REPOSITORY INVESTIGATION: The Canton Repository sought interviews with relatives, neighbors and customers — and researched the records of various government entities — to report this story on the background of Liang J. Zhao and Mingming Chen.

JACKSON TWP.  The lights inside Ang's Asian Cuisine remained on last week.

Menus were stacked neatly on the counter. Tables were set with bottles of soy sauce and salt-and-pepper shakers. The tip jar waited expectantly on the counter.

Nothing inside the restaurant hinted that it had closed a week earlier, after police found the body of 5-year-old Ashley Zhao, the owners' daughter, hidden inside.

Liang J. Zhao, 34, and Mingming Chen, 29, reported their daughter missing Jan. 9, prompting an overnight search by Jackson Township police that ended with the discovery of Ashley's body and the arrest of her parents the following day.

Police have charged Chen with murder and felonious assault. They say she hit her daughter in the head several times with her fist, causing injuries that killed the girl. Zhao is charged with complicity to murder and complicity to felonious assault. Jail records say he knew Chen had injured their daughter and he attempted to revive her when she stopped breathing.

The family's neighbors, customers and the wider community have struggled to reconcile those allegations with the hardworking entrepreneurs and parents Zhao and Chen appeared to be.

"They looked so nice," said Kirk Klusty, who lived in the same apartment building as Zhao, Chen and their daughters. "They seemed like good people."

Brief biography

Zhao and Chen ran a popular restaurant with loyal customers, but it's hard to find anyone who knew them well.

The Canton Repository reached out to relatives of Zhao and Chen by phone, in person and on social media. No one was willing to talk.

Lawyers for the two said they still were gathering information about the case and declined to discuss details about their clients other than to confirm that they were married.

Still, details can be culled from court proceedings, old news accounts and business filings.

Zhao is a naturalized citizen who has spent about 20 years in the United States, according to news accounts. Some of that time was spent in New York. On his Facebook profile, Zhao listed Queens as his hometown.

It's unclear when Zhao came to Ohio, but according to a 2011 Repository story, he and his father had run a Chinese restaurant in Jackson Township since about 2000.

Chen's backstory is spelled out in more detail in federal court documents, but U.S. immigration officials have cast doubt on the truthfulness of her tale.

Seeking asylum

Chen applied for asylum in the United States in early 2009. She said she was a former elementary school teacher who faced persecution in China because she practiced Falun Gong, a faith that blends traditional Chinese religion and medicine with Buddhist tenets and exercise.

Chen told immigration officials she left China in August 2008 and paid a "snakehead" — a human smuggler — $68,000 to sneak her into the United States.

About two months after flying from China to Mexico, Chen crossed the U.S. border hidden inside a vehicle. Someone then drove her to New York, where she met an uncle who brought her to Ohio.

Chen told U.S. immigration authorities that she left China after police arrested her for practicing Falun Gong. (Members of the northeast Ohio Falun Gong community have said they didn't know Chen and questioned whether she really has practiced the faith.)

Chen said she turned to Falun Gong to cope with insomnia caused by job stress. She said police arrested her in April 2008 during a raid on her home and kept her in detention for a month. On one occasion, a female police officer hit Chen in the back with a baton and pushed her into a wall. The officer ordered Chen to sign a statement promising not to practice Falun Gong.

Chen initially refused to sign the paper, but after a month in custody, and pleas from her mother, she signed the statement and was released. She had been fired from her teaching job and couldn't find other work. The police told Chen they would jail her permanently if they caught her practicing Falun Gong again.

U.S. immigration authorities denied Chen's application for asylum. They said her account was not credible because of inconsistencies in her story. A judge ordered Chen's removal from the U.S. in late 2009, but she kept making appeals until at least 2012, when the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals declined to review her case.

Family forms

Chen built a family while she pursued appeals. She married Zhao in March 2010 and gave birth to a daughter in October of that year in New York City, according to federal and local court records and sources close to the case.

Zhao and Chen met while she was working for his sister's restaurant in New York state, according to an Aug. 20 article published on the Our Town North Canton website. Zhao happened to be helping at his sister's restaurant after her delivery driver had an accident.

By the summer of 2011, Zhao was back in Stark County, where he opened Ang's Asian Cuisine in the Gander Mountain plaza at 4924 Portage Street NW. He and his father had run a Lucky Star restaurant in the same plaza for 11 years, but the new name in a new storefront would differentiate Ang's from the Lucky Star eateries run by his uncles, Zhao told the Repository at the time.

In December 2011, Chen and Zhao had a second child, Ashley, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Running the restaurant was a challenge. Regular customers recalled that Zhao and Chen were the only employees in a business open six days a week. Several times during the past three years, Zhao announced on Facebook that Ang's would be closed because his wife, one of the girls or he was ill.

Nina Amen said her daughter befriended Ashley's older sister in preschool last year. Zhao and Chen couldn't get away from the restaurant for play dates, so Amen would bring her daughter to the restaurant.

The family was private, and Chen, who requires a translator in court, didn't talk a lot. Zhao seemed to be a loving father, and his daughters were "daddy's girls," Amen said.

"They seemed like really good, hard-working young parents," added Rebecca DeCoy of Jackson Township, who said she ordered takeout from Ang's — beef broccoli, white rice, and egg roll — about twice a month.

Ashley and her sister were often in the restaurant, coloring or playing on a tablet.

The girls "were very polite, very inquisitive," said Jackie Havens, another customer from Jackson Township. "They knew how to interact with people."

DeCoy said she used to think of how bored the girls were and how tough it must be to run a restaurant while raising a family. The last time she was at Ang's was the week before Christmas; she placed her order and took a seat. Ashley came up to her. They talked about Santa Claus.

"She was very bubbly, very talkative," DeCoy said.

Neighbors react

Zhao, Chen and the girls lived a mile from the restaurant in the Maple Wayview apartments at 7300 Sunset Strip Ave. NW.

The family rented apartment No. 11, on the top floor of a building next to Interstate 77, without much soundproofing.

Kirk Klusty said he moved into the apartment across the hall from Zhao and Chen a little more than a month before Ashley died. He estimated he saw the family a half-dozen times in passing.

"I don't think I ever caught them at a bad moment," he said.

Alex Klatt lives downstairs in No. 1. He crossed paths with Zhao and Chen three or four times a week because they tended to come home around 10 p.m., the same time he did.

"They were always polite but reserved," Klatt said.

Case unfolding

The events and family dynamics that led to Ashley's death eventually will come out in court. Meanwhile, Zhao and Chen remain jailed in lieu of $5 million bond, and their surviving daughter is in the custody of the county child-welfare agency.

Ashley's remains have been cremated and turned over to relatives from New York.

Ang's Asian Cuisine is closed, probably forever, but the restaurant remains a magnet, day and night, for the curious and the contemplative. Mourners have built a memorial on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant with stuffed animals, balloons, candles and crosses.

This past Wednesday, a car pulled into the nearly empty parking lot and a young woman got out. She was a student home from Columbus. She snapped pictures of the memorial with her phone, then spent several minutes quietly staring at the memorial.

Rain faded the messages chalked on the sidewalk: "Prayers always" and "R.I.P."

Reach Shane at 330-580-8338 or shane.hoover@cantonrep.com.

On Twitter: @shooverREP