Little girl’s disappearance remains one of Hawaii’s biggest unsolved mysteries


What happened to Jie Zhao Li?

This year marks 30 years since the 12-year-old girl disappeared.

On February 11, 1988, Li was selling benefit chili tickets at the 7-Eleven store at the corner of Nuuanu Avenue and Kuakini Street.

“While she was there, she just simply disappeared,” said Gary Dias, a retired HPD homicide lieutenant who was in charge of the case.

“She never had a history of running away and she didn’t have the personality based on our discussions with the family of being the type that would run away,” Dias added.

Li had moved to Hawaii from China with her parents and two sisters just two years earlier. She went to Royal Elementary School.

“According to the family she is a very obedient child. In fact was very dear to the heart of the parents,” said the Li family’s spokesperson in 1988.

Posters and fliers went up. Word went out through the news media. And there was an extensive search.

“We have a crime reduction unit from Kalihi on foot in the street areas checking with the neighbors again, looking for witnesses, evidence, any other information that might help us,” said HPD’s Arthur Ledward in 1988.

“Hundreds of officers involved, got involved with this investigation and we ended up on a dead end street,” Dias said.

That’s despite tips and leads that came in. Dias said a person of interest was a mentally ill man who had a run-in with another little girl at that 

“He would tell us on several occasions ‘I’ll show you where she is,’ or ‘I’ll show you where she’s buried.'” Dias said. “But his conversations with us led us to conduct an extremely extensive search of the Nuuanu Stream area, utilizing our SWAT team and the dogs we had with the department at the time. And we came up with nothing.”

Another tip was that someone thought they saw a young Asian girl get into a 1950s Chevy.

“So what we did was run a computer check through our research department and came up with a list of all registered Chevrolets between 1953 and 1959. And we made physical checks of every single Chevrolet,” Dias said.

Nothing came of that either.

Someone else suggested Li had been kidnapped by someone from China.

When asked if he thinks she’s still alive, Dias responded: “Well I am among the group of people who believe that she met with foul play. Now, that being said, I would pray that I’m wrong, that nothing happened to her, and somehow somewhere she’s alive. And somewhere somehow she will come forward if she is alive.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children released a rendering of what Jie Zhao Li would look like as an adult. Today she would be 43-years-old.

Dias says it’s a case he still thinks about.

“You kind of always say did I do enough? Did we do enough? And we felt at the time of the incident we did the best we could to try and locate her,” Dias said.

KHON2 reached out to Jie Zhao Li’s mother through her attorney, Wilson Loo.

Loo told KHON2: “On behalf of Mrs. Li, she would like to extend her heartfelt appreciation to the news media, HPD, the AG’s office and all of the other organizations which have so tirelessly assisted on this tragedy. Although it has been 30 years, she still thinks of Jie Zhao every single day and still has hopes for information leading to her recovery. Without fail.”

If you have any information that can help solve this cold case, contact Crimestoppers at (808) 955-8300, or Missing Child Center Hawaii at (808) 586-1449.

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