Four ghost scam defendants were sentenced to jail time today, concluding the the first case of its kind to go to trial in the country.
Yachang Lei and Yannu Tan, who were convicted on counts of grand theft and attempted grand theft, were sentenced to two years and four months in prison. Yonghua Zeng, who was convicted of grand theft, was sentenced to two years. And Mudi Wu, convicted of attempted grand theft, was sentenced to one year.
But for Tan and Wu, the court process is nowhere near over.
Assistant District Attorney Michael Sullivan announced today that, in late April, New York City issued arrest warrants for both of them, and Los Angeles issued an arrest warrant for Wu. So upon completing their jail terms in San Francisco, they will face those new charges.
New York authorities seek to arrest Tan in connection with a ghost scam incident on July 24, and Wu for ghost scam incident on August 9. Los Angeles cops linked Wu to a ghost scam that happened on October 20. With credit for time served, Tan is eligible for release in seven months, and Wu is eligible for release within the next two weeks. Zeng can be released in around five months and Lei in about seven.
All face possible deportation.
The sentencing marks the city's second successful prosecution against the crime spree. While this case remained in jury deliberations, one of the other ghost scam cases went to bench trial, an expedited process in which both sides agreed to have the judge render a verdict based on all the evidence in the docket, including preliminary hearing transcripts. The three defendants in that case received the maximum sentence-- two years for two of them, and two years and four months for the other.
"We are pleased that San Francisco is the first jurisdiction in the United States to successfully prosecute blessing scam cases," District Attorney George Gascon said in a statement. "Too many victims have lost their jewelry and life savings to these criminals."
The defendants were accused of scamming elderly Chinese women out of thousands of dollars by tricking them into thinking that a spirit would kill a loved one unless they put all of her money into a bag for a "blessing." Tan, Wu, Lei, and Zeng were arrested at the Alemany Farmer's Market after one of their potential victims, Kim Yin Wong, went to the police -- she had remembered seeing a public service announcement about the scam.
SFPD officers arrived in time to see the defendants finishing up the scam on another victim, Susan Yuan. They detained the suspects as they piled into a cab. In the backseat of the taxi, officers found Yuan's $47,000.
The defendants admitted to pulling the con. They claimed, however, that they had no choice: an organized crime group in China had threatened to kill their loved ones if they did otherwise. They were human trafficking victims caught up in debt bondage, they said. Husbands' gambling habits, failed business attempts, and poor investments had gotten them into deep debt with the criminal organization. Like their victims, they did something foolish out of the desperation to protect their family.
The jury didn't buy it. Though they deliberated for two weeks, jurors noted after the trial that there was too much evidence suggesting that the defendants had been willing participants -- including unused plastic bags in their hotel room and frequent trips around southeast Asia in recent years.
A third ghost scam case, involving one defendants, is currently in the pretrial stages.