A retired NYPD sergeant and two purported Chinese agents used an elderly father as bait in an alleged plot to repatriate a former Chinese government official living in New Jersey, according to federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, where trial opens Wednesday.
The retired sergeant, Michael McMahon, and two men charged with acting as agents of China, are the first defendants to stand trial in the U.S. over what the Chinese government called Operation Fox Hunt, a worldwide attempt to coerce Chinese nationals living abroad to return to China through tactics including harassment, stalking and threats.
The victim in this case is identified only as John Doe-1 and China said he was wanted for corruption. Instead of operating with the approval and coordination of the U.S. government, federal prosecutors said China dispatched its own prosecutor and police officer "to engage in unsanctioned and illegal conduct on behalf of the PRC to coerce the targeted victims to return to the PRC."
According to court records, McMahon, Yong Zhu, Congying Zhen and others forced John Doe-1's elderly father to travel from China so he could warn his son, in a surprise visit, about the consequences of refusing to return to China. Zhu is accused of hiring McMahon, a private investigator, to surveil John Doe-1. Zheng is accused of harassing John Doe-1 and his adult daughter.
According to the criminal complaint, McMahon at one point suggested the men could "harass [John Doe-1]. Park outside his home and let him know we are there." At another point, two conspirators, including Zheng, "visited John Doe-1's residence, banged on his front door, walked into his yard, and ultimately left a message taped to the residence that threatened John Doe-1 and John Doe-1's family with dire consequences should they fail to return to the PRC," according to the complaint.
McMahon, who has pleaded not guilty, argued he was unaware of the alleged scheme's true intent.
"Mr. McMahon agreed to investigate and conduct surveillance, as he is legally permitted to do as a licensed private investigator – not that Mr. McMahon agreed to, or was even aware, that the investigation was at the direction or control of a foreign government or official," defense attorney Lawrence Lustberg wrote.
The Department of Justice said in April that there was evidence of expanding espionage and security activity by the Chinese government on U.S. soil.
"[It] shows how brazen they are, how unwilling they are to work under the laws that apply in free democracies," David Newman, the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice, told ABC News' Chief Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas at the time. "And it demonstrates that they choose to project their authoritarian system outside their borders."