The first of the blessing scam trials began yesterday. The cases -- three in all -- made headlines throughout last year, particularly because they were so bizarre: Separate groups of alleged con artists stole money and jewelry from elderly Cantonese-speaking Chinese immigrants by tricking them into participating in a ceremony that would keep their loved ones from imminent danger.
As Assistant District Attorney Michael Sullivan laid out in his opening argument, the defendants had each victim place her valuables into a bag during the ceremony. When the victims returned home, they found that the bag had been switched; their valuables were gone.
Monday offered a glimpse into the defense strategy for the first group of accused to stand trial. Erin Crane, the attorney for one of the defendants, Yachang Lei, did not deny that her client played a role in the crimes. Instead, she asserted that the perpetrators werenʼt so different from the women they targeted: The defendants themselves were scam victims, coerced into the thefts by an organized crime ring in China.
By Craneʼs account, the defendants were not a pack of criminal masterminds exploiting the trust and superstitions of an elderly immigrant community. They committed the crimes, she argued, reluctantly, and, more importantly, "out of necessity." And to understand how they ended up at the defense table, facing charges of extortion and grand theft, you had to understand how they ended up in America in the first place.
Crane told the stories of two of the defendants, Lei and Yannu Tan. The women, like their fellow defendants, grew up in poverty in Chinaʼs rural Guangdong province, each working on their familyʼs farm.
They were each approached by a woman, Mrs. Chen, who offered them a job in California, according to the defense. All they had to do was acquire a Visa and pay a deposit. But when they came to America, there was no job. So the woman and co-conspirators sent them back to China.
But soon after, back in China, the woman approached the defendants again. Crane said that Lei was hesitant to return to the States. But Mrs. Chen told her that she still owed money for the first trip. Armed men, Crane stated, went to Lei's and Tanʼs home, threatening physical violence. They also threatened to kidnap Leiʼs daughter. And they actually did kidnap Tanʼs 7-year-old son, Crane said. So the women, fearing for the safety of their children, returned to America. The heart of Craneʼs defense is that the women were victims of human labor trafficking.
Lei's and Tan's handler, a Mr. Lin, held on to their passports. The women were taken to San Francisco, Crane said, where they shuffled between hotels. In November 2012, the
women were told that, in order to repay their debts, they had to participate in the scam plot. So they did.
The plot was a team effort. Each of the four defendants in the case -- Mudi Wu and Yonghua Zeng were the other two -- played a separate role in each theft attempt. One approached a potential victim asking if she knew where to find a certain doctor. After the victim said that she didnʼt know, a second conspirator walked up and said that she was familiar with the doctor, and that the doctor cured a family member of some ailment. They then convinced the victim to accompany them to the doctorʼs office.
After a short walk, the group met with a third conspirator, who claimed to be a relative of the doctor. The third conspirator said that she sensed that one of the victimʼs family members was in grave danger: A child would die in a car accident in three days. The only solution, the doctorʼs relative said, was a blessing ceremony. The victim was told to gather all her money and jewelry and place them in a bag.
When the victim returned with the valuables, the third conspirator performed a ceremony. While the victim was looking away during the ceremony, the defendants switched the bag with the valuables with another bag filled with water and apples. Donʼt open the bag until you return home, the doctorʼs relative told the victim. Of course, by then it would be too late.
This was the plan on Nov. 10, when the four defendants took a cab to the Alemany Farmerʼs Market. It was a Saturday, and the scene was crowded. A 60-year-old woman named Kin Ying Wong was the first target. But when she hustled back home to retrieve her valuables, she remembered that she had recently heard a public service announcement warning about this exact scam. She went to the Ingleside police station.
And when officers arrived at the market, they found the defendants pulling the scam on another woman, 51-year-old Susan Yuan. SFPD officers apprehended the four defendants as they attempted to flee in a taxi. In the cab, police found a garbage bag containing Yuanʼs jewelry and $50,000 in life savings.
According to the defense team, though, the defendants, like their victims, were driven by the fear that a loved one was in danger.