U.S. Tells of Ocean Transfer in Smuggling of Immigrants

June 14, 2005
In the fall of 1992, federal prosecutors say, a vicious Chinese gangster and two Vietnamese henchmen launched a small boat off the coast of Boston. They were headed toward a much larger vessel out on the ocean to relieve it of its cargo.

The cargo was not consumer goods or oil but human beings, the prosecutors say - would-be immigrants from China who had each paid tens of thousands of dollars to be sneaked into the United States. As the smaller boat pulled alongside the larger one, the immigrants undertook a high-seas acrobatics act, waiting for the waves to raise the small vessel high enough for them to make the leap from deck to deck.

This treacherous transaction was arranged, the prosecutors say, by Cheng Chui Ping, a Chinese businesswoman known in Chinatown as Sister Ping. Ms. Cheng, 56, has been on trial for nearly a month in Federal District Court in Manhattan on charges of immigrant smuggling, hostage taking and money laundering, among others.

In a closing argument yesterday for the government, Leslie Brown, an assistant United States attorney, told the jury that Ms. Cheng ran "a wildly successful smuggling business," at one point calling it a "conglomerate built upon misery and greed." That conglomerate began to collapse on June 6, 1993, prosecutors say, when the Golden Venture, a tramp steamer that Ms. Cheng had helped to finance, ran aground off the Rockaways, in Queens, packed with 289 immigrants, 10 of whom died trying to swim to shore.

During the trial, the government said that Ms. Cheng, who ran a multimillion-dollar underground banking network that stretched from New York throughout the Far East, entered the human smuggling trade in the mid-1980's. Ms. Brown said the business began as a hands-on family enterprise in which Ms. Cheng's sister made fake travel documents and her brother picked up immigrants en route to the United States in Guatemala but increased in scope and sophistication. By 1992, she said, "Business was booming."

It was then, Ms. Brown said, that Ms. Cheng reached out to members of the brutal Fuk Ching gang in Chinatown to serve as her "gang of armed thugs." She struck a deal with the gang's leader, Guo Liang Qi, to ferry passengers from the ship off the coast of Boston to New York, Ms. Brown said, even though Mr. Guo had twice broken into her house and robbed her.

"That was the past," Ms. Brown quoted Ms. Cheng as saying when the deal was struck. "This is business."

Within a year, the Golden Venture, packed with nearly 300 famished immigrants, ran aground off the coast of Queens. In addition to the deaths, dozens of immigrants suffered hypothermia and injuries leaping from the boat into the frigid Atlantic.

Although Ms. Cheng fled the United States in 1994, prosecutors say she continued to finance immigrant ships, possibly until she was arrested in Hong Kong in 2000. One of her later ventures went awry in 1998, they say, when a ship capsized in bad weather off the coast of Guatemala and 14 people drowned.

Ms. Cheng's lawyer, Lawrence Hochheiser, admitted that his client ran "an illegal bank" but adamantly denied that she was a human smuggler. "Cheng Chui Ping had nothing to do with the Golden Venture," Mr. Hochheiser said.

As proof of this, he pointed out that the ship's manifest of passengers and snakeheads - or smugglers - did not include her name. He also said her fingerprints were not found on a piece of paper the government claimed she had once given to an accomplice.

Still, the thrust of Mr. Hochheiser's attacks on the government's case were broadsides against the Fuk Ching gang itself, whose members he called a "host of murderers and perjurers and extortionists" and "inhuman, violent, lifetime criminals." Later, he said they were not even human beings.

He said the gang members, many of whom testified for the prosecution at Ms. Cheng's trial, were nothing more than opportunistic liars.

"It's not the words that count," he said. "It is the quality and character of the people who place those words on the record."