Chinese Pastor's Arrest Ordered as Feds Circle Olivet Christian Sect

A North Carolina judge ordered the arrest of a Chinese pastor on Monday in a counterfeit goods case that has drawn the attention of federal investigators looking into whether a church led by cleric David Jang was laundering money for criminals in the United States and China.

Whether or not Rev. JianGang "Frank" Lan returns to the United States from China to face trial, his case could be significant, law enforcement officials told Newsweek, for ongoing investigations into potential illegal activity by Jang's network of churches, businesses and education establishments, collectively known as Olivet.

While Jang's followers have been in legal trouble for nearly a decade, this is the first time that prosecutors have charged a pastor from any church linked to Olivet or that any criminal charge has pointed to a connection with anyone in China.

Lan's Arrest for Counterfeit Bracelets
An arrest warrant on counterfeiting charges has been issued for Pastor Frank Lan, who has fled to China. U.S. Customs and Border Protection — Cartier Bracelets) (Orange County Sheriff’s Office — Lan's photo

Todd Roper, district court judge for Orange and Chatham counties, set bail at $1 million for Lan, who left for China after being charged with possession of counterfeit goods in 2019 following the discovery of thousands of fake Cartier bracelets. Their value, if genuine, was said at the time to have been over $24 million, making it the biggest such seizure in the state.

Lan had been in possession of close to 7,000 bracelets and he had been selling them for $50 to $100 on Facebook and Craigslist, Special Prosecutor Michael Putney Jr. told the court on Monday. He said that Lan had left the country in 2021 and has not returned.

Lan was unable to return to the United States from China because of Chinese official COVID-19 restrictions, according to his defense attorney, Matthew Suczynski. The lawyer said he had spoken to Lan on June 6 and had been in email contact with him.

"He is very interested in defending his case, and he denies all wrongdoing, and he would very much like his day in court," Suczynski told the court.

Through his lawyer, Lan declined Newsweek's request for an interview.

Newsweek uncovered Lan's connection to the World Olivet Assembly while reporting on the federal probe of Olivet University by Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security. Jang was the founder of both Olivet University and the World Olivet Assembly.

Olivet was not named at the hearing in North Carolina. Neither the World Olivet Assembly, nor the Olivet Assembly USA nor Jang responded to Newsweek requests for comment.

A spokesperson for Olivet University confirmed that Lan was a graduate of the university. The media spokesperson told Newsweek, "Olivet University knows nothing about this matter and is not involved or related in any way to it." The statement from the university accused Newsweek of having a conflict of interest in its reporting on Olivet.

Newsweek is co-owned by a member and a former member of Olivet. The owners had no influence or prior review of this story or any others related to this investigation.

The North Carolina Secretary of State's office said it was unaware of Lan's connection to Olivet until Newsweek sought comment on the link in May. Tim Crowley, director of communications for the North Carolina Secretary of State, said Lan would have been prosecuted over counterfeit goods regardless of the connection to Olivet or any suspicions of money laundering.

"The Secretary of State's Office is always alert to and aware that the sale of counterfeit trademarked goods has been used to support a variety of organized crime activities and other schemes like money laundering, so if we were to find evidence of ties to federal crimes such as money laundering when investigating the sale of counterfeit goods we would always alert our federal partners," Crowley told Newsweek in May.

Cartels and Chinese oligarchs

Lan is suspected of being part of a so-called "trade-based money laundering" scheme connected to China, current and former law enforcement officials in the U.S. told Newsweek.

In such a trade-based money laundering transaction, a wealthy Chinese citizen looking to circumvent China's capital controls makes a deposit of the local yuan currency into a Chinese bank account controlled by a criminal network. The crime syndicate then deposits an equivalent amount in U.S. dollars in an American bank account controlled by the same Chinese national.

To create a paper trail that makes it look as though the large deposit into a U.S. bank account is genuine, goods need to be shipped into the U.S. Sometimes those goods are counterfeit.

Three senior law enforcement officials told Newsweek on condition of anonymity that they suspected links from the case to Chinese organized crime and drug cartels, which look to China to buy the precursor chemicals needed to make the powerful opioid fentanyl that has been behind a surge of deadly drug overdoses in the U.S.

Derek Maltz, who headed the Drug Enforcement Agency's Special Operations Division for a decade before his retirement, said the case bore all the signs of being linked to money-laundering by the drug cartels after reviewing Newsweek's reporting and publicly available information. He has had no involvement in the case.

"When it comes to trade-based laundering involving Chinese nationals, in my experience, there is almost always a nexus between Chinese organized crime and drug cartels," he said. "The cartels have expanded the utilization of Chinese organized crime and their complex trade-based schemes to get their narco proceeds out of the U.S., often using trade-based laundering. Additionally, it is used by Chinese oligarchs to move money from China to the U.S."

No minor disciple

Frank Lan was no minor disciple of David Jang.

