updated 6/22/2005 9:36:19 PM ET 2005-06-23T01:36:19

A woman was convicted Wednesday of using her Chinatown storefront to orchestrate human-smuggling schemes, including a treacherous voyage in 1993 that ended in the deaths of 10 Chinese immigrants.

Cheng Chui Ping, 56, was convicted in federal court in Manhattan, one week after the jury began deliberations.

Cheng, known as "Big Sister Ping," was accused of amassing a multimillion-dollar fortune by smuggling thousands of immigrants who endured perilous journeys aboard dilapidated cargo ships such as the Golden Venture, which ran aground in June 1993 near the borough of Queens. Ten immigrants died trying to swim to shore.

A leading ‘snakehead’
During four weeks of testimony, prosecutors presented evidence that Cheng's demure manner masked a sinister streak that by the 1990s had earned her a reputation as one of Chinatown's reigning "snakeheads" — slang for immigrant smuggler.

Cheng's lucrative worldwide network comprised a "conglomerate built upon misery and greed," Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Brown said during closing arguments.

Prosecutors said Cheng also hired a vicious street gang to hold illegal immigrants hostage in safe houses while collecting smuggling fees up to $40,000 a person.

She was convicted of conspiracy, money laundering and other charges. The jury acquitted her on a second count of money laundering. The judge ordered jurors to return to court Thursday to resume deliberations on a charge of hostage taking.

Defense attorneys said Cheng was guilty of running an underground money transferring operation in Chinatown, not of smuggling immigrants. They argued that the case was built on the false accusations of unsavory cooperating witnesses, including a convicted killer who once was the street gang boss.

Defense attorney Lawrence Hochheiser insisted Cheng "had nothing to do with the Golden Venture."

The street gang boss, Ah Kay, told jurors that his crew specialized in using fishing boats to ferry immigrants from larger vessels to U.S. soil.

He testified that he and Cheng successfully smuggled hundreds of immigrants into Boston harbor in 1993. He used part of the $750,000 he made from that deal to help finance the Golden Venture.

A trip gone awry
The ship ran aground after a 16,000-mile trip in the frigid waters off Rockaway Beach. Besides the 10 immigrants who died, dozens of others suffered hypothermia and other injuries.

Weng Yu Hui, another snakehead, described Cheng's reaction as they watched television news reports on the accident in her Chinatown shop.

"She said her luck has not been very good lately," Weng testified.

Cheng was indicted in 1994 and remained a fugitive until 2000, when the FBI arrested her at a Hong Kong airport. She lost an extradition fight in 2003.

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