A Chinese-born California woman who said she fled to the United States following bloody student protests in Beijing was sentenced to 47 months in prison Wednesday for her role in a $2.2 million credit scheme at Strip casinos.
Irene Li, 53, who said she was granted asylum in 1990, months after participating in massive public demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, also was ordered to pay the $2.2 million in restitution.
The money will go to five casinos — Planet Hollywood, Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, Mirage and MGM Grand. The credit scheme involved recruiting people to play baccarat with Li.
Her lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender William Carrico, told U.S. District Judge Andrew Gordon that he was concerned federal immigration authorities plan to deport Li back to China after she serves her prison time.
With the help of a Chinese interpreter, Li read a letter to Gordon in which she explained how she came to the United States after the Chinese government tried to arrest her following the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. The Chinese military crushed the uprising with a brutality that was condemned throughout the world.
“I feel very ashamed and sorry,” Li told Gordon. “In my lifetime, I have never done anything to violate the laws.”
Li begged the judge for leniency, saying she wanted a chance to correct her mistakes and give back to society.
Gordon hailed Li for participating in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, but said it didn’t “excuse” her actions in the credit scheme.
The 47 months behind bars was less than the 51 months Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Duncan had sought and more than the 41 months Carrico wanted.
Li pleaded guilty in October to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud in a 29-count superseding indictment. The other charges were dismissed as part of her plea agreement.
Her husband Xi Sheng Zhang, 57, also charged in the indictment, is a fugitive.
In court papers, Duncan alleged Li recruited people to open bank accounts and apply for lines of credit at casinos during the scheme, which occurred between 2004 and 2009. She deposited money in the bank accounts of the recruits and bribed casino hosts to ensure the lines of credit were approved.
The recruits withdrew chips from their lines of credit and played baccarat at the casinos.
Eventually, Li and Zhang controlled the baccarat games by placing recruits at tables where they were playing, Duncan alleged.
They carried out a scam known as “rolling the chips” to make it look as though they were losing money, when in fact they were just hiding chips and giving them to other co-conspirators.
The chips were cashed and all of the money went to Li, who then gave the recruits a small cut, according to Duncan. The recruits then left Nevada and, in some cases the country, leaving the casinos unable to collect their markers.
Contact reporter Jeff German at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 380-8135.