JD.com founder Richard Liu attends a business forum in Hong Kong, China, June 9, 2017. Image Credit: Reuters

Richard Liu, the Chinese billionaire accused of rape nearly four months ago by a young Chinese student at the University of Minnesota, will not be charged with sexual assault, prosecutors in Minneapolis said Friday.

The office of the Hennepin County attorney said that it did not find enough evidence to pursue a case against Liu, a 45-year-old internet tycoon who was arrested by Minneapolis police in the early morning of Sept. 1 but was released within hours and allowed to return to China.

The decision could bring Liu, who founded and leads e-commerce behemoth JD.com, back to a more visible role at the company. JD.com's stock has slumped since the accusations were revealed, and Liu, whose Chinese name is Liu Qiangdong, has skipped several public engagements.

"As is the case in too many sexual assault incidents, it was a complicated situation," Mike Freeman, the county attorney, said in a statement. "It is also similar to other sexual assault cases with the suspect maintaining the sex was consensual."

This 2018 file photo provided by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office in Minneapolis shows Chinese billionaire Liu Qiangdong, also known as Richard Liu, the founder of the Beijing-based e-commerce site JD.com, who was arrested on August 31, 2018, in Minneapolis on suspicion of criminal sexual conduct. Image Credit: AP

JD.com said in a statement Friday that it was pleased with the decision. Jill Brisbois, Liu's lawyer, reiterated in a statement her "strong belief from the very beginning that my client is innocent," but added that "Mr. Liu's reputation has been damaged like anyone falsely accused of a crime" because of "misinformation and speculation that has been widely circulated."

The woman's lawyers could not immediately be reached for comment.

Liu was arrested this year while taking courses at the University of Minnesota. On the night of Aug. 30, he and a group of fellow students in the academic program dined at a Japanese restaurant in Minneapolis. The occasion was jovial. More than 30 bottles of wine had been brought in from a nearby liquor store.

Also present that evening was a 21-year-old woman, a Chinese student who was volunteering for the doctoral program. As she later told police, she had been invited to the dinner by another Chinese executive in the program, who also asked her to sit next to Liu.

The following day, the woman sent text messages to friends saying that Liu had raped her after the dinner.

She told police that he had initially taken her to a house she didn't recognize, and then back to her apartment. There, Liu first told his assistant to wait in the car, the woman recounted to police. He then went with the woman into her apartment and, despite her pleas, forced himself upon her, according to her statements to the police.

Police were called to the apartment by a friend and fellow student, according to the county attorney's office. Officers arrived at the apartment and spoke to the woman and Liu, and eventually took Liu back to his hotel.

Liu was arrested early the next morning. He was held for less than a day, then freed without having to post bail. A few days later, he was back at work in Beijing.

The Minneapolis Police Department's sex crimes unit conducted a "thorough investigation" into the case, the county attorney's office said, followed by a "meticulous review" by four sexual assault prosecutors, a group of three men and one woman. They determined that "there were profound evidentiary problems which would have made it highly unlikely that any criminal charge could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

Investigators reviewed surveillance video, text messages and witness statements. Among the evidence was footage from a body camera worn by an officer that recorded conversations between Liu and the woman at her apartment after police arrived.

The county attorney's office declined to provide more detail, saying prosecutors "do not want to re-victimize the young woman." Officials said that the length of the review "had nothing to do with Liu's status as a wealthy foreign businessman."

Explosive News

In China, the incident was explosive news. On social media, people scrutinized Minnesota police documents, speculated about whether Liu had been set up and pondered the glimpse they had gotten into the lives of the country's ultrawealthy business elites.

JD.com is a proud emblem of China's rising consumer class, and a major partner to global brands, like Adidas and Samsung, that want to sell to it. Walmart, Google and Chinese internet conglomerate Tencent are all JD.com shareholders. And Liu is a celebrity tycoon whose rise from humble means to internet riches is the subject of many admiring books and television programs.

Market impact

The news of Liu's arrest sent JD.com's stock price down more than 15 percent on the Nasdaq stock exchange. The company's shares have lost around 60 percent of their value since early this year.

The company's business has been under pressure recently. China's economy is decelerating, and competition from rivals such as Alibaba has intensified. In November, JD.com said that its customer base had shrunk for the first time since the company went public in 2014. The retailer says it still serves more than 300 million shoppers.