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People-Smuggling Suspect Is Held After 5-Year Hunt

April 21, 2000. New York Times, pg. B3

After a five-year pursuit spanning Asia and the Americas, the authorities say the Hong Kong police have captured a ringleader of the Golden Venture human smuggling operation, in which 10 illegal Chinese immigrants died after a freighter ran aground off Queens in 1993.

The suspect, Cheng Chui Ping, 51, was arrested on Monday morning at Chek Lap Kok Airport in Hong Kong by officers from the Hong Kong Narcotics Bureau, law enforcement officials said. She was apparently dropping off her son, who lives in the New York City region, they said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Immigration and Naturalization Service will seek Ms. Cheng's extradition at a hearing on June 16, on the basis of a 1994 federal indictment in Manhattan involving a separate smuggling operation.

People in Chinatown in Manhattan, where she once ran several businesses, say that Ms. Cheng was viewed as a benevolent figure and was affectionately called Sister Ping or Big Sister Ping.

She often found jobs for people and helped them to navigate the bureaucracy, and the word in the neighborhood was that she could provide loans for relatives back in China faster and at better rates than the Bank of China.

She resembled a nonthreatening aunt, people in Chinatown recalled: she was short and amiable, wore no makeup and shunned fancy clothes, looking every bit like someone who grew up in rural China.

But beneath that unassuming exterior, law enforcement authorities have long contended, is a leader in the lucrative trade of human smuggling. To them, she has made untold millions on the backs of poor, vulnerable and unsophisticated illegal Chinese immigrants who are forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars, per head, for the voyage to America.

They portray her as a ruthless criminal mind, a powerful ''snakehead,'' or smuggler, with numerous contacts in Chinese government and business among her closest friends.

''She is considered the very top snakehead, and she has this aura of invincibility,'' said Ko-lin Chin, an associate professor at Rutgers who has written extensively about smuggling. ''People in the community were saying that she couldn't be arrested, she couldn't be punished because she's so powerful and so well connected.''

Her arrest delivers a powerful message to all smugglers, said Russell A. Bergeron Jr., a spokesman for the immigration service. He said it shows that even the most mythic figures are not immune, especially since the flow of smuggling to the United States has essentially remained steady since the Golden Venture disaster. If anything, the smugglers have gotten more creative, sometimes ferrying illegal immigrants via metal cargo containers, a method highlighted by the discovery in Seattle recently of 15 emaciated stowaways.

Yesterday, the authorities provided only sketchy details of the investigation, saying that they did not want to jeopardize it. But they did convey a great sense of relief, pride and satisfaction at catching someone they said had always seemed to be one step ahead of them.

Michael Klosson, the United States consul general in Hong Kong, said in a statement, ''The arrest of Cheng Chui Ping after several years of diligent detective work demonstrates once again our common determination to bring to justice those who engage in the reprehensive and deadly practice of human smuggling.''

The freighter named the Golden Venture was carrying nearly 300 illegal immigrants when it ran aground 200 yards from the Rockaway peninsula in Queens in 1993. The passengers jumped overboard. It was early morning and dark; the waters were turbulent. Ten of the passengers drowned or died of hypothermia.

The immigrants, most from China's southeastern Fujian province, had made various down payments to get aboard, and were supposed to pay the rest of their fee of $30,000 per person after their illegal arrival in the United States. Nearly all of those who made it to shore were quickly corralled; many then spent up to three and a half years in American jails after their voyage.

In 1998, two who are believed to have been Golden Venture ringleaders -- Guo Liang-chi, also known as Ah Kay, and Lee Peng Fei, also known as Char Lee -- were sentenced to terms in excess of 20 years in prison. But Ms. Cheng has always been viewed as one of the most powerful smuggling suspects.

Ms. Cheng, who law enforcement officials say is a permanent United States resident, previously served a four-month term for smuggling in 1991, said Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian-American studies at Hunter College. In 1994, she was indicted in the Southern District of New York on federal charges that she organized a smuggling mission aboard a small fishing vessel called the Blue Chip.

The authorities said that after Ms. Cheng left America in the mid-1990's, she spent most of her time shuttling between Hong Kong and Fujian, and traveling under false passports throughout Asia, South America and possibly Europe. But this week, when they heard that she would be at the airport, Hong Kong authorities deployed about 40 officers to ensure that she would not escape.

''This is a major score for us in terms of her arrest,'' said Gerald Rose, the supervisor of the F.B.I.-New York Police Department Joint Asian Organized Crime Squad, which worked with the federal immigration service to investigate the case against Ms. Cheng.

When Ms. Cheng was arrested, she insisted that the authorities had mistaken her for someone else, but once she was fingerprinted, she admitted her identity, one official said. Federal prosecutors have 60 days to seek a racketeering indictment against Ms. Cheng, who will face a maximum penalty of life in prison if she is convicted, the authorities said.

As for the illegal immigrants from the Golden Venture, about 170 have been deported, 60 remain in the United States after being granted asylum or other relief, and almost 40 are still awaiting the resolution of their cases, said Rich Kenney, a spokesman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which handles the immigration hearings.

The case came into focus again two years ago, when Wang Wu Dong, a Golden Venture passenger who had been deported, tried to sneak into the United States again -- only to board a ship that also missed its destination, this time in New Jersey. The name of the boat was the Oops II.


Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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