CHICAGO (MCT) — Jun Yue Zhang says he ran from the police in China, sprinting into the mountains near his tiny village after he compared government authorities to “mobsters” for levying fines against him and his wife for having a second child, according to federal court documents.
A fugitive, Zhang fled his communist homeland in 1988 and over five years journeyed through Thailand, Burma and other countries. Along the way, a “snakehead” smuggler exposed him to the art of using fake IDs and bribes to gain illegal entry into the U.S., court filings say.
He arrived in Chicago in 2000 and joined his younger brother, Jun Yun Zhang, also in the country illegally and already well-versed in document fraud.
Together, they ran a highly sophisticated fake ID ring out of a network of tiny Chinatown apartments that employed girlfriends and several relatives.
By 2009, the year it was broken up, the ring had burrowed into the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles and used Social Security numbers from the U.S.-controlled Northern Mariana Islands in the South Pacific to secure Illinois driver’s licenses and fake Chinese passports for clients, federal and state authorities say.
This week, both brothers were sentenced to prison after pleading guilty for crimes that raked in several hundred thousand dollars. The case has touched every driver in Illinois by leading to changes in DMV procedures for licenses and state IDs.
Jun Yun Zhang, 44, was sent to prison for 81 months on Wednesday, a day after Jun Yue Zhang, 52, was sentenced to 61 months behind pars.
“The China case was huge,” said Jim Burns, inspector general for the Secretary of State’s office, which helped federal investigators with the case that led to 17 arrests. Two defendants are fugitives.
Among those charged were two DMV employees who admitted to accepting as much as $40,000 in bribes for allowing the ring’s clients to pass road test exams that some never even took.
The ring drew the attention of investigators because of a spike in applications bearing the 586 Social Security prefix common in the Mariana Islands, Burns said. Prosecutors say the ring worked with as many as 7,000 clients, charging up to $3,500 for services.
The investigation led to additional security-related steps motorists must take to obtain or renew a driver’s license, including having to provide at least two pieces of documentation, plus a valid Social Security card, that prove you actually live in Illinois.
Also, a multi-agency “Safe ID Task Force” was assembled to check out fraud cases. Last April, agents seized 100 Illinois driver’s license holograms at O’Hare International Airport from a shipment arriving from Hong Kong.
“The goal is to make the driver’s license and the ID card as fraud-proof and as counterfeit proof as we possibly can,” Burns said. “As you might guess, that’s an ongoing process.”
The case involving the Zhangs, dubbed “Operation Paper Mountain,” highlights the fierce demand among many illegal immigrants for documentation that will help them get established in the U.S.
As with many immigrant stories, the one involving the Zhang brothers has humble origins.
Jun Yue Zhang arrived in Chicago in 2000 after living briefly in New York. In a statement translated from Chinese filed as part of a plea for a lighter sentence, Zhang describes himself as the diabetic son of a farmer who fell victim to a string of failed business ventures in Chicago.
He briefly opened a seafood restaurant in Chinatown with three cousins and his brother, Jun Yun Zhang, who, the statement says, had already been involved in manufacturing fake IDs.
After the restaurant failed, Jun Yun Zhang convinced his older brother to join the fake ID operation, first to drive clients who responded to Chinese-language newspaper ads in Chicago, New York and Atlanta, to the DMV the statement reads.
“I am here to plead guilty and apologize to the United States’ government sincerely,” Jun Yue Zhang wrote, asking officials to “understand the pain coming from a cripple like me and give me leniency.”
Jun Yun Zhang entered the U.S. illegally in 1989, court records show. He arrived to Chicago from New York around 1994.
In his own sentencing statement, he described a life of farm work in China, followed by menial jobs in the U.S. until he finally became involved in a document fraud business.
“At the time this was occurring, Mr. Zhang felt that he was part of the process, illegal as it may have been, in helping people as well as enriching himself,” the statement reads.
The ring relied on “586” prefix Social Security cards used legitimately by Chinese nationals who worked temporarily in Saipan, the largest of the Mariana Islands, according to a criminal complaint.
When those workers prepared to return to China, their cards were collected in bulk and shipped to the U.S. for use by the Zhangs. After a Social Security card successfully led to an Illinois license or ID, it was recycled for use by another client, prosecutors allege.
Local authorities became aware of the ring in 2005. Chicago police and Cook County prosecutors were running an undercover sting operation inside a Chinatown brothel, and one of the women arrested there told law enforcement authorities about the fake ID ring, State’s Attorney’s office officials said.
Soon a federal investigation was under way, and FBI agents began to learn how extensive the document ring was.
Many deals were first formed in the parking lot of a Chinatown Walgreens, according to a federal affidavit.
Agents followed the Zhangs and other ring members as they ushered clients to Chicago area DMV facilities.
At the Bridgeport facility, investigators witnessed road test examiners Timothy Johnson and James Howell accept $100 bribes for allowing clients to pass road text exams that they never took, according to court documents.
“The first bribe I took was for $50; I knew I shouldn’t have taken it and promised myself it wouldn’t happen again, however it was like a drug and at the time I felt as though I just couldn’t stop,” Johnson wrote in a letter asking for leniency. After pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion, he is scheduled to be sentenced June 26.
Howell, who has also pleaded guilty, was sentenced last year to two years in prison.
In some cases, the clients of the Zhangs’ ring had to actually take a driver’s test. One client failed hers at the DMV’s Midlothian facility, frustrating Jun Yun Zhang.
After an underling suggested the problem could be resolved with another bribe, Zhang responded with exasperation: “There is a very nice DMV tester waiting for her to take the test.”
But, he lamented, “She (the client) is not even able to make a turn.”