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Asian cuisine restaurant owners plead innocent to murder charges

By Ed Balint • Mar 16, 2017 at 4:30 PM

CANTON — The parents charged with murder in the death of their 5-year-old daughter both pleaded not guilty Wednesday in Stark County Common Pleas Court.

Liang Zhao, 34, and Mingming Chen, 29, appeared before Judge Chryssa Hartnett for an arraignment on the murder count and several other charges. Arraignments typically take place at a designated time for groups of individual defendants in common pleas court through a video feed from the Stark County Jail.

But a separate arraignment was scheduled for Chen and Zhao, apparently because Chen does not speak English and requires an interpreter during court hearings.

A pretrial was scheduled for April 20 for both defendants but it will be a meeting between the attorneys and judge and not in open court. A future trial date will be among the issues discussed.

Jackson Township police allege Chen punched her daughter, Ashley Zhao, several times in the head, and that when Zhao found the child on the floor, he tried to clean her up before unsuccessfully attempting CPR.

Police say the couple concealed the body somewhere inside their restaurant, Ang's Asian Cuisine restaurant at 4924 Portage St. NW, before falsely reporting the girl as missing.

It prompted a large-scale search of the area Jan. 9. Police later found the body inside the restaurant and arrested the parents on initial charges. Investigators and Stark County Prosecutor John Ferrero have declined to provide more details on the circumstances surrounding the child's death and specifically where her body was found inside the business.

Earlier this month, both defendants were indicted by a county grand jury. Zhao and Chen, both of 7300 Sunset Strip Ave. NW, also are charged with endangering children (two counts), tampering with evidence, obstructing justice and gross abuse of a corpse.

The indictment says that Chen and Zhao, either as the principal offender or aiding the other, abused Ashley. Court records also say the husband and wife caused the death of their daughter as a result of committing or attempting to commit the offense of endangering children.

Additionally, the indictment alleges that Zhao and Chen treated a human corpse "in a way that would outrage reasonable community sensibilities."

If convicted of all charges, both defendants face roughly 30 years to life in prison, according to the Stark County Prosecutor's Office.

During the hearing, Zhao answered procedural questions regarding his U.S. citizenship. Zhao said he's lived in this country since age 6 and learned to speak English in the New York City school system where he graduated from high school. Zhao's native language is Chinese.

Chen's attorney Richard Drucker, of Cleveland, said that his client is not a U.S. citizen and not a lawful resident of the country.

Both defendants waived their right to have a trial within 90 days of being arrested.

Chen answered questions with the assistance of (Tasha) Seow Lee Lee, an interpreter certified with the Ohio Supreme Court in Mandarin Chinese who has provided her services in the local court system previously.

At Wednesday's arraignment, Hartnett said the bond for Zhao and Chen would remain $5 million.

Zhao's attorney, Joseph Gorman, said he plans to address the issue of bond at a later date.

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