FBI uses bogus wedding to dismantle smuggling ring

HACKENSACK, N.J. — They arrived with gifts of gold Rolex watches and suitcases of clothing, planning to attend a friend's wedding aboard The Royal Charm, a luxury yacht docked in Cape May, N.J.

But The Royal Charm turned out to be an FBI code name and the wedding an elaborate setup.

Guests who traded their cuff links for handcuffs were part of a string of nationwide arrests over the weekend that helped dismantle an international smuggling ring that moved drugs, counterfeit cigarettes and millions of dollars in fake U.S. currency into the country, authorities said.

"For those of the conspirators who thought they'd be celebrating a wedding," U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie said, "the party ended as soon as they arrived in New Jersey.

"This organization had its hands in a slew of global criminal enterprises," Christie added in announcing the arrests in Washington, D.C.

Working in shadowy, loosely linked Asian networks, the 87 defendants named in federal indictments unsealed today smuggled 200 million fake cigarettes, 45,000 Ecstasy pills, hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of methamphetamine and Viagra and more than $3.3 million in Supernotes, a high-quality counterfeit currency, federal authorities said.

Most of the contraband entered the country in New Jersey, where 57 people were charged in six indictments, including three for racketeering. In Los Angeles, 30 defendants were named in related indictments involving smuggling $40 million in counterfeit cigarettes into a port there and in Long Beach, Calif.

In addition, several of the leaders of the conspiracy allegedly brokered a $1 million deal with undercover federal agents to smuggle weapons into the country, including 100 silenced pistols, 100 automatic submachine guns, 50 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 75 anti-tank missiles and 1,200 AK-47 assault rifles.

Authorities wouldn't say Monday exactly how many alleged members of the rings have been arrested. Eleven of those picked up — many of whom were decked out for the bogus wedding — were brought into U.S. District Court in Camden, N.J., for first appearances on Monday. They were to return Tuesday for bail hearings.

"Investigation Royal Charm" began six years ago and initially focused on the smuggling of fake cigarettes aboard shipping containers entering Newark, N.J., said Leslie G. Wiser Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI's Newark office.

The cigarettes, which were manufactured in China and illegally stamped to look like brands made by Marlboro and Newport, were boxed in containers marked as carrying rattan, wicker and bamboo, the indictments said. The fake cigarettes resulted in a $5 million tax loss for the United States, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles McKenna.

The cigarettes were tested and then allowed into the marketplace, McKenna said. However, "the counterfeit currency and pharmaceuticals did not get further than the agents," he said.

As the investigation progressed, undercover agents posing as Mafia distributors infiltrated the ring and discovered shipments of "Supernotes" — highly sophisticated counterfeits that usually are circulated in foreign countries. In October 2003, a shipping container loaded with $338,000 in "Supernotes" arrived in Newark, followed two months later by a $3 million shipment.

Authorities identified the ringleaders in the racketeering indictments as Chen Ming Hsu, 43, and Takchung Yeung, 58, both of China; Chang Shan Liu, 67, of Maryland; Harold Psalms, 72, Mohamad Aref and Mustafapha Kechtban, 53, all of Illinois; Shugin Liu, 48, of Pennsylvania; and Peter Yeung, 63, and Hua You, 45, both of California.

Other defendants face charges of money laundering, conspiracy to import narcotics and trafficking in counterfeit goods.

Many of the defendants were charged in May in sealed indictments that were not made public until the arrests last weekend. Defendants were nabbed in 11 cities, including Chicago, Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Cincinnati.

In New Jersey, the wedding ruse was so convincing that when one of the undercover "mobsters" announced his wedding — to another undercover agent — guests from around the world RSVP'd to attend, Wiser said.

A limousine that was supposed to take eight guests to the wedding instead drove them to their arrests, he said. Even then, a defendant didn't figure out the ruse and asked if the wedding was still going to take place.

"When he was told there would be no wedding, he expressed concern for the couple," Wiser said.

"What happened?" the mobster asked.