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Look beyond O.J. memorabilia to high roller case with fake $100 bills

If Chen Chiang Liu hoped to avoid public scrutiny during his federal counterfeiting trial, then he’s in luck.

Liu, also known as Wilson Liu, is considered a key player in a criminal conspiracy stretching from a counterfeiting factory in North Korea to the casino floor of Caesars Palace.

While the Liu case is woven with enough international connections and complex criminal intrigue to fill a shelf of Ludlum novels, it’s the memorabilia robbery and kidnapping case of fallen football star O.J. Simpson that will get the media attention.

Both trials are to start Monday, Simpson in state District Court, and Liu in U.S. District Court.

Liu and his wife, Min Li Liu, also called Teresa Liu, are accused in an indictment of conspiring with others from April 2004 through June 2007 to pass counterfeit U.S. currency in the form of $100 bills known to investigators as “Supernotes,” because of their unprecedented quality.

Neither the Lius nor the group’s alleged leaders, John Wu and Paul Yeung, realized their operation had been infiltrated by an undercover FBI agent posing as a potential buyer of everything from funny money to rockets and launchers capable of bringing down a commercial airliner. For several years, the FBI and Secret Service case traveled secretly under the code name Operation Smoking Dragon. The case has produced more than 20 convictions on a variety of federal crimes, including violations of the USA Patriot Act.

While a federal investigation reaching to North Korea has gone almost unnoticed, the story of Simpson’s latest fumble has generated international media attention.

On the surface, the case against Liu and his wife appears a prohibitive favorite for conviction. Not only does the government have a copiously documented money trail, but it also has testimony from the undercover agent as well as other cooperating witnesses. Liu’s Las Vegas luck is about to turn.

One intriguing element of the case, as I understand it, is that it may expose the complicity of foreign government agents in the counterfeiting scheme. It’s been reported the North Korean government is behind the creation of the Supernotes and has used them to help prop up a foundering economy. It’s also believed the money trail passes through China and the Russian Embassy in Beijing to the Port of Long Beach/Los Angeles and on to Las Vegas.

Ironically, Wilson Liu was under federal indictment in connection with the Smoking Dragon investigation when he obtained official clearance to travel from Los Angeles to Las Vegas “on business.” His business, investigators discovered, included playing the high roller at Caesars Palace and gambling at the tables and $100 slot machines with, you guessed it, piles of Supernotes.

(When I first wrote about this investigation in December 2005, elements of the Strip’s casino PR machine rushed to downplay its news value.)

Before the investigation broke the surface, approximately $2 million in Supernotes had been ordered or delivered to an undercover agent. Plans were in place to ship hundreds of millions of dollars in counterfeit bills to the United States, according to informed sources.

Liu’s role in the conspiracy increased after the arrests of Yeung and Wu, but the government is also attempting to make it clear Liu’s contacts were substantial. He and associates “assured the cooperating witness that they were continuing to broker counterfeit currency deals notwithstanding that Yeung remained in custody as they had contacts in China who could supply counterfeit currency without Yeung’s participation,” the indictment states.

The quality of the notes, according to the government, was very good and getting better. While early printings sometimes were rejected by bill acceptors at Strip slot machines, the later editions easily passed muster and even treasury experts initially were fooled.

“The passing of Supernotes in Las Vegas casinos was an integral component of the conspiracy; gambling with Supernotes in casinos in Nevada enabled the conspirators to exchange or convert counterfeit currency for genuine United States currency,” the indictment states. “Further, such gaming activities not only enabled the conspirators to exchange counterfeit currency for genuine United States currency, but also produced receipts and other documents ostensibly providing a record regarding the source of the conspirators’ money and wealth.”

Those records are likely to come back and haunt Wilson Liu, whose run of luck in Las Vegas has most certainly run out.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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