A Chinese teen-ager yesterday described how he was smuggled by boat into the United States and held with several dozen other illegal immigrants in a Prince George's County home, where he said armed captors beat them and tried to extort money from their families.
The testimony of Xue Tao Chen provided the first public comments from any of the Chinese immigrants discovered April 5, when federal agents raided a three-bedroom home in Mitchellville. The agents found 63 people, most of them illegal aliens being held in the basement, according to court records.
Six men have been indicted on charges of kidnapping, hostage taking, harboring aliens and other crimes.
Mr. Chen's testimony came during a rare public deposition yesterday at the federal courthouse in Baltimore in preparation for the September trial of five of the alleged captors. Such depositions may be arranged when there is a strong possibility that a witness might not be available for the trial, although prosecutors would not explain why it was done in this case.
Mr. Chen, who has only a third-grade education and had struggled to find work in China, described yesterday how he came to an agreement with a smuggler in his home province. He would be brought into the United States -- where he hoped to find more opportunity -- in exchange for $28,000. Part of the money would come from his parents, and he would work the rest off once he got here, he testified.
The first leg of the journey lasted more than two months, he said. During most of that time, he lived in the bottom of a ship with 104 other Chinese being smuggled into the United States.
From there, they were transported in groups of 10 to a smaller ship, where they stayed about six days. Investigators believe that ship stopped off the coast of Virginia.
After reaching shore and spending a couple of hours in the attic of a beach house, Mr. Chen piled into the back of a large truck with about 70 others for the trip to Mitchellville.
On arrival at the house in Prince George's County, the smugglers took a Polaroid picture of Mr. Chen, who was told to write his name, address and the amount he owed them on the back. But no one was free to go, he said.
Phone calls were placed to his family, he said. But, dissatisfied with his progress in obtaining the money, guards sometimes beat him with a metal rod. At night, he sometimes heard others being beaten.
Yesterday, Mr. Chen looked at the defendants and pointed them out, describing the role of each. Mr. Chen said one had supervised the group on the boat from China; the others were guards, at least two of whom had participated in the beatings.
Why didn't the hostages try to escape, asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew G. W. Norman.
"They were watching us -- four guards there with guns. We could not move," replied Mr. Chen, who could face deportation.
The FBI first began to hear of the situation in March, when an informant tipped them that a group of illegal aliens was being held for ransom.
A relative of one of those being held also told the FBI of his own negotiations with the captors. The smugglers had first agreed to bring three persons into the United States for about $8,000 each, the informant said. But later they insisted on receiving nearly $31,000 per person before freeing them.
The captors also issued a pager number so the relatives could contact them. That number allowed the FBI to identify two cellular phones the captors were using, and agents obtained court authorization to intercept communications involving the pager and the two phones. The subscriber of one phone had listed the Mitchellville address, where the FBI made its arrests.