From the daily archives: Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The judge who recently sentenced Yi Qing Chen noted that the smuggler “never saw a criminal scheme he didn’t want a part of.” The Southern California man was convicted last October of distributing methamphetamine, trafficking approximately 800,000 cases of counterfeit cigarettes, and conspiracy to import Chinese-made shoulder-fired missiles into the U.S.

Chen is now serving a 25-year prison sentence, and his case marks the end of a long-running investigation called Operation Smoking Dragon.

Smoking Dragon and a related case in New Jersey called Operation Royal Charm led to the indictment of 87 individuals from China, Taiwan, Canada, and the U.S. The investigations uncovered—and dismantled—an international smuggling ring that could have threatened the country’s national security.

Charges against the subjects included smuggling real and phony drugs and other contraband into the U.S. along with counterfeit $100 bills—believed to have been produced in North Korea—that were so nearly perfect and so much more sophisticated than typical counterfeit currency they were dubbed “Supernotes.”

“One of the most important things about Operation Smoking Dragon was that it demonstrated the broad range of international criminal activity conducted by today’s Asian organized crime groups,” said Special Agent Bud Spencer, who worked the case in our Los Angeles office.

The eight-year investigation began when FBI undercover agents, posing as underworld criminals, helped make sure that shipping containers full of counterfeit cigarettes made it past U.S. Customs officers undetected. Over time, as undercover agents won the smugglers’ trust, they were asked to facilitate other illegal shipments such as narcotics and millions of dollars in Supernotes. Later, the smugglers offered a variety of Chinese military-grade weapons, including the QW-2 surface-to-air missiles.

Some of the drugs—including methamphetamine and fake Viagra—were hidden in large cardboard boxes with false bottoms that contained toys. The Supernotes were placed between the pages of books or lined in large bolts of rolled-up fabric. All of the items were smuggled into the U.S. in 40-foot shipping containers.

Between Smoking Dragon and Royal Charm, some $4.5 million in counterfeit currency was seized, along with more than $40 million worth of counterfeit cigarettes, drugs, and other real and phony items. The smugglers were also forced to forfeit a total of $24 million in cash, along with real estate, cars, and jewelry.

Most of the defendants were indicted in 2005 and have since pled guilty or been convicted. Chen was the final defendant to be sentenced relating to Operation Smoking Dragon. His was the nation’s first conviction under a 2004 anti-terrorism statute that outlaws the importation of missile systems designed to destroy aircraft.

The smugglers offered a variety of Chinese military-grade weapons, including surface-to-air missiles.

“There is only one purpose for shoulder-fired missiles like the QW-2, and that is to bring down aircraft,” said Special Agent Omar Trevino, who worked the case from the beginning. “Smoking Dragon dismantled an international smuggling ring, and it illustrated that organized crime groups will stop at nothing to make a profit.”

Mark Aveis, an assistant United States attorney in Los Angeles who prosecuted the Chen case, agreed with Agent Trevino. “Chen and his associates didn’t care what they smuggled as long as they made money,” he said. “This case highlights the FBI’s ability to carry out successful long-term undercover investigations—and the continuing need for such investigations.”

 

By Bob Hurst

 

They’re playing above .500, they’re in a divisional race, and their attendance is up. That has to be any team but the Pittsburgh Pirates, right?

Wrong. It is the Pirates, believe it or not.

A look at the standings on Tuesday showed the Pirates with a 44-41 record, just 1 1/2 games behind St. Louis in the NL Central, and a half-game behind Milwaukee for second place.

The Pirates 5-3 victory over Houston on Monday put them three games over .500 this late in the season for the first time since 1999, and gave them their best 85-game start since going 46-39 in 1992. That was the last time Pittsburgh finished with a winning record and the last season it made the playoffs.

The fans are taking notice. For the fourth straight home game, the Pirates sold out PNC Park with 36,942 fans in attendance. The team had never had more than three consecutive sellouts in the 11-year history of the stadium.

“The energy and attitude is completely different,” said Alex Presley, who was called up six days earlier and had three of the Pirates 14 hits on Monday. “We feel like we’re going to win every time out. It’s fun and totally different. We had a good crowd and I really got to see what Pittsburgh fans are like.”

Three games over .500 was a milestone for the Bucs. They had tried eight times previously to reach it this season but failed each time. Paul Maholm, who won the fourth of his last six decisions, allowed one earned run in six innings.

“It’s fun, but we need to continue to play well,” Maholm said. “In September, it will be a lot more fun. For any of us who have been here, it’s uncharted waters, but you’re seeing a group that’s having fun and likes playing in front of big crowds. Today was cool. These were all Pirates fans.”

On Sunday, Kevin Correia became the first Pirate to win 11 games before the All-Star break since Jim Bibby did it in 1980. Nine of those wins have come on the road, where the PIrates are 24-21.

In the 10-2 win at Washington, center fielder Andrew McCutchen went 3-for-5 and knocked in a pair of runs. McCutchen, who went into Tuesday’s game with nine RBIs in his last 10 games, had nine hits, including six for extra bases in the four-game series.

“The majority of people look at us as just being ‘the Pirates,’ and they’re going to say it’s ‘the Pirates’ until we show a difference,” McCutchen said. “That’s just fuel for the fire for us as a team to continue surprising teams every time we show up.”

Yanks lead All-Star starters: When the American League takes the field at next week’s All-Star Game in Phoenix, it will look more like the New York Yankees.

The Yankees will have the most starters in the game with four. Robinson Cano will start at second base with Alex Rodriguez at third and Derek Jeter at shortstop. Curtis Granderson will play in the outfield.

Overall, the Yankees have the most All-Stars with six.

The National League has three Milwaukee Brewers in the starting lineup: Prince Fielder at first base; Rickie Weeks at second, and Ryan Braun in the outfield.

Philadelphia placed the most players on the NL roster with five, including starting pitchers Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee.

San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy named three of his starting pitchers, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong, to the team, along with closer Brian Wilson.

 

Toronto outfielder Jose Bautista set a record for most votes received with 7,454,753.

Promoted: Washington Nationals top prospect, catcher Bryce Harper, has been promoted to Class AA Harrisburg, and could move up to Triple-A Syracuse by the end of the season.

Harper, who was picked No. 1 overall in the 2010 draft, hit .318 with 16 homers and 46 RBIs in 72 games for Class A Potomac.

StatsWatch: Here are the All-Stars who have hit the most home runs this season (through Monday) —

Jose Bautista, Blue Jays, 27

Curtis Granderson, Yankees, 22

Lance Berkman, Cardinals, 22

Matt Kemp, Dodgers, 22

Prince Fielder, Brewers, 21

 

Quotable: “I hadn’t hit one in so long I almost forgot.” — Chicago White Sox DH Adam Dunn, who hit his eighth home run of the season on Monday, and his first since June 12.

Diamond Notes: Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter returned from the disabled list on Monday, going 0-for-4. He needs six hits to reach 3,000 in his career…Tampa Bay’s Johnny Damon now has more career hits than Ted Williams. Damon passed Williams with his 2,655th hit on Saturday, and was ranked 69th all-time with 2,662 hits after Monday’s game. He’s on a pace to crack the top 50 by the end of the season.

Copyright © 2011  Bob Hurst. All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Hurst Sports Media.

 
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