Three men were convicted in Brooklyn federal court on Tuesday of stalking a family in suburban New Jersey on behalf of the Chinese government.
The defendants, Michael McMahon, 55, Zhu Yong, 66, and Zheng Congying, 27, were found guilty of stalking and related conspiracy charges. Mr Zhu and Mr McMahon were also found guilty of acting as unregistered foreign agents, and Mr Zhu was convicted on a second conspiracy charge.
Speaking outside the courthouse on Tuesday, McMahon, a retired New York Police Department sergeant turned private investigator, maintained his innocence and vowed to keep fighting to clear his name.
“If I had known that they were part of a foreign government looking to harass anyone, I would have said no, and I would have called the FBI,” he said.
The ruling ends a three-week trial in which prosecutors laid out a detailed case alleging the men played a role in Operation Fox Hunt, a decade-long effort that Chinese officials say is aimed at repatriating fugitives. The Justice Department argues that the campaign is part of the Communist Party's push to control Chinese citizens around the world.
The Brooklyn case is the first case the Department of Justice has prosecuted against a Chinese operation, and comes as tensions between the competing superpowers reach new heights, with disagreements over China's growing military footprint and other issues. Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken met Xi Jinping, China's leader, in Beijing over the weekend.
The Justice Department has made China-related cases a major focus in recent years, and the Brooklyn office of US attorney Breon S. Peace is particularly aligned with what it calls “transnational oppression” by foreign governments. In a statement after the verdict, Mr. Peace said that Mr. McMahon and Mr. Zhu had acted “at the direction of a hostile foreign nation.”
“We will remain steadfast in exposing and undermining attempts by the Chinese government to reach across our borders and carry out transnational repression schemes targeting victims in the United States who violate our laws,” he said.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accused the Justice Department on Friday of “slander and slander” regarding the case, adding that transnational repression “is an accusation that best fits US practice itself.”
Mr McMahon, of Mahwah, NJ, could face up to 20 years in prison, according to the US Attorney's office. But Lawrence Lustberg, his attorney, said outside the courtroom last week that the federal sentencing formula was complicated, and that he believed the maximum for all four counts would, in practice, be less than three years. According to prosecutors, Mr Zhu, from Queens, could face 25 years, and Mr Zheng, from Brooklyn, could face 10.
On Tuesday, Mr Lustberg called the verdict “unfair” and added that the stalking conviction “criminals the work of private investigators in every case.”
Mr McMahon said he had alerted local police while on surveillance on five separate occasions, and that he had hired other former NYPD detectives to assist him. Mr. Lustberg has argued at trial that the facts are evidence that Mr. McMahon was not aware that the case was related to the Chinese government.
Renee Wong, attorney for Mr. Zheng, said he considered the verdict good news because he was acquitted of two main charges, and his team was considering appealing the stalking charge.
“There is no connection between the people Mr. Zheng knows and the people Mr. McMahon and Mr. Zhu know. The connection is lacking, ”he said.
Kevin Tung, attorney for Mr. Zhu, said the decision could increase risks for any citizen or business dealing with overseas partners.
“The message being sent to the public is deeply troubling,” he said.
During the trial, Judge Pamela K. Chen warned everyone involved to focus on the specific charges, not on the international politics swirling around them. The jury began deliberating on Thursday.
The case centers on Xu Jin, a former Chinese government official who moved to the United States more than a decade ago. Prosecutors said the three defendants were key to a plot concocted by Chinese government officials to stalk and harass Xu and his family and force him to return to China, where he could face the death penalty on embezzlement charges.
The jury was shown multiple records documenting communications beginning in the fall of 2016, when Mr Zhu contacted Mr McMahon, who works as a private investigator in New Jersey.
The older man, who spoke little English, turned to a translation company in Flushing, Queens, to help him communicate. Mr McMahon's understanding was that he was working for a private company that was trying to recover money, said Lawrence Lustberg, a lawyer representing him.
Mr. McMahon conducted surveillance for five days over six months in 2016 and 2017, and found records regarding Mr. Xu. He also meets Zhu's colleague Hu Ji, who turns out to be a police officer at the Public Security Bureau in Wuhan, China.
A face-to-face encounter between the men, at a Panera Bread restaurant in New Jersey, in October 2016, was captured in a photo which was shown to a jury as evidence of their immediate relationship.
In the picture, Mr McMahon is grinning and standing between two others with his arm around Mr Zhu. After the meeting, Mr Hu, using the name Eric Yan, began contacting Mr McMahon directly with instructions.
Mr Lustberg argued during the trial that there was no evidence to suggest that Mr McMahon knew his investigation was being directed by the Chinese government. Instead, the about email refers to the “company” that requested the work.
The target of his investigation, Mr Xu, was once the head of the Wuhan Municipal Development and Reform Commission, according to reports in Chinese state media. The reports said he was wanted for embezzlement, abuse of power and taking bribes. Xu testified at the Brooklyn trial but could not immediately be reached for comment following the verdict.
The days McMahon was hired coincided with a 2017 trip to New Jersey by Xu's sick 82-year-old father that prosecutors say Chinese officials forced him to take.
Xu's eldest daughter has been jailed because her son refused to come home, jurors were told. Chinese officials then planned to send the elder Xu to New Jersey to persuade his son to return to China, prosecutors said. Officials did not know the younger Xu's address, and used his father as bait to lure him out and follow him, prosecutors said.
Xu's sister-in-law testified to her shock when the older man showed up at her door in Short Hills, NJ, without warning. He had received several threats related to Xu and knew that the Chinese government was trying to find him, he said. To thwart them, he arranges a meeting the next day at a nearby mall instead of Xu's house.
But the following year, two men, including Mr Zheng, showed up at his home in Warren, NJ, and left threatening messages. Zheng's attorney, Paul Goldberger, said his client was “just a child” who had gone to the home as a favor to another man, and that he immediately regretted his actions.
Mr Zheng even went back to try and take notes, said Mr Goldberger. But he was too late: Xu testified that he had, following instructions from the FBI