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 supposed bride and groom were FBI agents. The government said Monday 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 operation had a large Southern California presence, authorities said, and much of the contraband was moved in shipping containers through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The wedding, Justice Department officials said, was part of an elaborate trap designed to entice overseas-based alleged members of the crime syndicate into the U.S. 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," one Justice Department official said. "Some of them were bearing gifts -- expensive ones like Rolex watches."
By Monday morning, at least 59 people had been arrested in Atlantic City, Los Angeles and nine other U.S. locations. Authorities were searching for at least 28 other people indicted by federal grand juries on both coasts.
Authorities would not disclose the identities of the two undercover agents who had pretended to be romantically involved. But they said the pair had spent years gaining the trust of dozens of alleged co-conspirators at the highest levels of the smuggling operation.
Their cover story worked so well, said Christopher Christie, U.S. attorney in Newark, N.J., that authorities decided to incorporate the two agents' "relationship" into their plans to bring down the crime syndicate.
The Justice Department official said most of the alleged ringleaders 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.
Officials said Monday's arrests had decapitated one of the largest Asian criminal syndicates operating in the U.S. They described the operation as a significant blow against organized crime.
The Justice official and other U.S. authorities said they could not discuss many aspects of the case because it was ongoing and involved 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 Asian 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 could fool even the most sophisticated detection devices. A government source said the bills, known as "super notes" because they were virtually identical to real currency, had been made in North Korea. The bills were seized before they entered the U.S. money supply, authorities said.
The group also used factories in China to churn out as many as 1 billion counterfeit cigarettes for sale in the U.S., some under the Marlboro and Newport brands. They also engaged in levels of money laundering and drugs and weapons trafficking that far outpaced the work of 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 that inbound shipping containers could hide explosives.
"This was a one-stop-shopping criminal organization that had the will and the means to smuggle virtually every form of contraband imaginable," said John P. Clark, deputy assistant secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security. "For those reasons alone, the organization posed a serious homeland security threat that we are happy to close down today."
Deputy FBI Director John S. Pistole said the group was active in at least a dozen U.S. cities, in Canada and elsewhere overseas. "Asian criminal enterprises pose a unique and complex law enforcement threat due to the fluid nature of their enterprises," Pistole said.