Police investigating past of parents accused in girl’s murder; Victim’s sister in foster care

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JACKSON TOWNSHIP, Ohio - Stark County Job and Family Services has taken temporary custody of the sister of 5-year-old Ashley Zhao, who was found dead in her parents' restaurant Tuesday.

After the arrest of the girl's mother Ming Ming Chen and father Liang Zhao in connection with her death on Tuesday, a 6-year-old sister of the victim was placed in foster care, according to Stark County Job and Family Services Chief Legal Counsel Jerry Coleman. He said no other immediate relatives were located.

A shelter care hearing will take place in which the county will seek to continue that temporary custody as it explores whether permanent placement with a relative is appropriate, according to Coleman.

The sister was in kindergarten at Strousser Elementary School, according to the Jackson Local School District. Ashley Zhao was not a student there.

"I'm sick inside. This has been consuming my mind for over a day now," said Nina Amen, of Jackson Township, whose daughter attended preschool with the victim's sister.

She said she only met Chen at the restaurant but often saw Liang Zhao bringing his daughter to and from school and described him as a loving father.

"He never would hurt them himself or intend for this to happen, and I know he panicked," Amen said. "I know the parents were extremely protective of them, like she couldn't go on play dates or birthday parties, the sister, unless a parent could leave and stay with her there."

Coleman said Stark County Job and Family Services had no previous history with the family, but Jackson Township police are investigating whether past abuse occurred. Chief Mark Brink said investigators will take a close look at whether an autopsy of the girl, being performed Wednesday, reveals any evidence of that.

"This investigation is not over. We're going to continue to look at how this child was being raised, if there was previous abuse to this child and if there was abuse what kind of abuse was done to this child," Brink said.

"I think you're going to tell me that if I don't look to see if that was the first time, then I haven't done my job. It is the obvious place we have to go to."

Jackson Township police said Ming Ming Chen struck her daughter's head several times with her fist, resulting in Ashley's death. She's charged with murder and felonious assault while her husband is charged with complicity to murder and complicity to commit felonious assault.

The child's body was concealed inside Ang's Asian Cuisine on Portage Street NW following a search of a nearby wooded area.

More stories on Ashley Zhao here