BROOKLYN (WABC) -- A retired NYPD sergeant and two purported Chinese agents used an elderly father as bait in an alleged plot to repatriate a former Chinese government official living in New Jersey, according to federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, where trial opens Wednesday.
The retired sergeant, Michael McMahon, and two men charged with acting as agents of China, are the first defendants to stand trial in the U.S. over what the Chinese government called Operation Fox Hunt, a worldwide attempt to coerce Chinese nationals living abroad to return to China through tactics including harassment, stalking and threats.
The victim in this case is identified only as John Doe-1. China said he was wanted for corruption. Instead of operating with the approval and coordination of the U.S. government, federal prosecutors said China dispatched its own prosecutor and police officer "to engage in unsanctioned and illegal conduct on behalf of the PRC to coerce the targeted victims to return to the PRC."
According to court records, McMahon, Yong Zhu, Congying Zhen and others forced John Doe-1's elderly father to travel from China so he could warn his son, in a surprise visit, about the consequences of refusing to return to China.
Zhu is accused of hiring McMahon, a private investigator, to surveil John Doe-1. Zheng is accused of harassing John Doe-1 and his adult daughter.
According to the criminal complaint, McMahon at one point suggested the men could "harass (John Doe-1). Park outside his home and let him know we are there."
At another point, two conspirators, including Zheng, "visited John Doe-1's residence, banged on his front door, walked into his yard, and ultimately left a message taped to the residence that threatened John Doe-1 and John Doe-1's family with dire consequences should they fail to return to the PRC."
Assistant United States Attorney Irisa Chen told the jury in her opening statement that each of the defendants played a role in the Chinese government's efforts to "intimidate and threaten the victim here on American soil."
McMahon, who has pleaded not guilty, argued he was unaware of the alleged scheme's true intent.
"He had no idea in performing normal functions as a private investigator that he was working for China," attorney Lawrence Lustberg told the jury during his opening argument.
Lustberg said McMahon notified the Milburn and Warren police departments when he was conducting surveillance of the individuals.
"Is that what people who are committing crimes do?" he said.
Lustberg promised the jury they will see no evidence in the trial that McMahon knew his work was being orchestrated by the Chinese government.
"Mike McMahon is truly innocent and this prosecution is a true tragedy," he told the jury.
His wife spoke exclusively to Eyewitness News on Wednesday morning.
"Every single day I wake up and I tell him you did absolutely nothing wrong," said Martha Byrne. "You did no crime -- bottom line -- and everyone needs to know that. And they will. Starting today."
Byrne said her husband had a decorated career in the NYPD until February 2001 when he was involved in a high speed car chase, crashed into a pole and suffered serious injuries.
He then went into work as a private investigator. In 2016 he was hired to track down a Chinese national in New Jersey wanted for embezzling money from a construction company in China.
McMahon's lawyer said McMahon did what any PI would do -- he tracked down addresses and did surveillance, but never knew it was on behalf of the Chinese government.
Kevin Tung said that's also true of his client, Flushing resident Jason Zhu, who is also being charged in the alleged scheme.
"I'm here not defending the People's Republic of China, I'm here to defend my client who is totally innocent because they do not know," Tung said.
Byrne said her husband had nothing to do with any of it.
"Of all people, this is a guy who ran into burning buildings, who took on gunfire, he has sacrificed his health, his well being, his everything for this city," Byrne said.
McMahon and the others are being charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government, stalking, obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges.
It is the first federal trial in the United States of an Operation Fox Hunt case brought by the Department of Justice and is expected to last two to three weeks.
If McMahon is found guilty of the charges, he faces up to 10 years in prison.
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