Wedding guests stung by FBI

Asian crime syndicate suspects lured to U.S. for nuptials and arrested

August 23, 2005|By Josh Meyer | Josh Meyer,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - After their wedding guests had streamed into Atlantic City, N.J., for the festivities Sunday aboard the yacht Royal Charm, the happy couple surprised them all - by having them arrested as part of an alleged international Asia-based organized crime syndicate.

Unbeknown to the attendees, many of whom came from China for the occasion, the bride and groom were undercover FBI agents. The government said yesterday that the pair had spent four years investigating a sophisticated racketeering enterprise suspected of smuggling into the United States vast quantities of black-market cigarettes, high-tech weapons, Ecstasy, counterfeit Viagra and virtually undetectable counterfeit $100 bills.

The wedding, Justice Department officials said, was part of an elaborate trap designed to entice alleged members of the crime syndicate into the United States so they could be arrested and charged. Several dozen of them were taken into custody while on the way to the dockside "wedding ceremony," dressed in their wedding finest and apparently shocked at the turn of events, according to one Justice Department official.

"They were literally being taken out of their limos and into custody," said one Justice Department official. "Some of them were bearing gifts, expensive ones like Rolex watches."

By yesterday morning, at least 59 people were arrested in Atlantic City, Los Angeles and nine other locations in the United States, including Baltimore. Authorities were searching for at least 28 others indicted by federal grand juries on both coasts.

The Justice Department official said most of the alleged ringleaders of the syndicate had been taken into custody, including members of the Hsu family of China, who federal authorities contend in court documents organized and ran the global operation.

The Justice official and other U.S. authorities said they could not discuss many aspects of the case because it is continuing and involves sensitive relationships with various overseas law enforcement agencies, including in China and Canada.

But authorities said they were startled at the syndicate's brazen ambition and its level of sophistication, even in comparison with other Asia-based organized crime groups that have long operated in the United States.

Of particular concern, Secret Service officials said, was the group's apparent ability to generate counterfeit U.S. currency that can fool even the most sophisticated detection devices.

The group also used factories in China to churn out as many as 1 billion counterfeit cigarettes for sale in the United States, some under the Marlboro and Newport brands. They also engaged in levels of money laundering and drugs and weapons trafficking that far outpace traditional Asian and European organized crime groups, top federal law enforcement officials said at a news conference at Justice Department headquarters.

There was no indication that the smuggling ring had terrorist ties, officials said. But Homeland Security officials are concerned about inbound shipping containers hiding explosives.

"This was a one-stop-shopping criminal organization that had the will and the means to smuggle virtually every form of contraband imaginable. For those reasons alone, the organization posed a serious homeland security threat that we are happy to close down today," said John P. Clark of the Department of Homeland Security.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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