Smuggling People

BY THE TIME THE flight to Hong Kong had reached 30,000 feet, Jerry Stuchiner's right eye had stopped its nervous twitching. The 45-year-old officer for the Immigration and Naturalization Service could finally relax as his many troubles--the dark accusations in Honduras, the fights with Washington, the arguments with his wife--slipped away. Stuchiner, a short, burly man with a dark goatee and jade jewelry, snuggled with his Salvadoran girlfriend throughout the flight. He talked about his days as chief INS agent in Hong Kong, when he was known as the agency's leading authority on the brutal gangs that smuggle Chinese immigrants to the West. For Stuchiner, the crown colony was still a haven. Life there was more intriguing; friends were more powerful and secrets more easily kept. ""The minute Jerry saw the lights of Hong Kong, he got very animated,'' recalls his girlfriend. ""He was back on his turf.''

Stuchiner didn't get to enjoy his return. An undercover U.S. agent was sitting a few rows behind him, watching his every move. Soon after Stuchiner stepped off the plane that evening, last July 15, Hong Kong security agents hustled him into a side room and rifled through his belongings. They found what they were looking for in his briefcase: five blank Honduran passports, which they said were fraudulent. Hong Kong and American investigators said Stuchiner and his cohorts were planning to sell the passports for up to $30,000 each to Chinese immigrants trying to get to the United States illegally. Stuchiner admitted to having false documents and, after a fast trial, was sentenced to 40 months in jail. ""I was stupid,'' he told NEWSWEEK in Lai Chi Kok prison. ""After 22 years of hard work for the government, I made one mistake.''

Stuchiner's arrest underscores the rise of a growing global scourge: the traffic in illegal migrants. As the cold war has given way to the globalization of the American Dream, ""people smuggling'' has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry that rivals arms and drug smuggling in size, sophistication and subterfuge. The only difference is that the cargo is human. Moving in a nether world indifferent to borders and ideologies, people smuggling is a crime for the 21st century. The saga of Jerry Stuchiner, who was jailed for violating one of the laws that he'd spent most of his professional life trying to uphold, is a cautionary tale adding to the woes of an agency already reeling from charges of corruption and willful deception. Just last week a congressional subcommittee grilled top INS officials about their alleged manipulation of the citizenship process.

The truth is that inmate No. 166425 made more than one mistake--so many more, in fact, that some INS officials consider him the Aldrich Ames of the immigration world. A NEWSWEEK investigation in Asia, the United States and Central America suggests that the five bogus passports were just the latest in a series of alleged transgressions. The former star agent is at the center of inquiries by the governments of Hong Kong, the United States and Honduras. Among the allegations: that Stuchiner helped sell travel documents to illegal Chinese immigrants and then tried to bust ""clients'' and a competitor to gain glory in the eyes of the INS. So far there is no evidence that he sold national secrets, as Ames did. And in detailed conversation and correspondence with NEWSWEEK, Stuchiner denied all charges beyond the possession of false documents. He said he ""was targeted because of the theatrical value: Aristotelian tragedy, a big man hits the bottom.''

In fact, the tale owes less to Aristotle than to James Thurber. Staring out from photographs, his eyes oddly magnified by thick glasses, Stuchiner seems to be another Walter Mitty, the Thurber character lost in self-aggrandizing fantasy. His ambition and almost comic desperation eventually blurred the line between right and wrong. And now he's caught in a vise: on July 1 his custody will pass, along with the rest of Hong Kong, from Britain to China--unless he can cut a deal. Stuchiner fears that unless he is transferred to a U.S. prison before then, his life will be in danger. Why? Because he helped Chinese dissidents escape to the West during his stint in Hong Kong--and because he had access to top-secret files in the United States and Hong Kong.

