Someone, somewhere knows the truth, police say

Author: Jaclyn O'Malley


By Jaclyn O'Malley

The 6-and 7-year-old siblings only had a 100-yard walk to their Reno home from their school bus stop.

But in that short distance, someone -- undetected -- kidnapped Jennifer and Charles Chia on Oct. 18, 1989.

Their decomposed skeletal remains were found nine months later by a highway worker beside a partially hidden turnout near Blairsden, Calif., about 60 miles west of Reno.

"The most horrible nightmare that could happen to anyone occurred to my beautiful children ... they were taken from me and murdered," their mother Ann Chang wrote 10 years ago in an open letter to the Reno Gazette-Journal. "The killer has yet to be caught."

Those words still ring true today.

On almost every anniversary of the Chia children's abduction, police reach out to the media in hope that publicity will attract witnesses to come forward.

Publicity following the 10th anniversary generated a tip that Reno police say could be the key in solving the case. Witnesses in 2000 reported seeing a white Volkswagen near the grave site about the time of the abduction. The car had been registered to convicted felon James W. Grooms, who spent nine years in prison for trying to extort money from Chang a week after the abduction. He called her multiple times promising he would return her children if she paid him $100,000.

Retired Reno police detective Ron Dreher, who was the lead investigator on the case and remains involved, said Grooms was a primary suspect and has yet to be removed from suspicion.

Dreher said Grooms' car was never found and Grooms never gave a clear answer about its whereabouts. Grooms was released from Nevada prison in 1998.

"The car could hold the key," he said. "We need to find it."

Several people have confessed to the murders and were cleared, said Dreher of the high-profile case. But he is confident the Chia children's killer will be found someday.

"Everything in this case centers around getting that crucial lead, or witness coming forward," Dreher said. "This was a beautiful family and a horrific crime. We know it's solvable. The killer could be someone we've already interviewed."

Community responds

The Chia case gripped the community so much that local real-estate developers offered a $50,000 reward for information, an anonymous mother gave Chang a check for more than $1,700 to help with expenses and Anderson Elementary, the school the Chias attended, dedicated a memorial to the siblings outside the school.

Their disappearance shocked the community that was already coping with other missing children. Jennifer Martin, 11, disappeared June 28, 1987, while walking home from a Lemmon Valley 7-Eleven store and Tony Franko, 10, disappeared in 1983, also in Lemmon Valley.

And following the Chia's abduction, Monica DaSilva, 7, disappeared from her Reno bedroom on Sept. 23, 1990. Her partial remains were found three weeks later. In June 1991, Jaycee Lee Dugard, 11, was kidnapped in South Lake Tahoe as she walked to her school bus on a quiet cul-de-sac. Her stepfather watched from the family garage as a car stopped and someone grabbed the girl. She remains missing.

These missing child cases sparked police to form a task force.

The siblings' parents had been divorced about two years. Their mother was raising them alone, with the help of her mother. Chang also owned Imperial Palace restaurant, which she closed in 2001.

The children's parents were Taiwanese, and the siblings spoke the most fluent English in the family. Their father lived in California.

Chang could not be reached for comment for this story.

Anderson Elementary Principal Vince Ames once described the pair as best friends. Jennifer considered her brother her hero, and the two frequently played together. Jennifer was shy, and loved to draw and play the piano and violin. Her brother studied tae kwon do and played the violin.

The siblings were excited for Halloween and had picked out matching boy and girl Batman costumes.

Oct. 18, 1989

Classes ended about 3 p.m. at Anderson Elementary, and the siblings took the bus home to their apartment in the 800 block of Redfield Parkway. Their grandmother, who was staying with the family while Chang visited her father in Taiwan, waited for them.

About 3:30 p.m., Jennifer, whose two front teeth were missing, grabbed her tote bag and "Miss Piggy" lunch pail and got off the bus. Charles, wearing his backpack, was in tow. The apartment was 100 yards away. They never reached home.

Dreher said when their grandmother reported them missing, police did not immediately approach the case as a stranger abduction.

"The mentality was that they are somewhere and we would find them," he said.

But as more time went on, police changed their attitude and conducted one of the most extensive searches in the county.

Detectives had gone door-to-door throughout apartment complexes and businesses in the area. The children's pictures were placed on billboards, fliers, buttons and a television reenactment was aired.

When they were found nine months later, Chang, the community and the police were devastated, Dreher said.

The prime suspect

At the time of the abduction, Grooms' own children, a boy and girl, were about the same age of the Chias and looked similar, Dreher said. Following his arrest for extorting the Chias' mother, police found evidence at his home that indicates he met the children before they were kidnapped and was aware of the Imperial Palace restaurant. Chang has said she never met Grooms. Police said Grooms has denied responsibility in the children's kidnapping and murders. His whereabouts today are unknown.

Detectives said he couldn't explain his whereabouts at the time of the murder. He once lived within two miles of where the bodies were buried, and has never said where police could find his Volkswagen. Grooms has felony convictions in California related to welfare fraud, records show.

But there are other people whom police are looking for:

o The married couple who reported seeing a brown van with a Miller Lite gear-shift knob near the burial site after the children were taken.

o Witnesses saw a balding Asian man in the apartment complex at the time of the kidnapping. He was standing next to a pickup parked near the bus stop. He was never found.

o Shortly after the funeral in 1990, a man deposited money to the children's trust fund and was crying and highly emotional. The teller turned on the surveillance camera and gave the footage to police. He has not yet been found.

"I still believe someone is out there with information," Dreher said.

"They just need to call us."


Anyone with tips or information regarding the Chia case, or who recalls anything in the area of where the children were abducted or buried, or has information about James Grooms or his car, should call Detective Scott Hopkins, Reno police, at 334-2188 or Secret Witness at 322-4900.


Oct. 18, 1989 - Charles Chia, 8 and Jennifer Chia, 6, disappeared about 3:30 p.m. after they got off their school bus. Later that night, their grandmother reported them missing.

Oct. 22 and 24 - James Grooms calls Imperial Palace, the restaurant that the children's mother owns, and demanded $100,000 for their safe return.

Oct. 25 - Grooms is arrested for extortion.

Oct. 27 - Ann Chang makes a public plea for the safe return of her children.

Nov. 5 - Photographs of the children appear on billboards, fliers and buttons throughout the Truckee Meadows. Ten days later, a reenactment would appear on television.

July 25, 1990 - Charles and Jennifer's skeletal remains are found by a highway worker near Blairsden, Calif., in Plumas County.

April 9, 1992 - Police form a task force investigating missing childrens' disappearance.

August 1993 - Forensic anthropologists and archeologists re-create the grave site, and find new evidence that police decline to comment about.

Oct. 18, 1995 - Ann Chang offers a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of her children's killers.

January 1998 - Grooms is released from prison after serving time for trying to extort Ann Chang.

January 2000 - A witness reported seeing a white Volkswagen near the children's gravesite following their abduction. The car was registered to Grooms. Police believe case-breaking clues could be inside the car, which has never been found.

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