POMONA, Calif. — A Chinese national appeared shackled in court Wednesday on charges that he pretended to be a U.S. Army recruiter to bilk fellow immigrants out of thousands of dollars in fees, an elaborate scheme that authorities said included setting up an office and giving out fake military ID cards and uniforms that the recruits wore in a parade.
Los Angeles County prosecutors say Yupeng Deng recruited about 100 other Chinese immigrants from Southern California, San Jose and Atlanta to join his "U.S. Army/Military Special Forces Reserve unit," telling them that by doing so they could improve their chances of obtaining green cards and U.S. citizenship.
A judge set bail for Deng at $500,000, an amount that his attorney said was too high. Prosecutors said they wanted the higher amount because Deng, also known as David Deng, could be a flight risk.
They also said that although he was charged in cases involving five people, they believe he cheated at least 100.
"He preyed upon the aspirations of a very specific, targeted group with limited English-speaking abilities," Deputy District Attorney Michael Yglecias said outside court. He said he didn't know if Deng's targets held temporary visas or were illegal immigrants.
Deng, 51, is charged with 13 counts of obtaining money, labor or property under false pretenses and of manufacturing and selling phony identification documents. If convicted of all charges, he could face more than eight years in prison.
Prosecutors say Deng charged his "recruits" fees of $300 to $450 to join his reserve unit and as much as $120 a year to renew their membership.
The recruits were instructed to report to Deng's office in Temple City, a Los Angeles suburb with a large Asian immigrant population. The office was decorated to look like a military recruiting center, with a rug with an official-looking Army seal, according to a photo released by the FBI.
The agency also released a photo of Deng wearing a high ranking-looking military uniform and standing with about 20 "recruits" dressed in fatigues. Authorities say Deng called himself the "supreme commander."
Prosecutors say he trained his recruits with mock weapons and marched at public events, including a parade in Monterey Park, and that they toured the U.S. Midway Museum in San Diego, in full uniform.
Yglecias said Deng told the recruits their service would help with traffic tickets if they showed their military ID cards to police. It was that promise, authorities say, that brought him to their attention.
About three years ago, Yglecias said, police officers in the suburban San Gabriel Valley, an area east of Los Angeles with a large Chinese immigrant population, began noticing people trying to beat traffic tickets by showing the fake cards that they believed were legitimate.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said some recruits also visited real Army facilities to try to pay the fees that Deng charged.
Deng, accompanied by a Mandarin-speaking interpreter, agreed to waive his arraignment to May 2. He was scheduled to return to court Friday for a bail reduction hearing.
Deng is also charged in a separate case with one count of child pornography, which stemmed from a computer search by authorities investigating the military scam. Bail was set at $50,000 in that case.