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Guilty Plea in Smuggling Venture

March 12, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ A man admitted Wednesday to being the mastermind behind the journey of a rusty freighter that ran aground, leaving 10 Chinese immigrants to drown.

Lee Peng Fei, 47, of Taiwan, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and alien smuggling, and acknowledged smuggling 298 Chinese nationals into the United States aboard the Golden Venture five years ago.

Lee also admitted ordering an employee to run the ship aground in the middle of the night off Queens, said U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter.

Originally, the Golden Venture was to have sailed into the East River and docked near the Brooklyn Bridge but that plan was dropped in favor of the beaching, prosecutors have said.

Lee told the ship’s crew to order the destitute immigrants to jump overboard and swim to shore if they could, Carter said. Ten drowned or died of hypothermia, six vanished and the rest wound up in detention centers.

Prosecutors called Lee the ``snakehead,″ or leader, of a vast operation that smuggled hundreds of destitute refugees, mostly from China’s coastal Fukien province, into the United States, charging as much as $30,000 a head. Immigrants generally paid for their passage with servitude jobs.

The June 6, 1993, grounding exposed the massive smuggling operation.

Twenty-one other people _ organizers and Golden Venture crewmen _ were convicted or pleaded guilty earlier. Lee faced up to 80 years in prison and $2.5 million in fines when indicted in 1994. He was arrested in Bangkok a year later and fought extradition until last fall.

He was scheduled to be sentenced June 19.

The last 53 of the detained immigrants were released by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization authorities early last year to the custody of American sponsors, pending rulings on requests for asylum.

Update hourly