LOS ANGELES – They didn't have Army haircuts. Their boots didn't shine. And their uniforms didn't look right.
U.S. Army veteran Joaquin Lim sensed something was amiss with the troop that had popped up at civic events in Southern California's Chinese-American communities. At a flag raising ceremony honoring a Chinese holiday, the Walnut city councilman stopped one of the recruits and asked to see his military ID.
"There were actually typos on the ID card," Lim said. "Right away, I knew something was wrong."
Those suspicions came into the spotlight Tuesday when authorities arrested the so-called "supreme commander" of the U.S. Army/Military Special Forces Reserve unit and charged him with duping Chinese immigrants into thinking they had truly enlisted in the American armed forces.
Prosecutors say Yupeng Deng, 51, recruited 100 other Chinese immigrants from as far away as Northern California and even Georgia to enlist in his Southern California group — at the cost of several hundred dollars — to help improve their chances of obtaining green cards and U.S. citizenship.
Deng, who also goes by the name David, is charged with 13 counts of obtaining money, labor or property under false pretenses, manufacturing and selling phony identification documents and using a counterfeit seal. He is being held on $500,000 bail and is set to be arraigned May 2.
The case — which was investigated by the FBI and Department of Defense — highlights the vulnerability of immigrants desperately seeking to belong in a new country and naive to the norms of a society in which, for example, military recruits don't pay to enlist and often receive some financial reward to join.
The case has also shed light on a host of military-style groups catering to Chinese immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley northeast of Los Angeles where members pay dues, dress up in fatigues and promote American patriotism by marching in parades and attending other events.
Deng's attorney Daniel Deng, of no relation, said his client joined one of these military support groups six years ago after he won asylum for facing religious persecution as a Christian.
Several years later, he formed his own unit to give Chinese immigrants a way to show their appreciation for their new country and assimilate into American society. They wore uniforms, engaged in military-style drills and took English classes, he said.
"They joined parades, just like the Salvation Army," Deng said. "He was just a political asylee who was grateful and wanted to do something for the community."
But authorities say Yupeng Deng wasn't just a well-meaning resident trying to show his patriotism.
He staged an office in Temple City to mimic a real recruiting station with a rug featuring the Army seal. Recruits paid $300 to $400 to join, trained using mock weapons and were issued ID cards they were told could help them beat traffic tickets or earn airfare discounts, said Michael Yglecias, head deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County's Pomona branch.
That's how local law enforcement got tipped off.
"Anyone can get their hands on military fatigues or outfits that look like they're military. Anyone can choose to march in unison and drill," Yglecias said. "But he misrepresented to these people what this was and he took their money."
Deng is also charged in a separate case with one count of child pornography, which stemmed from a computer search by authorities investigating the military scam. Bail was set at $50,000 in that case.
Prosecutors said it is unclear what motivated Deng to form the military group, but he doesn't appear to have amassed a fortune even though members paid to enlist, renew their membership and made additional donations to ascend in rank.
The Chinese-language newspaper World Journal started reporting on the phony military groups last year after community members inquired about whether the uniformed members were genuine military.
The groups have participated in flag ceremonies, parades and Chinese New Year celebrations in the San Gabriel Valley, which is home to sizable Chinese-American communities. Daniel Deng said close to 1,000 people participate in such groups.
Che Cheng, a 76-year-old El Monte resident who asked that his last name not be used out of fear of angering fellow recruits, said he joined an organization similar to Deng's a few years ago and paid $150 to enlist and $800 for a uniform.
Members were told they would be promoted in rank if they recruited more people, he said, but they were also told it wasn't a real U.S. Army unit.
Not so in the case of Deng's group, which marched in a parade in Monterey Park and took a tour of the USS Midway museum in San Diego in uniform, authorities said.
"It is sad that they would prey on people — if it is true," said Assemblyman Mike Eng, a Democrat who represents a cluster of San Gabriel Valley communities including Monterey Park. "I think the immigrants are the victims here and we need to do a better job educating everybody about the proper uses of the uniform."
Associated Press staffer Roy Wu contributed to this report.