Victim recounts 1995 Hillsborough kidnapping: ‘I thought I was going to die’

Near the end of her time on the witness stand, a prosecutor helped Kristine pull a well-worn pair of red and white high-top sneakers from a brown paper evidence bag. They were the shoes the woman wore as a 9-year-old on a December afternoon in 1995, when she was snatched from the street and pulled screaming into a van as she walked home from her Hillsborough elementary school.

Now 33, Kristine testified Friday afternoon as a confidential witness at the trial of the man prosecutors say orchestrated that kidnapping in an attempt to extort an $800,000 ransom from her wealthy parents.

“I thought I was going to die,” she testified in the San Mateo County courtroom. She spent nine hours in captivity, but was eventually released unharmed.

Authorities say Kevin Tayueh Lin, 66, went into hiding for more than two decades after he was identified as a suspect in the kidnapping. Late in 2017, Lin applied to renew his visa to stay in the United States, triggering an identity check that unearthed his arrest warrant from Hillsborough police. He has been in custody on a $5 million bond ever since.

Lin wasn’t the person who pulled the girl off the street or the getaway driver, and she testified that she had never seen him. But in an opening statement Friday morning for Lin’s trial on one felony count of kidnapping for ransom, Deputy District Attorney Elizabeth Nardi painted him as the mastermind behind the crime, who plotted to kidnap the girl after he sold a luxury car to her father.

“The defendant planned, financed and directed the kidnapping plot,” Nardi said, “all to shake down Kristine’s wealthy father.”

Defense attorney Alex Bernstein countered that Lin had nothing to do with the abduction, which Bernstein argued was the work of another kidnapping suspect, Brian Shieh, who disappeared after the crime and has not resurfaced.

“Mr. Lin is not guilty — he is not the mastermind of the kidnapping,” Bernstein told jurors.

Dressed in a black suit, striped shirt and patterned blue tie, Lin watched the trial from a seat beside Bernstein. A native of Taiwan, Lin listened to a Mandarin translation of the proceedings on a black headset.

Kristine, who now lives in Southern California, told the jury she was reluctant to testify, and appeared after being subpoenaed by prosecutors.

“I’m not too happy about being here,” she said. “I’ve moved on and didn’t think about what happened until he was arrested.”

On the afternoon of Dec. 11, 1995, Kristine told the jury she made her usual walk alone from South Hillsborough Elementary School to her parents’ home less than a block away on El Cerrito Avenue.

As she reached the home’s gate, she said, she noticed the van pull up. A white man she didn’t recognize jumped out and pulled her inside, while an Asian man drove the van away.

“The Asian man told me not to scream,” she said, and “to cooperate or else I would get hurt.”

Authorities say that man was a then-21-year-old Shieh.

Former classmate Daniella Klopocki recalled watching from across the street as the van pulled up and Kristine was taken, and thinking, “Did I just see what I saw?”

The white man was John Paul Balocca, then an 18-year-old. Balocca was convicted of his role in the kidnapping in 1997; he spent 16 years in prison before being paroled in 2013, and is expected to testify against Lin as the trial continues over the next two weeks.

There was much about her kidnapping ordeal that Kristine said she no longer remembered on Friday, but she recalled the driver was talking on a cellphone as he drove and in the motel room where she was held.

Prosecutors say that was Shieh taking instructions from Lin, citing cellphone records that showed dozens of calls between Shieh and a cellphone registered to Lin’s ex-wife. Kristine said she did not remember what he was discussing on the phone.

Nardi said the kidnapping plot unraveled when the men learned that the girl’s parents were away in Taiwan that day. Meanwhile, dozens of San Mateo County officers were looking for Kristine — her photo had been shared across police departments and local media as part of an abduction protocol that was a precursor to today’s Amber Alert system for missing children.

Just after midnight, the abductors dropped the girl off outside the Hilton near San Francisco International Airport. Former Hillsborough Police Chief Mark O’Connor, then a sergeant, recalled finding a trembling Kristine sitting alone in a hotel office.

Her captors had given her a few quarters to make a payphone call to her family. When Nardi handed Kristine the dark jacket she’d been wearing that afternoon, the quarters were still in the pocket.

“I just remember wanting to see my parents,” she said.