Men accused of holding captives go to trial today

September 21, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

It has been nearly six months since federal agents raided a three-bedroom brick house in Prince George's County where, they said, dozens of illegal Chinese immigrants were being held for ransom at gunpoint and frequently beaten.

Yesterday, as a federal trial opened in Baltimore for five of their alleged captors, an aura of violence continued to surround the case.

Many of the 51 hostages prosecutors say were found in squalid conditions in the basement of the house claim to have been threatened with harm if they cooperate in the case, according to court records. Without exception, prosecutors say, all have expressed fear of the five men who helped smuggle the immigrants into the United States.

Several other potential witnesses, who were placed in homes by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, have fled, apparently fearing retaliation against them or their families, according to a lawyer for one witness.

Prosecutors and INS officials yesterday would not release details on the number of witnesses who had disappeared or whether any had been located.

"These witnesses are extremely frightened about what will happen to them for cooperating, and what will happen to their families," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew G.W. Norman. "There are still plenty of other members of the organization out there roaming around free."

Nevertheless, some witnesses are expected to begin testifying today before U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin in a courtroom heavy with security.

The five Chinese men are charged with conspiring in a scheme to smuggle more than 100 Chinese into the United States and then hold them for ransoms that ultimately totaled an estimated $2 million.

One victim said in open court in July that he had agreed to pay $28,000 for the trip to an unknown destination on the East Coast. Much of fee was to be worked off once he arrived. But, after he got here, his smugglers refused to release him until the total sum was paid, he said.

Threats and regular beatings encouraged the hostages to phone their families and beg them to send tens of thousands of dollars for their freedom, prosecutors said yesterday. Investigators believe that about half of those brought into the United States paid the ransom and were freed.

By the time federal agents raided the brown shuttered house in a quiet middle-class neighborhood in Mitchellville -- acting on a tip from a relative of a hostage -- the illegal immigrants had been in the basement for about two weeks.

During yesterday's hearing, Mr. Norman told the jury that besides the testimony of victims, the government would produce telephone records, photographs and other physical evidence in an attempt to prove its case.

Defense lawyers contend that at least two of the accused were victims themselves, either forced to work with the smugglers or mistakenly considered conspirators by prosecutors.

In initial testimony, investigators from the FBI and others gave details of how the Chinese were confined.

Nearly everyone was crammed into the basement, which had been turned into a large barracks. The floor was littered with mats, pieces of plywood and sheet rock, clothing and blankets. Containers of rice and fish were strewn about. One door, leading to the outside, had been nailed shut. The windows had been covered with black plastic and boarded up.

"The smell was just unbearable," said FBI Special Agent Christopher Zisi.

The five accused are charged with kidnapping, hostage taking, harboring aliens and other crimes.

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