WASHINGTON – The guests thought they were headed to an early afternoon wedding on a yacht docked near Atlantic City. They ended up in jail instead, courtesy of an elaborate ruse by federal authorities hoping to bust up an international smuggling ring.
Lengthy undercover investigations on opposite sides of the country resulted in indictments of 87 Asians and U.S. citizens on charges of smuggling counterfeit money, drugs and cigarettes into the United States, law enforcement officials said Monday.
Authorities said they seized $4.4 million in high-quality fake $100 bills, more than 1 billion counterfeit cigarettes worth $42 million, and ecstasy, methamphetamine and Viagra worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Some of the cigarettes were made in China, said acting assistant Attorney General John Richter (search). The money appeared to have been produced in North Korea, two officials said on condition of anonymity because there are ongoing counterfeiting investigations involving similar phony currency.
Agents also seized $700,000 in fake U.S. postage stamps and blue jeans worth several hundred thousand dollars, FBI Deputy Director John Pistole (search) said.
Indictments were unsealed Sunday and Monday in Los Angeles and Newark, N.J. Fifty-nine people were arrested over the weekend in 11 cities in Canada and the United States, including Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Newark, Philadelphia and San Diego.
Eight of those charged were arrested on their way to the fake wedding, called for 2 p.m. Sunday, off the Jersey coast. Operation Royal Charm (search) was named for the yacht.
The affair was seven months in the making, and the bride and groom were actually undercover FBI agents who worked with the accused smugglers for several years, said Christopher J. Christie, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey.
"Invitations were sent out, a date was given and RSVPs were received from different points around the world," Christie said at a Justice Department news conference.
"One guest even brought a pair of gold Presidential Rolex watches," New Jersey FBI Special Agent in Charge Leslie G. Wiser Jr. told reporters in Newark.
They were assured transportation would be provided to the yacht. They were taken into custody instead. Some of the men arrested Sunday appeared in U.S. District Court in Camden, N.J., on Monday in clothes that looked appropriate for a wedding.
None of the counterfeit money or drugs made its way into circulation, but some cigarettes did, officials said. Agents posing as smugglers arranged to import the fake cash, cigarettes — stamped with the Marlboro and Newport brands — and drugs in cargo containers that arrived in ports in Long Beach, Los Angeles and Newark.
The California operation, in which the bulk of the cigarettes were seized, was dubbed Operation Smoking Dragon (search).
The containers carried phony manifests identifying the goods inside as toys, rattan furniture and other items, Richter said.
Two defendants in New Jersey also were charged with conspiracy to ship $1 million in rocket launchers, automatic rifles and silenced pistols and submachine guns, officials said. The weapons were never delivered, they said.
The investigation began in the FBI's Atlantic City office and included the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Other agencies involved are the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Secret Service and New Jersey state police.