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81-month sentence to leader of Chinatown fake-ID scheme

Updated: May 21, 2012 8:37AM

A federal judge imposed a nearly seven-year sentence Wednesday on the main player in a fake-ID ring based in Chinatown.

U.S. District Judge John Darrah sentenced Jun Yun Zhang to 81 months in prison and noted that Zhang was the ringleader of a scheme in which more than 30 people were charged with crimes.

Zhang, 44, and those below him were responsible for more than 7,000 phony documents, according to the government, which led to unqualified drivers on the roads.

Zhang was part of a broader enterprise that saw other manufacturers, brokers and couriers who sold “identity sets” that cost from $1,200 to $3,500.

Their customers, for the most part, were Chinese, Korean or Indonesian nationals who’d been smuggled into the United States or remained in the country illegally, according to federal authorities.

Zhang led a band of brokers whom he trained, and who helped him get phony driver’s licenses or state ID cards by using fake identities, prosecutors said, with Zhang manufacturing phony documents at his residences, including in a unit at 2734 S. Wentworth Ave.

Darrah said Zhang knew people who weren’t qualified to operate a motor vehicle were getting driver’s licenses, because Zhang or those working for him had given them cheat sheets that they memorized, though most of them knew little or no English.

In some cases, Illinois Secretary of State’s Office employees were paid to give these people passing scores on driving exams, according to Zhang’s plea agreement.

Four employees of the state agency also were charged in the investigation.

Zhang was motivated by greed, Darrah said.

“To satisfy that greed, Mr. Zhang, you put other people at risk,” the judge said. According to prosecutors, the false documents included Chinese passports that were counterfeited or had been altered, and were then matched to legitimate Social Security numbers often beginning with the numbers 586.

After authorities caught wind of the operation, the Chicago Police Department and FBI began running separate investigations beginning in 2005. In 2007, they joined efforts, dubbing the investigation Operation Paper Mountain.

Zhang, a Chinese national who was living in Chicago when he was arrested in 2009, will be credited for the time spent in jail since then, authorities said.

In court Wednesday, he listened to his sentencing through an interpreter. When asked if he wanted to address the court, the gray-haired Zhang, wearing a baggy orange jumpsuit, shook his head. His lawyer, Michael O’Meara, said that while Zhang headed the operation, he didn’t force anyone to do anything they didn’t want to do.

“Some may have profited more than others, but they were all in it to make money,” O’Meara said. “He didn’t put a gun to anyone’s head. They were all in it together.”

O’Meara asked for a 12-month sentence, saying his client, who has been held at the Kankakee County Jail, is suffering a greater punishment because he can’t communicate with others while locked up. Zhang will be deported once he’s out of prison.

“Mr. Zhang isn’t in isolation, but his mind really is because he has no one to talk to,” O’Meara said, saying Zhang’s family has abandoned him. “They don’t speak to him. In fact, they were willing to testify against him.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Dollear said Zhang communicated with others just fine while running his criminal scheme. “He is a very enterprising criminal who managed to do a vast criminal conspiracy with [others] who didn’t speak Chinese. This could not have gone on to the extent that it did without this defendant,”

Dollear said in court.

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