Jerry Stuchiner has inhabited a world of half-truths and hidden identities ever since he was born. His mother and father survived the Nazi Holocaust in their native Poland only by concealing their Jewish identities and pretending to be devout Roman Catholics. After both his parents died before he reached 21, Stuchiner reconstructed whole parts of his own history, either to protect himself from some unseen menace or to project himself as a hero. In his letters from prison, he claims he was born in Carmel, Calif., and that he received the Bronze Star in Vietnam for his valor as a Marine Corps medic. But his family says he was actually born in Israel and that he never made it through Marine Corps boot camp.

YET STUCHINER DID HAVE WORTHY AMBITIONS. AFTER A stint with the Border Patrol on the U.S.-Mexico line--where he married the daughter of a Mexican landowner--Stuchiner went to San Francisco to work with the INS and to attend law school at night. It was there that he says he met the man who would exert a profound influence on his life: Dickson Yao. Dripping with gold and diamonds, the Chinese trader was a legendary informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration. The ""Fatman,'' as Yao was known, was slippery: his DEA handlers were never entirely sure whether he was conning them. But Stuchiner admired him and soon decided that he, too, wanted to work undercover. His wife says he applied for a job at the CIA but was rejected because of his poor eyesight.

In 1984 Stuchiner got the next best thing: a transfer to Vienna, a city humming with cold-war intrigue. Within two years he had succeeded his boss as officer in charge, making him, at 35, one of the youngest OICs in the service. Stuchiner says he worked alongside the CIA on the Felix Bloch spy case and the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. But his humanitarian work proved more dangerous. Over five years he helped thousands of refugees, most of them Jews, get out of the Soviet bloc and Iran. Rav Tov, a Hasidic organization in New York, gave him an award; the radical Islamic group Hizbullah threatened him. Stuchiner says the threats forced him to carry a pistol, to check under his bed for bombs--and ultimately to leave Vienna.

Hong Kong was in ferment when Stuchiner arrived in August 1989. Two months earlier, Chinese troops had violently crushed street demonstrations in Beijing. And now, dissidents and protest leaders were trickling into Hong Kong, smuggled in by an unlikely coalition of religious groups, Western diplomats, wealthy tycoons and underworld triad bosses. The intrigue thrilled Stuchiner. Soon he was regaling friends with tales of derring-do behind ""enemy lines'' and of running underground networks to rescue dissidents. ""He was a bulls---ter, a storyteller,'' recalls one former colleague. Still, sources say he did help key dissidents reach the United States legally, including Communist Party defector Xu Jiatun and Tiananmen Square student ""commander'' Chai Ling.

In the rush to get dissidents out of China, the line between good guys and bad guys momentarily blurred. Smugglers and triad bosses were hailed as patriots. Unlike other Western officials, friends say, Stuchiner remained enthralled by the crime bosses. And his guide to their world was his old acquaintance Dickson Yao, who had started informing for the INS just as Washington became alarmed by the traffic in illegal aliens. Yao was ""the best informant the DEA ever had,'' says Stuchiner. ""And the best the INS ever had, too.'' Yao told NEWSWEEK that he also considered Stuchiner ""a very close friend.''

The Fatman and his handler had a chance to shine when the smuggling ship Golden Venture ran aground in June 1993 near the Statue of Liberty. Ten of the 300 Chinese immigrants crammed into the ship's hold died in the surf. Yao was soon closing in on the reputed New York boss of the Fuk Ching gang, implicated in the tragedy. But Stuchiner's INS bosses balked; the FBI was the lead agency on the case. Soon afterward, local police and FBI agents grabbed the crime boss in a Hong Kong raid. Stuchiner was incensed. So was Yao, who believes he missed out on the usual reward for a bust.

Soon Stuchiner brazenly crossed the line that is supposed to separate handler from informant. He paid Yao nearly 90 percent of his budget for informants, U.S. officials say, and Yao gave Stuchiner's wife, Alicia, a job doing errands. (She says she quit after a few days.) More disturbing were signs that Stuchiner was trying to go into business with Yao, importing Chinese peasant paintings first, then crabs. When colleagues warned Stuchiner not to get too close to Yao, he denied doing anything wrong.

