when the call comes that he’s in custody, I can tell what I know,” he said. “And the call came.”