He called himself the "supreme commander."
From a storefront in Temple City decorated to look like a military recruiting center, David Deng raised an army of more than 100 Chinese nationals and claimed they were members of an elite U.S. special forces unit, authorities said.
Together, they marched in local Chinese New Year parades and even received a special military tour in uniform at the USS Midway museum in San Diego. Chinese-language newspapers ran photos of the troops with prominent community leaders.
But prosecutors on Tuesday charged that Deng's "U.S. Army/Military Special Forces Reserve" was actually a huge immigration scam that preyed on Chinese immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley desperate to become citizens.
Authorities allege that Deng charged members of his "army" $300 to $450 to join plus an annual $120 renewal fee. He told them that joining the group would increase their chances of becoming U.S. citizens, according to court papers. The more money they donated to the organization, he allegedly told them, the better their chances of becoming citizens.
The recruits were typically low-wage workers toiling away at Chinese restaurants. Most were from the L.A. area, but there were also recruits from as far away as Georgia, officials said. They were provided with fake documents and military ID cards as well as phony uniforms, apparently purchased at military surplus stores.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said the investigation began three years ago after local police began noticing that some people pulled over during traffic stops produced fake military identifications. Last year, one Chinese-language newspaper reported that an Alhambra taxi driver was arrested near Los Angeles International Airport after producing counterfeit military identification while trying to get out of a traffic stop.
Investigators learned that the recruits were told that the military IDs could be used to avoid getting traffic tickets and to receive certain types of military benefits and discounts, Eimiller said.
Some of the recruits were so convinced that they were part of the U.S. military that they actually visited real Army recruiting centers and tried to pay their monthly dues directly to the U.S. government, Eimiller said. That was another tipoff when investigators began looking into the group.
Local Chinese American leaders on Wednesday said they were shocked that a group that was such a familiar presence in the community is now being accused of being a fraud.
A few officials, however, said there was always something off about the group.
"Their uniform didn't fit them. They didn't shine their boots," said Joaquin Lim, a city councilman from Walnut. "They even had typos and misspellings on their ID cards. They were a disgrace to the Army."
Assemblyman Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park) was pictured in the Chinese-language press at the sixth anniversary celebration for what is believed to be one branch of the group. He was there with his wife, U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), and other dignitaries.
"If we are invited by a group to a celebration or festival, we do participate. We don't do a background check for everybody," Eng said. "My heart goes out to the immigrants who, because of their limited English, became victims to these scams."
When members of Deng's troop appeared in public, they wore green uniforms and carried various military flags. They were also seen doing drills with mock weapons. The group seemed to have some type of rank system designated with striped insignias, with Deng as the "supreme commander."
While prosecutors said they found evidence of more than 100 recruits, some in the Chinese American community said there appeared to be several branches of the "special forces reserve" with up to 800 members.
Agents with the FBI and U.S. Department of Defense Criminal Investigative Service pursued the case. Deng, who is also known as Yupeng Deng, was arrested Tuesday. He was being held in lieu of $500,000 bail and was scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday at Los Angeles County Superior Court in Pomona.
Deng, 51, is charged with 13 counts of theft by false pretenses, manufacturing deceptive government documents and counterfeit of an official government seal, said Jane Robison of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. He was also charged with possession of child pornography, which officials said was discovered during a search of Deng's home.
If convicted on all charges, he faces a maximum of more than 11 years in state prison.
Daniel Deng, a Rosemead attorney who represents David Deng in another legal matter and is not related, declined to comment on the charges but said he knows many members of the organization. For the most part, he said, the recruits see it as a fun way to be part of American society and gain respect from others and had no intention of deceiving anyone. "They just feel that any association with the military is an honor," he said.
In some cases, members have gone back to China bragging of their military "rank," he said.
There have been several other cases in recent years of Chinese Americans posing as U.S. military officials. The Chinese-language media reported recently about a Rosemead man who went to China claiming to be a major general in the U.S. Army. The papers reported that he was treated like a dignitary in his hometown and received an audience with a Chinese military commander.
Lim, the Walnut councilman, said there should be a lesson in this and other cases.
"The people in the community should know this is totally illegal and not patriotic at all," he said.