Police in Northern California say they thwarted a vigilante deportation attempt last week — in which a pilot allegedly kidnapped a foreign student, took him to an airport and tried to send him “back to China.”
Jonathan McConkey, a pilot and certified flight instructor, is accused of orchestrating the kidnapping with his assistant, Kelsi Hoser, a ground instructor. Both reportedly worked at the IASCO Flight Training school in Redding, Calif.
Among IASCO’s students were dozens of Chinese nationals with student visas, according to court records. KRCR News 7 reported that the school contracted with China’s civil aviation authority to train its new pilots, one of whom was apparently Tianshu “Chris” Shi.
Shi, 21, told the Record Searchlight that he had been in the United States for about seven months — living with several other IASCO trainees at an apartment in Redding.
It was there, police said, that McConkey and Hoser came for the student.
In a joint statement after their arrests, lawyers for the two employees “vehemently” denied their clients had kidnapped Shi. The attorneys said the student had been previously expelled from the training program due to incompetence, and “was given ample notice that he was required by law to return home to China.”
McConkey and Hoser first showed up at the apartment on Thursday night, according to a police statement.
Shi told the Searchlight that they ordered him to pack and be ready to leave for China at daybreak.
“I said I didn’t receive any documents from China,” he said.
McConkey and Hoser didn’t explain why they wanted him out of the country, the student said, and police have not explained either. But Shi told the Searchlight that he had been forbidden to fly two months earlier, and suspected that his limited English was the problem.
An unrelated federal lawsuit, filed last year by a former instructor, alleges that many of IASCO’s Chinese students spoke so little English that they could not safely fly — that one had nearly crashed into another plane because he had misunderstood his teacher’s instructions. The instructor was fired after he reported such problems the Federal Aviation Administration, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit predates Shi’s training, and does not mention Hoser or McConkey, who is reportedly a 48-year-old manager at the flight school.
In any event, police said the two employees returned to Shi’s apartment around dawn on Friday.
Shi had made up his mind by then not to go with McConkey and Hoser, and played an audio recording for the Searchlight of what he said transpired.
“You’re going home, with or without your luggage,” a man’s voice told Shi, as transcribed by the newspaper.
“If you cannot speak English, you are not going to be able to stay here,” added a woman whose voice alternated between English and Mandarin.
“Do you understand what ‘in my custody’ means?” the man told Shi. “It means I will forcibly remove you … If you want the police to come with guns, I got you on that. Alright? You ass is leaving right now.”
The man continued to curse. He threatened to break Shi’s arm, the Searchlight wrote, and finally told the student:
“The United States government needs you out of this country right now, you understand?”
“You are here illegal, you know that,” added the woman. “If you don’t go with us, you go to jail.”
Police said McConkey “battered” Shi during the argument.
The student told the newspaper that the pilot grabbed him roughly by the arm and “bent his left side over the kitchen island,” which would leave him days later with lingering trauma and pain.
“He’s very rude,” Shi recalled — visibly shaken, the Searchlight wrote. “Used too much dirty words.”
Before he was taken from his home, police said, Shi managed to call his brother in Shanghai and ask for help.
His brother tried to call Shi back but couldn’t reach him. Shi was by then being driven several miles to the municipal airport, where the flight school kept its planes.
So Shi’s brother phoned Redding police, who scrambled to the airport and rescued the student before his accused abductors could put him on a plane.
The pair’s plan, Shi told the Searchlight, had been to fly him to the Bay Area, then put him on another plane to China.
McConkey and Hoser were arrested and charged with conspiracy and kidnapping. They were being held on $100,000 bail each as of Friday, according to KRCR News 7, and could not be immediately reached.
The incident has left Shi distraught, the Searchlight reported, and grappling to convey the trauma in his limited English.
But he conveyed gratitude plainly enough.
“At that moment, police is my Jesus,” Shi told the newspaper.
Police have not responded to request for more details on the arrests.
The Searchlight reported that Shi plans to hire an attorney, and that at least one other Chinese student in the program has accused McConkey and Hoser of attempting to expel him from the country under nearly identical circumstances.
In their statement for the two suspects, attorneys John M. Runfola and Naomi Chung accused Shi of trying to “circumvent American regulations and avoid shame and humiliation at home.”
The attorneys said they would soon provide more information about the student and “the complexities of training a foreign national post-9/11.”
“This is a very complicated situation involving multiple agencies,” they wrote.
This story has been updated to include a statement from suspects’ attorneys.