Nearly two years after a federal judge threw out criminal charges against pharmaceutical executive Zhenli Ye Gon, he remains locked up in a Virginia jail fighting efforts to return him to Mexico, where he once amassed a fortune.
Arrested in Rockville in 2007, Mr. Ye Gon, a Chinese-born Mexican citizen, was accused of scheming to ship massive quantities of methamphetamine into the United States. Authorities raiding his mansion in Mexico uncovered more than $200 million in cash.
But Mr. Ye Gon won a big legal victory two summers ago when the Justice Department asked a judge to dismiss the indictment.
Although the charges were dropped after a key witness recanted, Mr. Ye Gon has remained behind bars in the U.S. for nearly two years while the Mexican government seeks to have him extradited to face trial on organized crime, drug and other charges.
While a federal magistrate judge in Washington granted the Mexican government’s extradition request, Mr. Ye Gon’s fate isn’t settled. He has filed a habeas corpus petition challenging his “unlawful detention” in hopes of staying in the U.S. It’s a last-ditch move to avoid facing trial in Mexico, where he once said he was threatened by a top Mexican official unless he stored cash in his home that was tied to the country’s presidential election. Mexican officials have sharply denied the accusations.
Attorneys for Mr. Ye Gon argue that he can’t get a fair trial in Mexico. They also say the U.S. shouldn’t send somebody to a foreign country to face charges that federal prosecutors didn’t have evidence to prove in a U.S. court in the first place.
“Zhenli Ye Gon entered the United States legally, and he is here under and with the full right to receive the protections of our laws; he may not now be taken from that protection except in accordance with those laws,” his attorneys argue in court papers.
The Justice Department disagrees, arguing in court pleadings that the cases in the U.S. and Mexico against Mr. Ye Gon are different and that Mexico has outlined ample proof in its extradition request.
The prosecutors also point to written findings this year by U.S. Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola. He ruled that Mexico has established probable cause for extradition, saying the differences between charges in Mexico and the U.S. indictment against Mr. Ye Gon “clearly demonstrate that [Mr. Ye Gon] would not be punished for the same crime in Mexico as he would before the crime charged in the American indictment.”
When they asked to dismiss the charges against Mr. Ye Gon, federal prosecutors knew that authorities in Mexico were planning to move forward with their own prosecution.
“We fully expect, we fully expect that this defendant’s going to be extradited and face charges in Mexico,” Justice Department attorney Paul O’Brien said at a 2009 hearing explaining the decision to drop the case, according to court transcripts.
“As such, if he’s extradited or when he’s extradited to Mexico, he’s facing very serious charges, and he’s facing a significant period of incarceration if convicted in Mexico. As such, under those circumstances, we do not intend on pursuing the matter further.”
In court pleadings seeking to drop the case, prosecutors also noted that one key witness against Mr. Ye Gon recanted and another was refusing to testify. That was a point of contention with defense attorneys, who said prosecutors failed to turn over evidence about a witness who had changed his testimony. A judge also criticized prosecutors. Under federal rules of evidence, prosecutors have to turn over such material to the defense. Prosecutors denied any misconduct in the Ye Gon case.
The ongoing battle surrounding Mr. Ye Gon’s habeas corpus petition marks the latest twist in a 4-year old court saga that U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, during a pretrial hearing in 2009, called “an extremely complicated case.”
Mr. Ye Gon’s case has attracted significant attention in the U.S. and Mexico. In a 2007 interview with the Associated Press shortly after his arrest, he sought to explain the source of all the cash found at his house. He said he was threatened unless he stored millions of dollars he said came from the Mexican presidential campaign of the National Action Party, an accusation that Mexican officials flatly denied.
The Associated Press reported that Mr. Ye Gon enjoyed a lavish lifestyle before his arrest. He drove his mistress around in a Lamborghini and was such a valued customer at one U.S. casino that he was given a Rolls-Royce.
Now, court records show that he is being held at a jail in Orange, Va. Because he’s incarcerated in Virginia, that was where Mr. Ye Gon filed his habeas corpus request, but a judge there recently ordered that the case be transferred to federal court in Washington.