Wed, May 18, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Reputed Chinatown snakehead goes on trial in New York

AP , NEW YORK

The woman allegedly behind a 1993 voyage that ended in the deaths of 10 illegal Chinese immigrants in the waters off New York went on trial, accused of running a human smuggling ring out of a Chinatown storefront.

Cheng Chui Ping, 56, known as "Big Sister Ping," was "one of the most powerful and successful smugglers of aliens of our time," federal prosecutor David Burns said on Monday.

Working out of a souvenir shop, Cheng allegedly became a major "snakehead," or immigrant smuggler. By the early 1990s, authorities said, she had made tens of millions by smuggling thousands of immigrants, often on vessels like the Golden Venture.

Authorities allege Cheng was a mastermind of the voyage of the rickety freighter that ran aground after completing a 25,750km trip to New York with 300 illegal Chinese immigrants aboard. Ten died while trying to swim 180m to shore.

"Sister Ping wasn't interested in bettering the lives of her alien customers," Burns told the jury. "Sister Ping preyed on illegal aliens."

Her attorney, Lawrence Hochheiser, called Cheng an honest businesswoman who was framed by Chinese gang members.

"It wasn't Cheng Chui Ping who created the idea of the Golden Venture," he said.

Cheng allegedly employed members of a Chinatown gang to hold immigrants hostage in safehouses while collecting smuggling fees of up to US$40,000 a head.

Cheng was outside the US when she was indicted in 1994. The FBI arrested her at a Hong Kong airport in 2000.

She could get life in prison if convicted of conspiracy, extortion and other charges.

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