Some compared Mei-Ling Huang to a house guest from heaven, one who cooked, cleaned and charmed the children. But others of those who took in the 28-year-old as a boarder, roommate or visitor allege that they quickly learned she really was too good to be true.
According to the Sheriff's Department and police investigators, Huang would vanish in about a week, sometimes with her host's driver's license, credit cards and whatever valuables she could carry.
"She looks like a puppy, but she's really a tiger," said one victim, an Arcadia resident who asked to be identified only as Ms. Wang.
Law enforcement officials charge that Huang pulled off her ruse for more than a year in at least nine cities from Monterey Park to Rowland Heights. According to sheriff's officials, she fooled fellow Chinese immigrants, some of them single mothers hoping to earn a few extra dollars by renting a room.
Huang is at the downtown Los Angeles Twin Towers Jail awaiting preliminary hearings at the Alhambra and Citrus Municipal courts on 14 criminal charges, including grand theft and receiving stolen property. Sheriff's officials said more charges are likely to follow from at least five area police departments.
Possible victims continue to come forward as news of Huang's alleged exploits spreads among the San Gabriel Valley's Chinese American community, according to Lt. Stuart Heller of the Sheriff's Department's Temple station.
"I've been getting phone calls [from possible victims] every day. There were 20 victims at my last count," Heller said.
Charges are likely to be filed against Huang for alleged offenses in cities including San Marino, Monterey Park, Industry, Montebello and Arcadia, Heller and other law enforcement officials said.
Huang faces a preliminary hearing Thursday on 11 charges at the Alhambra Municipal Court. Another preliminary hearing on three charges is scheduled for Oct. 21 at the Citrus Municipal Court in West Covina. Huang's bail has been set at $115,000 for the charges to be heard in the Alhambra court, and $20,000 for the Citrus court counts.
Huang has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Huang's public defender was unavailable for comment.
Store clerks never raised an eyebrow as Huang allegedly spent her way across the San Gabriel Valley with other people's credit cards, Heller said.
Although possible victims had reported Huang to various police departments, it was only after some residents took their story to a Chinese-language newspaper that sheriff's deputies got the tip that led to Huang's arrest last week. Deputies found Huang in Rowland Heights as she pulled up to her latest driveway in a $33,500 Acura allegedly bought with a victim's check, Heller said.
Wang, the Arcadia victim, said she met Huang through a mutual friend. The women quickly became friends, and Huang visited the Wang home three times this year, doting on Wang's 5-year-old and 9-year-old daughters.
One morning, Huang appeared at her doorstep in tears, saying her landlady had thrown her out after an argument and that she had slept in her car, Wang said. Wang arranged for Huang to move in with a friend the next day and invited Huang to spend the night.
The next day, Huang was gone with Wang's wallet, Wang said.
Wang said that Huang only charged $22 for gasoline to her credit card, but that she used her driver's license to get charge cards from Macy's, Sears, the Limited and Ikea, and with those, rang up $5,000 worth of purchases. Arcadia police have asked the district attorney to file charges against Huang for the alleged theft as well as an incident involving an Arcadia resident who claims to have been robbed by Huang, according to Arcadia Det. Roy Nakamura.
Sheriff's Lt. Heller said Huang was apparently able to use her victims' driver's licenses for identification even though many of them looked nothing like her.
Huang's string of alleged offenses occurred after she had been convicted of credit card fraud.
In March, she pleaded guilty to possessing a counterfeit credit card, served 30 days in jail, and was placed on three years probation. Huang had gotten the credit card in 1996 by mailing in an application under the name of the Monterey Park homeowner from whom she was renting a room, according to Monterey Park Police Det. Wes Clair. He said Huang's landlord never knew about the card because Huang regularly brought in the mail at the house and was able to intercept the card.
Huang's probation was revoked in May and a warrant was issued for her arrest. Because she moved quickly from house to house, only occasionally staying for a few nights in motels, she was able to stay one step ahead of the law, even as she allegedly committed more crimes, police sources said.
"I had tracked her to a few motels, but the trail grew cold," said West Covina Police Det. Rob Tibbetts, who had been pursuing Huang on suspicion of grand theft.
According to Tibbetts, Huang is suspected of using a bad check to buy a $30,000 Toyota Avalon. On a Saturday in May, Huang walked into West Covina Toyota, pointed to the car and wrote a check for it without haggling over the price, Tibbetts said.
The dealer let Huang drive the car away even though they wouldn't be able to clear the check until Huang's bank opened the following Monday. They then learned that Huang's checking account was closed, Tibbetts said.
Two weeks later, Huang agreed to sell the car for $20,000 to an Alhambra used car dealer, and took off with the $6,000 deposit he gave her, according to Tibbetts.
As Huang continued her life on the lam, her victims stewed with anger. Wang told her story to Cindy Hu, a friend and reporter for the Chinese Daily News.
Hu also had been contacted by a Temple City woman who had rented a room to Huang--until Huang allegedly left with $2,500 in cash, a stereo set and her wallet.
Hu introduced the two women, who then began their own pursuit of Huang. The women who had photographs of Huang were able to track down a few other alleged victims by meeting with Huang's ex-boyfriend and anyone they could find who knew her.
Hu wrote a story about Huang that appeared in a Chinese-language daily Oct. 1.
That day, a Rowland Heights reader thought that the woman described in the story sounded a lot like "Emily," the nice young lady who had moved in earlier that week.
The woman was home recuperating after surgery and had called Emily a "a gift from God," according to Heller. Emily volunteered to cook, picked up the woman's two daughters from school and took care of the grocery shopping.
While Huang was at the supermarket, the Rowland Heights woman called the Sheriff's Department and Huang was arrested when she returned.
Deputies loaded a van with Huang's possessions and found numerous sets of identification and credit cards from women throughout the San Gabriel Valley, as well as items that Huang's former hosts alleged she had stolen, Heller said.