November 21, 2018 / 8:25 PM / 24 days ago

Exclusive: Prosecutors weigh competing accounts in JD.com CEO rape allegation

MINNEAPOLIS/NEW YORK (Reuters) - On the night of Aug. 30, a 21-year-old University of Minnesota student said she was in a chauffeured black car, trying to keep billionaire JD.com Inc Chief Executive Richard Liu from pulling off her clothes.

FILE PHOTO: JD.com founder Richard Liu, also known as Qiang Dong Liu, is pictured in this undated handout photo released by Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, obtained by Reuters September 23, 2018. Hennepin County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

“I just begged him, ‘Don’t do that. You have wife and you have kids,’” the Chinese woman told police in a recorded interview days after that was reviewed by Reuters. “He did not listen to me.”

At around 3 a.m., Minneapolis police responded to an "assault in progress" involving Liu at the woman’s luxury apartment, a police report showed, after a friend alerted authorities. Officers investigated and concluded that no crime had occurred. Precisely what the woman and Liu told police has not been made public, but Reuters previously reported that she was afraid that Liu would retaliate against her if she pressed charges. (reut.rs/2xwOIuM)

Less than 24 hours later, when police were summoned again with the help of a university administrator, the woman was unequivocal: She said she had been raped by Liu. The Chinese executive was arrested that night.

Liu, who has maintained his innocence through representatives, was jailed for about 17 hours before being released. Hours later, he flew to China, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.

Local prosecutors are weighing evidence that would move the case beyond a “he said, she said” stalemate. Among the issues being considered by the Hennepin County Attorney’s office: the divergent accounts of what happened that night, the initial determination by police that there was no crime, and the woman’s early hesitance to press charges against Liu, Reuters has learned.

An attorney for Liu, Jill Brisbois, said in an emailed response that Liu’s innocence would become apparent once more evidence is disclosed. “We are very disappointed that Reuters would choose to run a story with unsubstantiated information, from anonymous sources who clearly have an agenda, while Richard cannot defend himself out of respect for the judicial process,” she wrote.

Wil Florin, an attorney for the now 22-year-old woman hired four days after the alleged rape, would not make her available for comment.

Florin said in response to questions that the case was “simple” - Liu used force to have non-consensual sex - and the initial hesitance to press charges was understandable. “No one can fully appreciate the hurricane of initial emotions that a rape victim suffers,” Florin said. “Reluctance, fear and confusion are commonplace.”

Asked if his client planned any civil suits, Florin said, “Our legal intentions with regard to Mr. Liu and others will be revealed at the appropriate time.”

Some legal experts say victims’ initial reluctance to speak out plainly can deter prosecutors from charging due to concerns about how it would be seen by a jury.

“The decision to prosecute has a lot to do with the initial reaction of the victim, which is unfortunate,” said Roger Canaff, a former sex crimes prosecutor in New York.

Others said prosecutors should still be able to make a case, for example, with the help of expert witnesses.

“Prosecutors can still educate jurors on issues like fear of retaliation, avoidance and shame,” said Benjamin Andreozzi, a Pennsylvania-based attorney who frequently represents victims of sexual abuse.

The decision by prosecutors will likely affect JD.com, whose shares have already tumbled by more than a third since Liu’s arrest. Also known as Liu Qiangdong, he maintains tight control of the company he grew from a humble electronics stall to an e-commerce giant with 2017 net revenue of $55.7 billion and partners such as Alphabet Inc’s Google, Walmart Inc and Tencent Holdings Ltd.

BUSINESS SCHOOL FOR BILLIONAIRES

As prosecutors and the woman consider their legal options, Reuters has uncovered new details about the night and its immediate aftermath.

Liu, 45, had traveled to University of Minnesota in late August to attend a doctor of business administration program directed at Chinese executives. Other students in the program include Ma Huateng, the billionaire chief executive of Tencent, and Li Hua, the billionaire chairman of Excellence Real Estate Group Ltd, according to university materials.

After the alleged rape, a personal assistant for Liu turned to Li to request that he broker a peace with the woman, the woman told police in the recorded interview.

Li did not respond to requests for comment. University of Minnesota representatives declined to discuss the case, citing student privacy law.

The alleged rape happened hours after the student sat next to Liu at a dinner party that he had thrown at a Japanese restaurant. Near the end of the event, the woman said she was drunk and needed help getting home, according to the police interview.

Alice Zhang introduced herself as Liu’s personal assistant, according to Florin. Zhang helped the student into a car, and got in along with Liu, the woman told police in the recorded interview.

The woman said that Zhang initially tried to seat Liu and her separately in the car, but Liu told Zhang, “Don’t interrupt me,” and began touching the student in the back seat.

Zhang, who sat in front, turned up the radio and flipped up the rearview mirror, according to Florin, based on his investigation of the case, and a person familiar with the event.

When Reuters called Zhang on her personal cell phone in China, a woman who answered denied she was Zhang and hung up after hearing a description of the reporting. Liu’s attorney did not respond to questions on the episode, or to other specific requests for comment.

The woman told police she was scared, drunk and unsure where she was. She thought she could “sit down and talk” with Liu, and persuaded him to take her home in the car.

“‘I know you are a good person,’” she said she told Liu. “‘You might calm down so that you can realize what you are doing right now.’”

When they arrived at her building, Liu told the driver and Zhang that he would be back soon, the student told police. He ended up spending about four hours inside her apartment, according to a person familiar with the situation, showering at one point and lying naked on her bed. She said she repeatedly resisted Liu’s advances and tried to get him to leave.

“He was trying to pull me inside the shower,” she told police in the recorded interview. “I tried my best to battle against him.”

She told police that he eventually held her down and raped her with some of her clothes still on, according to a person familiar with the situation. The woman later told police she preserved his semen on her sheets as evidence.

SWIFT REACTION

The day after the incident, another of Liu’s assistants contacted the woman, according to her recorded interview with police.

The student told this assistant, Vivian Yang, that she wanted to talk about “things that happened yesterday,” according to a Reuters review of WeChat messages which Florin said are authentic. She told Yang she hoped for “justice” and was considering finding a lawyer. In the subsequent police interview, the student said she thought Liu could apologize to her. Police were provided with the same WeChat messages as part of their investigation, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Yang proposed that the woman meet that night with Li, the chairman of Excellence Real Estate Group, the woman said in her interview with police.

“You say your side, and then we say our side,” Yang told the student in a conversation that was recorded by a friend of the woman’s and reviewed by Reuters. “By letting Boss Li speak to you first, a person who is trusted by both our sides, he can communicate a little with you first.”

Reuters was not able to determine what, if anything, Li was told about the event that prompted Yang’s request. Reuters also could not ascertain if Li agreed to be a peacemaker, or if he knew about the plan.

The woman told police that she rejected the proposal, saying she only wanted to talk to Liu. She said she wanted to do so with a friend present, according to the recorded conversation.

Yang ultimately agreed to bring Liu to meet the woman at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management around 10:30 p.m. on Friday, WeChat messages showed. By the time Liu arrived, the woman was giving a statement to police. They arrested Liu at around 11 p.m.

Liu was released the following day, Sept. 1, at around 4 p.m., pending an investigation. Yang, reached in China, referred questions to the company’s public relations department. The spokeswoman referred Reuters to past public statements.

Hours after his release Liu was on a private jet, flying home to China.

Additional reporting by Blake Morrison in New York, Sue-Lin Wong in Shenzhen and the Shenzhen newsroom; Editing by Neal Templin and Blake Morrison

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