Warrants reveal details in investigation of Tong Shao's Iowa City death

Final text message concerning Shao came from Li's phone

Tong Shao
Tong Shao

A search warrant affidavit filed in connection with the disappearance of Iowa State University student Tong Shao reveals Xiangnan Li — Shao's boyfriend and the person of interest in her death — overheard Shao talking with another man about him and saying things that “were not nice.”

This conversation took place two weeks before the 20-year-old was reported missing to the Ames Police Department and five days before she reportedly sent a text message using Li's phone, indicating she was taking a bus to Minnesota. Police seem to believe that text message came from Li, not Shao.

Shao was reported missing to the Ames Police Department on Sept. 17, 2014. At the time, her roommates told police that Shao had gone to visit Li, a University of Iowa student, in Iowa City and she had not been heard from since Sept. 8. The roommates told police they received a text message on Sept. 8, reportedly from Shao, indicating she was taking a bus to Minnesota. Shao's parents in China last had contact with their daughter on Sept. 7, court documents state.

A missing persons case was launched and on Sept. 26, Shao's body was found in the trunk of a Toyota Camry belonging to her. The car was parked at the Dolphin Lake Point Enclave in Iowa City, where Li resided. Li, however, had flown to China on Sept. 8 and arrived there on Sept. 10, according to court records.

Iowa City police have described Shao's death as suspicious and named Li a person of interest in the case. Although Shao's autopsy was turned over to police in later October and the case was handed over to the Johnson County attorney's Office in mid-November, no arrests have been made in the case.

According to court records, the Ames Police Department filed four search warrants in connection with the case in October. A 90-day seal was placed on those warrants. However, the seal has expired on three of the warrants.


Accompanying the warrants is an affidavit written by Ames Police Department investigator Suzanne Owens, laying out details of the investigation. The affidavit states that a roommate received a text message from Li's phone, allegedly written by Shao. The text explains that Li had an emergency in China and was flying back there, while Shao was going to take a bus to visit friends in Minnesota. The text said Shao would be back in Ames in a week.

“It also said that Shao would be using Li's cellphone, but that the battery was dying,” the affidavit states.

However, Owens said in the affidavit that Li had his phone with him when he flew out of The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids on Sept. 8, a flight that he booked on Sept. 6. Police said phone records show Li used his phone to make calls during a layover in Chicago.

According to the affidavit, Li disappeared when he arrived in China.

“Since arriving in China ... it has been reported to police that no one in Li's family has heard from him or seen him,” the document states. “Friends of Li have also said they have not heard from him since he arrived in China, which is unusual behavior and which has caused concern for his family.”

An employee at Dolphin Lake Point Enclave also told investigators that she entered Li's apartment on Sept. 18. The employee told police the apartment looked as if “someone had left in a hurry,” according to the affidavit. Groceries were not put away and spoiled milk was on the counter.

“The employee also noticed there seemed to be several luggage items still there, which was odd since Li had gone back to China,” the affidavit states.

Earlier this week, Iowa City Police Sgt. Scott Gaarde said he did not have any information on Li. A message left with the Ames Police Department was not immediately returned Wednesday morning.

The affidavit states police did not find any record of Shao taking a bus to Minnesota, and she never spoke with her roommates about traveling there, other than the text message from Li's phone.


Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!

You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.

Ames Police also spoke with Karen Yang, a friend of Li's, according to the affidavit. Yang told police that Li called her “unexpectedly” on Sept. 3 and told her “he was upset because of something that just happened.”

Yang said Li told her he called Shao and the phone answered, but Shao “did not realize it,” the affidavit states. Li allegedly listened in on a conversation Shao had with another man that entailed her complaining about Li and saying “things about him that were not nice,” the documents state.

Police said Yang sent a message on a chat app to Li on Sept. 9 and asked how things were with Shao. Li responded that things were “fine for now,” according to the affidavit.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.