By Paul Duggan and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
The way U.S. and Mexican authorities describe 44-year-old Zhenli Ye Gon, he might have sprung from some pulp novelist's overheated imagination.
Born in Shanghai, he lived in Mexico and ran a pharmaceuticals company -- a front, authorities allege, that supplied Mexican drug cartels with massive quantities of a chemical used to make the street drug methamphetamine. Police raided his luxurious Mexico City home in March, carting off what they said was $207 million, most of it in $100 bills that had been stashed behind false walls and in closets. The U.S. government called it "the largest single drug cash seizure the world has ever seen."
When the law caught up with Ye Gon on Monday night, his weeks on the lam ended in an Asian restaurant on Veirs Mill Road in Wheaton -- in P.J. Rice Bistro, in Westfield Wheaton mall, near a Ruby Tuesday and a JCPenney.
This is a man who owned a fleet of luxury cars and had mistresses in several countries, according to Mexican officials. In recent years, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said, he gambled away nearly $126 million in Las Vegas casinos.
At P.J. Rice Bistro, where he and a female acquaintance ordered codfish and baby carrots, DEA agents showed up before dinner was served. "The police came to the table and asked him to go pretty fast," a bistro employee recalled yesterday. "They didn't stay in the restaurant too long."
Not your garden-variety Montgomery County drug bust.
In an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington in support of a drug charge against Ye Gon, federal authorities allege that, between December 2005 and August, his company, Unimed Pharm Chem de Mexico, illegally imported from overseas about 86 metric tons of restricted chemicals into Mexico "for the express purpose of manufacturing pseudoephedrine/ephedrine."
The manufacture and possession of pseudoephedrine, a cold medicine ingredient, is tightly controlled in Mexico, the United States and elsewhere because it can be used to make methamphetamine.
In all, the affidavit says, the company allegedly imported enough chemicals to produce 36,568 kilograms of methamphetamine -- with a street value, the affidavit says, of $724 million.
Ye Gon, whose case has gained huge media attention in Mexico, contends that the millions in his home were not his alone and that he was framed by corrupt Mexican politicians. He appeared in U.S. District Court in Washington yesterday, disheveled and dressed in sneakers, khakis and a yellow plaid shirt. He was ordered jailed without bond pending a hearing next month.
Outside the courthouse, his attorney, Martin McMahon, said Ye Gon has been made a fall guy by leaders of Mexico's ruling National Action Party. Repeating an allegation that Ye Gon has made in recent weeks -- a claim that Mexican President Felipe Calderón has dismissed as "pure fiction" -- McMahon said that $150 million of the confiscated money was part of an illegal "slush fund" amassed by the party in Mexico's 2006 presidential campaign, cash that his client had been forced to safeguard.
McMahon said that when an independent panel in Mexico began investigating questionable fundraising in the presidential campaign, political supporters of Calderón urged Ye Gon to travel to the United States -- setting him up, McMahon said, for the bust. "This is essentially a staged drug raid, a complete fraud," he said.
McMahon said that his client's life is in danger and that a team of black-suited men who claimed to be DEA agents recently broke into an apartment in Las Vegas and said they were searching for Ye Gon.
DEA officials in Washington have said that they were involved in no such raid.
McMahon said his client is an honest pharmaceuticals executive. He was "shocked and surprised" this spring, McMahon said, when U.S. law enforcement officials seemed uninterested in discussing Ye Gon's claim that the money seized at his mansion was not entirely his and that the drug charges had been fabricated.
"They'd be faced with undoing what they are calling the largest seizure of drug cash in the world," McMahon said.
DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney said the DEA considered the evidence carefully before bringing the charges. "We're pretty thorough in our investigations," he said. "We tend not to bring indictments unless we've done the amount of work that we need to do."
Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora called the arrest "magnificent news" and said Mexican officials would file for extradition, according to the Associated Press.
They have charged Ye Gon, who lived in a Mediterranean-style mansion in Mexico City's posh Las Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood, with production of methamphetamine, possession of firearms and conducting operations with illegal proceeds.
U.S. authorities said nothing in court yesterday about extradition. They have charged Ye Gon with violating U.S. drug laws in connection with the alleged chemical sales because, they said, he knew or should have known that much of the methamphetamine eventually would be sold to users in the United States.
After the raid on his house, Ye Gon launched a public relations campaign, with help from lawyers in Washington, in his defense.
In an interview with the Associated Press in New York this month, he alleged that Mexico's future labor secretary, Javier Lozano, who was then working on Calderón's campaign, forced him to safeguard the millions, threatening to harm him if he failed to do so. The money would be used to finance Calderón's campaign and to carry out "terrorist" activities if Calderón lost, Ye Gon said. Mexican government officials have called the allegations preposterous.
Ye Gon's attorneys held a news conference July 18 at the National Press Club. Ye Gon, in an undisclosed location, took questions by phone.
The lawyers said Ye Gon intended to apply for political asylum in the United States. His immigration status is unclear. He had traveled to the Washington area to consult with his lawyers after his girlfriend was arrested in Las Vegas on sealed charges.
DEA agent Steve Robertson said authorities Monday night searched a house in Wheaton where Ye Gon had been staying. According to neighbors, land records and a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing, the red-brick house, in the 2600 block of Blueridge Avenue, is owned by Ning Ye, one of Ye Gon's attorneys. Attempts to reach the attorney for comment on the search were unsuccessful.
Authorities began a stakeout there earlier in the day, then broke down the front door after 9 p.m., neighbors said. They said agents spent hours packaging evidence.
"It was like something out of 'Cops,' " said one neighbor, Mia Kisumbi, 33, referring to the reality TV show. She said agents at one point brought Ye Gon to the house in handcuffs and escorted him inside.
At P.J. Rice Bistro on Monday night, customers and employees barely had time to understand the goings-on. Ye Gon, with his female companion, was neatly dressed in a suit and tie, according to a restaurant host who asked, for privacy reasons, that his name not published.
Ye Gon seemed a "nice, tall guy," the host said.
About 8:30 p.m., a waitress took their orders: appetizers and two entrees, including codfish and carrots.
Shortly after they ordered, the host said, seven or eight agents came in through the front and side entrances. They wore bulletproof vests and carried guns. Some waited by the exits while others approached the table and quickly led Ye Gon out a side door. It was unclear what happened to his dining companion.
The other patrons went back to their meals -- now with a story to tell about an exciting thing they saw happen at the mall.
Staff writers Mariana Minaya and Carol D. Leonnig and researchers Karl Evanzz, Alice Crites and Jean-Louis Magda contributed to this report.