A former Laotian military general and a former California National Guard officer were among nine people charged Monday with plotting a violent overthrow of Laos' communist government.
The group was raising money to recruit a mercenary force and buy enough weapons to equip a small army, including anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers, prosecutors said.
"We're looking at conspiracy to murder thousands and thousands of people at one time," Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Twiss said in federal court.
He said thousands of co-conspirators remain at large.
General Vang Pao, who immigrated to the U.S. in about 1975 and has been credited by thousands of Hmong refugees with helping them build new lives in the U.S., was accused of being the mastermind. He was charged with conspiracy to topple Laotian leaders.
Also charged was former California National Guard Lt. Col. Harrison Ulrich Jack, who was accused of acting as an arms broker and organizer.
Vang Pao had led CIA-backed Hmong forces in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s as a general in the Royal Army of Laos, while Jack is a 1968 West Point graduate who was involved in covert operations during the Vietnam War.
The attorneys for Vang Pao and Jack had no immediate comment after Monday's court proceeding.
Seven others, all prominent members of the Hmong community from California's Central Valley, also were charged, including Lo Thao of Sacramento County, president of United Hmong International, which the complaint says also is known as the Supreme Council of the Hmong 18 Clans; Youa True Vang of Fresno, founder of Fresno's Hmong International New Year; and Hue Vang, a former Clovis police officer.
Also charged were Lo Cha Thao of Clovis; Chong Yang Thao, a Fresno chiropractor; Seng Vue of Fresno and Chue Lo of Stockton, both of whom are clan representatives in United Hmong International.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Kimberly J. Mueller ordered all nine defendants to be held in custody until separate hearings later this week.
Contact information for the other defendants' lawyers was not immediately available.
The criminal complaint said Vang Pao, now 77, and the other Hmong defendants formed a committee "to evaluate the feasibility of conducting a military expedition or enterprise to engage in the overthrow of the existing government of Laos by violent means, including murder, assaults on both military and civilian officials of Laos and destruction of buildings and property."
The committee acted through the Lao liberation movement known as Neo Hom, led in the U.S. by Vang Pao. It conducted extensive fundraising, directed surveillance operations and organized a force of insurgent troops within Laos, according to the complaint.
As recently as May, people acting on behalf of the committee were gathering intelligence about military installations and government buildings in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, according to prosecutors.
Since January, the Hmong leaders and Jack inspected shipments of military equipment that were to be purchased and shipped to Thailand, shipments that were scheduled for June 12 and June 19, the complaint alleged. That equipment included machine guns, ammunition, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-tank rockets, stinger missiles, mines and C-4 explosives.
After the defendants' court appearance Monday, prosecutors displayed photographs of the weapons involved in the alleged plot. They showed a light anti-tank rocket system, a Stinger missile, Claymore mines and an AK-47 assault rifle.
The defendants also attempted to recruit a mercenary force that included former members of the Army special forces or Navy SEALs, prosecutors said.
Jack worked full-time doing strategic planning for the California National Guard after retiring from active duty as a lieutenant colonel about 10 years ago.
He recently established the Hmong Emergency Relief Organization, a nonprofit committed to supporting the Hmong community. He also is president of the nonprofit Youth Development Academies of America.
In March, Jack was hired by Yolo County, near Sacramento, as an ombudsman to help employees who have concerns or problems with county officials. He earned a bachelor's degree in engineering from West Point.
Vang Pao has been a source of controversy elsewhere.
In April, a dispute erupted in Madison, Wis., over a proposal to name a new elementary school after him, a move intended to honor the area's large Hmong population. Dissenters said a school should not bear the name of a figure with such a violent history.
In 2002, the city of Madison dropped a plan to name a park in his honor after a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor cited numerous published sources alleging that Vang Pao had ordered executions of his own followers, of enemy prisoners of war and of his political enemies.
Spokesmen for Vang Pao and his followers denied the charges at the time.