Ling Zen Hu was described as an “illiterate” and “simple” woman who barely spoke English trying to succeed as a clerk in one of two New York City sneaker warehouses.
Her husband worked long hours as a chef and taxi driver and never realized he was breaking the law delivering the sneakers.
But the couple got caught up in an international, multimillion-dollar importing ring that sold fake Nikes and other counterfeit brand-name footwear.
Their attorneys hoped they could walk away from U.S. District Court in Buffalo on Thursday with fines and probation instead of spending years behind bars.
Though the two were spared lengthy sentences, Judge Richard J. Arcara said their crimes were serious enough to require some prison time. Because they took plea deals to lesser charges, they are not expected to be deported to China.
Arcara sentenced Hu, 51, to a year in federal prison, and her husband, Xiao Cheng Lin, 50, to six months. The judge departed from recommended sentencing guidelines because the two had never before been in trouble with the law. In court, each apologized to the judge through a translator and said they did not know they were violating American laws.
Buffalo defense attorney Mark J. Mahoney said Hu’s boss placed $750,000 in cash, money orders and phony merchandise in her Queens home for safekeeping before being deported to China in 2008. The items were later seized.
New York attorney Todd D. Greenberg said his client, Lin, had no idea he was breaking the law when he delivered the fake sneakers for his wife, emphasizing that his client made a “minimal” number of deliveries.
Mahoney, who was critical of the government for devoting resources to what he considers an overblown investigation, argued that a language barrier prevented his client from realizing she was involved in an illegal operation, pointing out that she had no idea who basketball icon and Nike pitchman Michael Jordan was.
Hu and Lin were granted asylum 22 years ago under a claim of persecution from China’s one-child rule that forced Hu to have an abortion, Mahoney said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John E. Rogowski questioned attempts to downplay Hu’s role. What “boss” would trust a mere worker with so much money and other valuables, unless the individual had a bigger role? he said. The husband, Rogowski added, had to know more than he did, given that he lived in the same house with his wife.
“This business is lucrative,” Rogowski said of the counterfeit merchandise. “A message needs to be sent that this is a serious offense.”
The couple first caught the attention of law enforcement several years ago after Niagara Falls police received complaints about fake Nike sneakers being sold from makeshift stands at deeply reduced prices. Local agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who listened in on phone calls, determined that a smuggling ring for the Nike knockoffs was behind the bargain-priced sneakers.
Under a plea agreement reached last September, the wife and husband each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to import mislabeled items. Hu could have been received up to 46 months in federal prison, and Lin 37 months.
Arcara also fined Hu $7,500 and Lin $6,000, and each will face a year of supervised release after serving their sentences. If Hu abides by prison rules, she could be freed after about 300 days. Because Lin’s sentence is less than a year, he must serve the full six months.
Greenberg secured a break for the family when he asked that the couple not be imprisoned at the same time, noting that their children and Lin’s ailing father, 82, would have no means of support. The judge said he would not object to such an arrangement.