Here in California, it’s possible to pass within a mile of the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex and never once suspect it’s there. East of the Palos Verdes Hills, the port’s surrounding warehouses easily obscure the mass of steamers that daily arrive studded with stacks of containers bearing international cargo.
Yet the complex is the busiest in America, the arrival point for nearly half the volume of all U.S. imports. And it’s here that, like so many other smugglers, Charles and May Liu first struck gold.
By all accounts, the Lius were not extraordinary. After emigrating from China around 1980, the pair settled into the Washington, D.C., suburb of Gaithersburg, Maryland. Charles was quiet, a student in political science at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University, where he received a master’s degree. At age 67, he had a professorial look, with chinos and sweaters his preferred attire. May was a romantic, someone the agents who arrested her would later describe as a “true lady,” one who loved ballroom dancing, wore pantsuits, and fastidiously watched her weight.
But the pair wasn’t quite what they appeared. By the time the FBI arrested them in August 2005, the Lius had led a team of agents straight into the heart of a vast Chinese smuggling network — one that sold, among other goods, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, fake $100 bills, and weapons from North Korea. And then there was their real gold mine: cigarettes. Low-grade, brand-name counterfeits. Over a billion of them, all told — more than enough to supply every man, woman, and child in America’s 50 largest cities with a pack.