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Man gets 25 years in missile-smuggling case

Yi Qing Chen, 49, of Rosemead was convicted in October of trafficking in counterfeit cigarettes, distributing drugs and conspiring to import missiles. He was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison under a 2004 anti-terrorism statute.

May 10, 2011|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times

Yi Qing Chen was convicted last October of trafficking in counterfeit cigarettes, distributing drugs and conspiring to import missiles. He was sentenced Monday to 25 years in federal prison.

On the surface, Yi Qing Chen appeared to be a straight-laced businessman exporting plastic junk from the United States to China.

Secretly, Chen was a smuggler willing to sneak into the U.S. whatever would fit into 40-foot shipping containers — whether it was fake Marlboros, or ultimately, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles capable of targeting F-15 or F-16 fighter jets, authorities say.

Chen, who was convicted last October of trafficking in counterfeit cigarettes, distributing drugs and conspiring to import missiles, was sentenced Monday to 25 years in federal prison.

The 49-year-old Rosemead man became the first to be convicted under a 2004 anti-terrorism statute that outlawed the importation of missile systems made to target aircraft, enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the U.S. attorney's office. The statute carries a mandatory 25-year minimum prison term.

Chen "never saw a criminal scheme he didn't want a part of," U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer remarked at Chen's sentencing, according to a U.S. attorney's press release.

Chen's attorney did not return requests for comment Monday. In statements to investigators, Chen maintained that he had lied about the weapons and had planned on fleeing to China after scamming his business partner and an undercover agent posing as a buyer, according to court papers.

"In actuality, no weapons ever existed, and this conversation was nothing more than a ruse to keep the [undercover agent] interested," Chen's attorney wrote in filings with the court asking for leniency in sentencing. "At best, there existed a scheme to create the illusion of a weapons deal."

The FBI-led operation that resulted in Chen's conviction — dubbed Smoking Dragon— began in 2002 with a tip about a cigarette-smuggling ring.

An undercover agent gained the group's trust by helping clear shipments of counterfeit cigarettes through customs. Chen and his partner, Chao Tung Wu, began talking to the agent about plans to manufacture high-quality methamphetamines in Vietnam, and later, of smuggling weapons from China to the United States in shipping containers, according to prosecutors.

Chen and Wu eventually offered to arrange the purchase of Chinese-made QW-2 missiles, as well as launch and operation hardware, purportedly via a Chinese general, according to authorities. The two men were arrested in 2005 before any weapons exchanged hands.

Chen, a naturalized U.S. citizen, "was open to procuring and smuggling whatever contraband was available," prosecutors wrote in court papers. "It was simply a matter of expediency. Namely, whatever contraband was first available for smuggling and profit would be smuggled and sold."

Steven Martinez, assistant director in charge of the FBI office in Los Angeles, called Chen's willingness to smuggle weapons "a frightening concept."

"There can be no confusion as to the purpose of such contraband — nor to the potentially horrific consequences for innocent people," he said, according to a statement.

A total of 87 individuals were indicted as a result of Operation Smoking Dragon and a related investigation in New Jersey, authorities said. Chen is the last of nearly three dozen who were convicted in Los Angeles for their part in the conspiracy to be sentenced.

Wu died while awaiting sentencing before Chen was brought to trial.

In addition to his prison sentence, Chen was also ordered to pay $520,000 to Philip Morris U.S.A. Inc. for the counterfeit cigarettes.

victoria.kim@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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