As Stuchiner became more disgruntled at work, he hobnobbed eagerly with Hong Kong's rich and famous. His most powerful acquaintance was billionaire Stanley Ho, the casino king of Macau. Stuchiner told a friend: ""I did a favor for Stanley Ho that nobody else could have done.'' Despite Ho's prominence in Asia, his name was on a U.S. Customs ""lookout list,'' which lists individuals who should be searched at immigration points. U.S. officials say Stuchiner worked his connections--and Ho's name disappeared from the list. Denying knowledge of the list, Ho told NEWSWEEK he was ""unreasonably'' delayed once at Dulles airport, so he complained to the U.S. Consulate General and as a result met Stuchiner. He ""was not my close friend,'' said Ho, who denied being involved in any of Stuchiner's ventures.

Within the INS Stuchiner's star was fading. It wasn't just his chumminess with Yao and the Hong Kong elite that turned people off. Documents went missing. Once his office received eight blank Dominican and Guatemalan passports to train agents in detecting bogus papers. According to reports received by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General, Stuchiner was supposed to lock the documents in a consulate safe. One by one the fakes disappeared. Nobody could prove what had happened, but the suspicions hurt Stuchiner's career. He applied unsuccessfully for nearly every INS job in Asia but couldn't get his name on the list of candidates. An INS friend finally offered him a lifeline: a job as new chief agent in Honduras.

Stuchiner's departure from Hong Kong was so hasty that some of his contacts apparently failed to hear about it. Shortly after he left in May 1994, Yugoslav banker Branko Crnogorac, 47, tried desperately to locate him. A year earlier Stuchiner had told him ""he'd arrange a green card for $47,000,'' Crnogorac told NEWSWEEK. Stuchiner deposited his check but never gave him the visa. ""He betrayed me,'' says Crnogorac, who says he thought the deal was legitimate. Efforts to get Stuchiner's response were unsuccessful, both for this and for another incident around the same time. According to information obtained by the Justice Department, a former colleague and a Chinese-American acquaintance found a passport photo lying on Stuchiner's desk. The acquaintance recognized the face in the photograph. It was the same man, he said, who had bought a Dominican passport from Stuchiner for $10,000 a few weeks before. How did he know? As middleman, he said, ""I got a $2,500 cut.''

WHEN STUCHINER LANDED IN TEGUCIGALPA, THE Honduran capital was buzzing with rumors about the ""Chinazo,'' a scandal involving the illegal sale of nearly 20,000 false Honduran passports to Chinese migrants hoping to make it to the United States. A former colleague compared the transfer to ""sending a sugar addict into the candy shop.'' But Tegucigalpa seemed like bitter exile to Stuchiner. His house had no hot water or electricity; there were no dinner invitations from billionaire tycoons. Friends say that Stuchiner was far less interested in his INS work than in exotic get-rich-quick schemes. From Honduras he tried (and failed) to export everything from shark fins to fish stomachs. ""I was looking to work between China and Latin America after I retired,'' Stuchiner says. ""Why not?'' The INS, like all U.S. agencies, does not allow outside business activity without prior approval--which is never granted for deals with informants.

The source of Stuchiner's hope, though, was Dickson Yao. The Fatman visited his American friend several times in Honduras, where the two shared everything from steam baths to business ideas. None of the odd couple's schemes ever seemed to work out--except for their gambit to bankroll the Honduran Consulate in Hong Kong. When the country's honorary consul in Hong Kong left in the wake of the Chinazo scandal, Stuchiner helped nix the proposed replacement by leaking information about his alleged ties to the Chinese mob. His own choice was Herbie Weizenblut, a Honduran friend of Jewish origin. ""I tried to help him out because he was a coreligionist, and a lost soul,'' says Stuchiner. The Honduran government approved the idea in part because Yao promised to pay all of Weizenblut's expenses after his arrival in January 1996--about $15,000 a month, says Yao.

