Hillsborough Heiress Tiffany Li faces ‘reasonable threat’ of federal prosecution, lawyer tells judge

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REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (KRON) — Heiress Tiffany Li is a free woman, living with her two daughters in China, far away from the Hillsborough mansion where she was once charged with being part of a murder plot against her daughters’ father.

Li still has a wrongful death civil lawsuit hanging over her head, however, and the next steps of the lawsuit’s discovery phase were debated in court Friday morning. The young millionaire’s legal team is attempting to delay and prevent her from being questioned about what happened to homicide victim Keith Green.

That is because they are worried about self-incrimination and possible federal criminal charges being filed, Li’s civil defense attorney, John P. Girarde, told judge Danny Chou Friday.

Green, 27, disappeared on April 28, 2016 after meeting Li at the Millbrae Pancake House to talk about custody of their children. Prosecutors said Li drove Green in her Mercedes G-Wagon from the pancake house to her mansion to be murdered. The lawsuit states that Green was held at gunpoint against his will inside the mansion’s garage. He was found dead in a field two weeks later with a gunshot wound in the back of his neck.

Tiffany Li
Tiffany Li / AP photo

TIMELINE: Hillsborough heiress Tiffany Li murder trial

San Mateo County’s most high-profile murder trial of 2019 ended with the jury finding Li not guilty on all counts, and a hung jury over her co-defendant and former fiance, Kaveh Bayat.

Li declined to testify during the criminal trial. But she may have to answer some questions if the civil lawsuit filed by Green’s mother, Colleen Cudd, goes to trial. Cudd is seeking an unspecified amount of money from the suit. Li comes from a wealthy Chinese real estate family worth an estimated $100 million.

Even after Li was acquitted and District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe decided against having a second trial for Bayat, Wagstaffe said his prosecutors still believed Li and Bayat carried out the homicide.

Cudd said of Li, “She orchestrated all of this. She’s evil. She was evil to me. She was evil to my son, she was just evil.” Green’s friends and family felt like justice was not served through the criminal justice system.

On Friday, Girarde told the judge that the civil suit’s discovery phase should be delayed until April 2021 to ensure that the U.S. Attorney does not file federal kidnapping charges against Li.

Li’s defense team voiced concern about self-incrimination and asserted Li’s Fifth Amendment rights. While double jeopardy laws prevent her from being re-tried in San Mateo County, she could still be charged criminally at the federal level until the federal statue of limitations runs out in April 2021.

Keith Green
Keith Green

In the discovery phase, “(Li) absolutely (is) going to be asked to answer questions about kidnapping. But she has a Fifth Amendment right, it’s her fundamental constitutional right against self-incrimination. There is certainly a likelihood that there is a federal investigation going on,” Girarde said.

Girarde cited Li and Kaveh’s ex-body guard, Mustapha Traore, aka Olivier Adella, multiple times as an example of federal authorities going after defendants accused in the Keith Green homicide. Traore admitted to dumping Green’s body in a field.

After serving his sentence in connection to the homicide, Homeland Security agents swooped into the Redwood City jail the moment he was set to be released. Agents took him to a federal detention center on new charges. Traore later admitted that he had illegally lived in the United States under a fake identity for years and that he lied his way into the U.S. to escape from two civil wars in Africa.

Olivier Adella (left), Kaveh Bayat (right)

“The U.S. Attorney literally snatched him away,” Girarde said.

Traore served his sentence for passport fraud, and he was released from Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County last week. It’s unclear where Traore is living now or if he will be deported. Li and Bayat’s criminal defense teams asserted throughout the murder trial that Traore was the real killer, and the District Attorney’s Office put the wrong people on trial.

Even after considering what happened to Traore, Judge Chou disagreed with Li’s attorney.

“There’s no evidence that federal prosecutors are looking into Miss Li. She has been acquitted. That doesn’t preclude the federal government from pursuing her, but it certainly makes it far, far less likely. Based on the current evidence that is before me, I’m not seeing even a remote risk of federal prosecution for Miss Li. The court and the public have a strong interest in moving this case forward,” Chou said.

Tiffany Li / Oct. 2019
Tiffany Li leaves a Redwood City courthouse. / Oct. 2019 (KRON4 Photo)

John May, the defense attorney who represented Bayat during the murder trial, told KRON4 that Li could still avoid answering questions by invoking her Fifth Amendment rights during deposition.

“She could just take the Fifth. The problem is, if the case gets to trial, and they start invoking the Fifth Amendment, then it makes her look bad. Even though the jury is told to not consider that, they do. So that’s why they are skirmishing this way I think,” May said.

Bayat is also named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, but due to his lack of financial assets — especially compared to the Li family fortune — “they are not going to waste their time with him,” May said. “They can get a judgement against him, but he has nothing. This is all about money.”

The judge denied the motion to delay discovery at the end of Friday’s phone conference. Immediately after the ruling, an informal discovery conference followed on a different phone line that was not open to reporters being able to listen in.

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