LOS ANGELES (CBS) — A co-owner of an Irvine toy company on Friday was the third executive since last summer to plead guilty to his role in a scheme to launder $9 million for drug cartels using teddy bears and Topo Gigio mouse dolls.
Meichun Cheng Huang, 57, of Irvine, a co-owner of Angel Toy Corp., entered his plea to one felony count of conspiracy in Los Angeles federal court before U.S. District Judge S. James Otero.
Previously in the case, Ling Yu, 52, of Arcadia, CEO and co-owner of the toy company, and firm accountant Xiaoxin “Judy” Ju, 48, of San Gabriel, pleaded guilty to the same charge, prosecutors said.
The three were arrested last July at the downtown business on Alameda Street, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“It’s no small irony that a multi-million-dollar company which promoted itself as retailer of cuddly stuffed animals was allegedly acting as a financial linchpin for drug trafficking operatives in Colombia and Mexico,” ICE Director John Morton said after the arrests.
“It may be a toy company, but we believe these defendants’ pursuits were anything but child’s play,” he said. “Businesses that launder profits for drug trafficking organizations should be on notice there will be a high price to pay for helping further these dangerous criminal enterprises.”
According to an indictment, Huang and Yu directed their Colombian and Mexican clients to drop cash off at the company’s Los Angeles headquarters or deposit it directly into the company’s bank accounts.
After receiving the money, Angel Toy executives wired it to China to purchase stuffed animals and dolls, according to ICE.
The toys were subsequently exported to Colombia, where an associate apparently arranged for their sale, ICE said.
The Colombian pesos generated by those sales were then used to reimburse Colombian drug traffickers, a money-laundering process known as a “black market peso exchange,” said then-Attorney General Jerry Brown, whose office
investigated the case along with ICE.
“This sort of scheme does go on in other contexts, but linking teddy bears to the drug business — that’s one for the record books,” Brown said last July. “The money goes to China, the toys go to Colombia, and the profits go to drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia.”
The drug proceeds, which were laundered through numerous cash deposits in the United States, were returned to clients when the stuffed animals and dolls were exported to the foreign countries and sold to generate local
“clean” money, according to ICE.
The arrests stemmed from a five-count indictment that charged five defendants, including the co-owners of Angel Toy Corp., and Jose Leonardo Cuevas Otalora, 50, a Colombia-based businessman who allegedly oversaw the importation of the toys into his country, prosecutors said.
The fifth defendant in the case is Angel Toy Corp. itself.
Immigration officials were working with the Colombian National Police and the U.S. Department of Justice to arrest Otalora, according to ICE.
The charges include conspiracy to structure cash transactions to avoid federal reporting requirements, prosecutors said.
The indictment also seeks the forfeiture of more than $8.6 million dollars, which is the amount of money allegedly laundered over a four-year period, from 2005 to 2009.
Topo Gigio was a character on a children’s puppet show on Italian and Spanish television in the early 1960s and began famous worldwide when the cute rodent appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Topo Gigio remains a Latino cultural icon.
Otero set Oct. 31 to sentence Huang, Yu and Ju, prosecutors said.
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