Two-Faced Woman

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By the late '80s, Ping's stature had grown so large that she was probably the best-known and most revered figure in Chinatown. Almost everyone in the Fujianese ghetto owed her something. She and her husband Cheung Yick-tak contributed $10,000 to buy the building that would house the Fujianese association, which police say soon became the center for human smuggling. He sat on the board. Both continued to work each day in the store or restaurant. There were no big cars or flashy clothes. When she traveled she took the subway, seemingly unafraid of the reach of the law.

The 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown created a boom in Ping's business. The amnesty granted by President George Bush to Chinese living in the U.S. established a huge legal population that could afford to pay to bring family and relatives over. As demand skyrocketed, larger criminal gangs learned that smuggling people was more profitable and legally less risky than smuggling drugs. Quickly the nature of the game changed. Gangs with bases in Hong Kong and China entered the field. Immigrants were recruited en masse, even if they couldn't afford a down payment. And when they couldn't keep up the payments or find jobs in a recession-wracked America, they were kidnapped, tortured and sometimes killed. To accommodate the demand, snakeheads pooled resources and bought old unseaworthy ships and stuffed the holds with people who would spend months at sea in horrific conditions. During one month in 1993, at least 25 ships, carrying thousands of immigrants, set off from Fujian crammed with human cargo. One of them was the Golden Venture, a dilapidated freighter that had been won in a poker game by Gu Liang-chi, who went by the street name Ah Kay, the leader of a Fujianese street gang that controlled East Broadway. According to U.S. government charges, Ah Kay, Sister Ping and several other snakeheads loaded the ill-fated hulk with immigrants. When it ran aground in the icy, turbulent waters off New York in June 1993, 10 of the 300 passengers perished trying to escape the ship. As it turned out, the U.S.-based guide who was supposed to organize the unloading had been killed in a gang dispute. It was the first of many tragedies that would awaken the world to the horrors of the trade.

In 1994, a few months after the Golden Venture ran aground, Sister Ping was invited to China along with other overseas notables of Fujianese descent for an anniversary celebration of the Communist Party. When she arrived in Beijing, however, instead of being honored, she was arrested. According to police and friends, she bribed her way out of custody but couldn't return to America because the investigation of the Golden Venture was getting close to her. She fled to her native village of Shengmei, which had benefited from the years she spent becoming an American success story. Shortly after arriving there she learned she had been indicted in the U.S. for human smuggling and illegal money transfers.

She took refuge at her house at No. 398 Shengmei village, which is three stories tall with a pagoda on the roof. She has erected other buildings in town as well. The once mud-slicked and unremarkable farming village is now dotted with flamboyant villas and pavilions, proof of the largesse of former residents who have made it big in the U.S. thanks to the auspices of Sister Ping. There is even a school set up to train future illegal emigrants in English. In Shengmei, local officials grown rich off her investments and enterprises in the village helped ensure her protection from even Beijing's reach.

Police say she turned Shengmei into her new headquarters, continuing to travel extensively. She legally holds three passports: one from Hong Kong, one from the U.S. and one from Belize. Authorities say she has managed to make several visits to the U.S., where her son and husband continue to reside. Meanwhile she has allegedly explored new routes and techniques for getting people into the U.S. Police and immigration officials say Ping and other snakeheads have made an alliance with Serbian officials and now funnel several planeloads of immigrants a day through Belgrade to Europe and the U.S. One new method the snakeheads allegedly pioneered is the use of cargo containers to smuggle people. Last month 58 Chinese suffocated in a container being driven from the Netherlands to Britain. Sister Ping has not been connected to that case.

Last April, however, her luck ran out. Unable to locate her for five years, Interpol agents began checking passenger lists of flights from Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airport to New York. On the April 17 flight they spotted the name of her son. More than 40 agents from the Hong Kong narcotics bureau staked out the airport and waited. Around noon, they saw Sister Ping wandering around the airport. At first she denied she was Ping, but after she was fingerprinted she admitted her identity. She was carrying her three passports when she was arrested. An Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman boasted that the "arrest showed even the most mythic are not immune." An extradition hearing was originally scheduled for June, but Ping was hospitalized for depression, and the hearing is rescheduled for next month. She is expected to be extradited in August to face six federal charges of kidnapping, conspiracy and illegally transferring hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom money paid by friends and families of smuggled aliens. If convicted she faces a life sentence without the hope of parole.

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