Susan Yuan wanted to save her son. The man beside her, whom she’d just met, said her son would soon die in an accident. The man sensed evil spirits following Yuan, but he could save her son. He just needed Yuan’s money and jewelry so he could banish the spirits via a purification ritual.
So the 51-year-old Chinese immigrant headed for the bank. All she was thinking about was protecting her son, she told a jury Tuesday.
Her testimony came on Day 2 of one of three such ongoing cases. In opening arguments, defense lawyers said the four defendants charged with extortion and grand theft were victims of human trafficking, coerced into the theft by a Chinese crime ring. Meanwhile, Yuan painted a picture of a worried mother.
The women who approached her last year at the Alemany Farmers’ Market seemed nice enough, she said. Yannu Tan asked if she knew where to find a certain herbalist doctor. Yuan didn’t know. Yachang Lei overheard them and chimed in that she knew the doctor, who had cured her mother-in-law’s arthritis. “Come with us to meet with the doctor,” Lei allegedly said.
As the women walked, Lei asked Yuan her age, and about her children. At one point, one of the women excused herself to call a relative. The women soon encountered a man who claimed to be the doctor’s grandson.
The grandson, Yonghua Zeng, said Yuan had bad luck, and that a spirit would cause her son to die in a car accident. He then told Yuan about the purification ceremony. The women said it was the right thing to do, and Yuan trusted them, since they spoke her language, were near her age and attended farmers markets.
Before Yuan left to collect her valuables, Zeng warned her that “it wouldn’t work if you tell anybody.”
So she went home and then to Chinatown, where she emptied safety deposit boxes at two banks. By the time she returned to the market, she had around $50,000 in cash and a bundle of gold and jade jewelry stuffed inside a bag.
“I just wanted to save my son,” she testified through a Cantonese interpreter.
When she reunited with Zeng and the two women, he told her to place her items inside black plastic bags, which were then placed into a black canvas bag he had brought. He then recited some words about the spirits not following her son and her son not dying in an accident.
Then Yuan surrendered the bag to Zeng as she faced the sun and he washed her face and hands. He recited more words, then rubbed her back and motioned over her in the shape of a cross.
When Yuan was given back a black bag, Zeng told her not to open it until she got home. She didn’t yet know that the bag only contained apples and water bottles and that her new acquaintances had scammed her out of her life savings.
Happily, Yuan also didn’t know that police officers had been watching her and the defendants since soon after she returned to the market. Around the same time a uniformed officer pulled her off the bus, a team of plainclothes officers detained the four suspects.