One official task in Honduras did interest Stuchiner: the pursuit of a smuggler named Gloria Canales. With the help of Honduran immigration agent Sonny Reina, Stuchiner set out to lure Canales into funneling aliens through Honduras, the only country in Latin America where people smuggling is a crime. In July 1995 Canales's partner flew into Honduras with 14 illegal Sikh immigrants. That night, as the Sikhs headed north in a school bus, Stuchiner followed in his car. At an army checkpoint near the Guatemalan border, Stuchiner sped up alongside the bus and, with Reina's help, detained the passengers. The bust provided crucial evidence for Canales's arrest in Ecuador five months later--and for her current imprisonment in Honduras. But then, as now, there were questions about his role. Was he running an undercover operation, or was he using his INS badge to put a competitor out of business?

Whatever the truth, investigators say Stuchiner started moving quickly. In January 1996, just weeks after the arrest, he and Honduran immigration chief Angelina Ulloa flew to Hong Kong to help Herbie Weizenblut settle into his new job as the Honduran honorary consul. A month later a former immigration lawyer questioned in Atlanta told federal agents he had given Stuchiner a $10,000 bribe in return for 10 travel documents--and had been a courier for Weizenblut and Stuchiner. He said he had taken blank Honduran passports to Hong Kong and Chinese passports to Tegucigalpa. The Chinese passports, he said, were then stamped with Honduran entry and exit permits and sold to waiting emigrants from China's Fujian province for $50,000 each. (Stuchiner says the lawyer lied to obtain leniency.)

Stuchiner felt the noose tighten. The local press called him a corrupt CIA agent, and a U.S. investigator came to Honduras several times to question him. Stuchiner was bitter and unrepentant. Still, he seemed worried. He sent an e-mail message to a Hong Kong friend who'd once offered him a job, asking, ""Is it too late?'' (It was.) In May 1996 Stuchiner advertised his services on the Internet. On one Web page, Stuchiner included the embassy phone number and a cryptic blurb: ""I am an expert on Asian Organized crime and transnational criminal groups. I am willing to help you with your investigations.''

But there were signs that his career was still alive. One of his bosses nominated him for an award and promised an imminent transfer to Tijuana. In July, after years of problems, he and his wife decided that she and their teenage children would move to Las Vegas, while he would stay in Honduras. Stuchiner evidently was still tending the Hong Kong connection. While helping his family move, he got word that Weizenblut was drinking and gambling, and Stuchiner left hurriedly on his fateful trip.

Sitting behind iron bars and a thick glass barrier in Lai Chi Kok prison, inmate No. 166425 complains of boredom, isolation and bad food--""a piece of dirty bread with half a slice of yellow cheese.'' But Stuchiner's real problem is the Chinese government, which regains sovereignty over Hong Kong on July 1. Fearing hard time in the Chinese gulag or worse, Stuchiner has told friends that he has dropped his pending appeal in Hong Kong to speed up a transfer to a U.S. prison. But the next transfer is not expected before July 1. Stuchiner and his family are getting frantic. ""If he's guilty, let him serve his time in the United States,'' says brother-in-law Daniel Malek. ""He should be punished, but not left to rot.''

His former colleagues aren't so sympathetic. The INS wants to see whether Stuchiner, like Aldrich Ames, distorted intelligence reports to preserve a criminal conspiracy. (So far there is no evidence that he did.) The agency is investigating allegations ranging from the misuse of a diplomatic passport to smuggling and accepting bribes. Hong Kong and U.S. agents think the prospect of hard labor in a communist prison will concentrate his mind; Stuchiner hints that he may be forced to give U.S. secrets to the Chinese. Neither side benefits much if Stuchiner stays in Hong Kong beyond July 1, and friends expect that he will get an eleventh-hour transfer to the United States. Even so, Stuchiner's desperation is showing. A paid advertisement that appeared last fall in a Salvadoran newspaper, based on his letters to his girlfriend, extolled his battle against ""smuggling and slavery.'' The headline asked: WILL AN AMERICAN HERO BE BURIED IN HONG KONG WITHOUT THE PROTECTION OF HIS FLAG? A serious question, but one, given the record, that seems worthy of a Walter Mitty.