After immigrating to the United States from China, he attended Olivet University in California. According to a family friend who had been a member of his congregation at Lan's Deer Park Community Church in Chapel Hill, Lan also spent time in Missouri, the location for the headquarters of Olivet Assembly USA, the American arm of Jang's global denomination.

The history of the different Olivet entities stretches back to 2000, according to their various websites. That was the year that Jang founded the Olivet Theological College and Seminary, later incorporated as Olivet University. Olivet Assembly USA and Olivet Assembly Europe both say they began in 2000 as associations of churches planted by alumni of the seminary.

The World Olivet Assembly records that it began the same year with a mission "to proclaim God's word, to help others come to faith in Jesus Christ, and to seek fulfillment of the Great Commission that the Lord has entrusted to all believers." Its website now lists more than 120 countries in which it says it has members.

Lan told his flock that he had been sent by the "mother church," although a former congregant said he had not identified that church as Olivet. In fact, the Deer Park Church had been founded by the wife of one of David Jang's most senior and longest serving associates.

After being arrested, Lan was released on bail. A family friend said Lan spent time in Missouri before leaving for China.

He was working in China as recently as April on Jang-related e-commerce businesses, according to two former Olivet members who are still in touch with members of the community.

The two former members of Jang's sect told Newsweek that they recently discussed Frank Lan during interviews about Olivet with agents of the Department of Homeland Security. They declined to be identified because they were cooperating with the investigation.

New challenges for Jang

David Jang's network is no stranger to legal trouble.

Several Jang associates and businesses pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering in 2018 after a long-running investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney. The Department of Homeland Security's investigative arm searched the premises of Olivet University's campus in Anza, California, in April 2021 in what officials told Newsweek was an open investigation into visa fraud, labor trafficking and money laundering.

Still, the case in North Carolina presents new challenges for Jang, who has not been publicly charged with any crime in the United States.

First, it throws a spotlight on ties to China, from where Olivet University brings many students to the United States. All previous cases involving Jang followers related to crimes that had been committed in the United States.

Secondly, because Lan led the congregation at a church founded by the wife of one of Jang's top lieutenants, the case has put Jang's church under scrutiny. The World Olivet Assembly has been untouched by previous legal scandals and has publicly distanced itself from Olivet University since the fraud case there.

"Our mission has nothing to do with Olivet University," Olivet Assembly USA General Secretary Anthony Chiu was quoted as saying when his sect purchased a crumbling cathedral in Baltimore in January last year.

Two months after Chiu's statement in Baltimore, his wife set up a Missouri-based company on behalf of Olivet Academy, an affiliate of Olivet University that is also listed as an affiliate of the World Olivet Assembly, expanding the network of companies that connect the church with the college.

Naomi Haiyan Qu was also the registered agent for the not-for-profit Deer Park Church that employed Frank Lan as associate pastor and the nearby Deer Park Campus Fellowship on the North Carolina State University's campus, nonprofit registration documents show.

Chiu, who also goes by the names Juan We Chiu and Tony Chiu, has held numerous very senior positions, based on Olivet tax documents going back to at least 2013. Over the years, he has been "president," "treasurer," and in 2021, "general secretary."

Neither Chiu nor Qu respond to requests for comment.

Despite its connection to such a senior Jang disciple, Deer Park's ties to Olivet were not publicized. A promotional video, set to the music of a popular Christian hymn based on Psalm 42, made no mention of Olivet as it invited the public to worship, free meals, child care and vocational training.

Deer Park's former Worship Director Neil Deasy, 63, told Newsweek he knew nothing of the Olivet connection during his time with the church between 2014 and 2016. Deasy, who stopped attending the Deer Park congregation when he took a job as a trucker, said he remained friends with Lan and his wife and became "kind of like a grandpa" to their children.

Lan and his family struggled financially, moving the church to three different locations over the years he knew them, Deasy said. Despite the financial insecurity, Deasy said they managed to keep the church alive thanks to subsidies from their "mother church" in Missouri. Deasy said he did not know at the time that the "mother church" was Olivet.

The Deer Park church shut down immediately after Lan's arrest in 2019. The church website, which hosted pictures of cheerful gatherings, was taken down within hours of Lan's arrest, local media reported. Signs identifying the church were covered up.

What was Deer Park Community Church is now a hair salon. A Jewish Hillel community meets at the address for the Deer Park Campus Fellowship. They told Newsweek they had never heard of Deer Park. Nor had people at the two residential addresses Lan had given to the court when he was freed on a $25,000 bond and given permission to leave North Carolina.

Deasy, who stayed in contact with Lan after leaving the church, said that shortly after posting bail the former pastor made preparations to leave the United States, beginning with a trip to St. Louis, Missouri. Lan had emailed him in 2021 to say he was in China, Deasy said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Newsweek President and CEO Dev Pragad, who owns 50 percent of Newsweek, has said he has left the World Olivet Assembly. Johnathan Davis, who has no operational role at Newsweek, owns the other 50 percent and remains a member of Olivet.

frank lan money laundering counterfeit
Frank Lan was an Olivet pastor.