Calif. man sentenced in Army recruiting scam

April 13: Deng is shown in court during his arraignment in Pomona, California.

April 13: Deng is shown in court during his arraignment in Pomona, California.  (AP)

A Chinese national accused of pretending to be a U.S. Army recruiter to bilk immigrants out of thousands of dollars was sentenced to three years in prison Wednesday.

Yupeng Deng, 51, of El Monte, recruited about 200 other Chinese immigrants from Southern California, the San Francisco Bay area and Atlanta to join his bogus Army reserve unit, telling them it could improve their chances of obtaining U.S. citizenship, prosecutors said.

The recruits were charged $300 to $450 to enlist and up to $120 a year to renew memberships in what Deng called the U.S. Army/Military Special Forces Reserve unit.

Recruits could increase their rank in the "MSFR" by making cash donations to the defendant, prosecutors said.

"Deng dishonored the brave men and women of the United States military and defrauded a vulnerable immigrant population, many of whom legitimately hoped and believed they were on a path to American citizenship," said Steven Martinez, who leads the FBI's Los Angeles office.

Deng pleaded guilty to one count each of theft, manufacturing deceptive government documents and counterfeiting an official government seal, and a Los Angeles County judge sentenced him immediately.

Deng also pleaded guilty to felony possession of child pornography, which stemmed from a computer search by authorities investigating the military scam. He was sentenced to 16 months for that charge, but the time will be served concurrently with the rest of his sentence.

Besides the prison sentence, Deng was ordered to pay about $200,000 in restitution. Ten other counts were dismissed as part of a plea deal.

"Yupeng Deng made a hobby of lying about himself," Deputy District Attorney Lalit Kundani said. "He called himself the 'supreme commander' when, in reality, he was the 'supreme con artist.'"

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 but unaware that recruits don't have to pay to enlist.

It also shed light on the military-style patriotic groups that march in parades and attend civic events in the San Gabriel Valley.

Walnut city councilman and U.S. Army veteran Joaquin Lim sensed something was amiss when he saw Deng's troops at civic events held by the Chinese immigrant community. At a flag-raising ceremony honoring a Chinese holiday, Lim 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."