Guilty verdict for woman ac­cused of tres­pass at Mar-a-Lago

The jury in the case of Yu­jing Zhang, the in­truder at Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, found her guilty on both counts on Wed­nes­day.

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE - BY JAY WEAVER AND NICHOLAS NEHAMAS [email protected]­ami­her­ald.com [email protected]­ami­her­ald.com

A Chi­nese busi­ness­woman was found guilty Wed­nes­day of tres­pass­ing at Mar-a-Lago and ly­ing to a fed­eral agent about why she was at Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s pri­vate Palm Beach club, cap­ping a bizarre fed­eral trial in which the enig­matic de­fen­dant’s true pur­pose in com­ing to the re­sort was never an­swered.

Was Yu­jing Zhang, 33, just a bum­bling tourist or an agent of Bei­jing’s govern­ment? One thing is cer­tain: Zhang, who has been in fed­eral cus­tody since her ar­rest on March 30, faces up to one year in prison on the tres­pass­ing charge and five years on the false-state­ment of­fense. She showed no re­ac­tion to the ver­dicts.

The 12-mem­ber jury de­lib­er­ated for 4 1⁄2 hours af­ter a two-day trial in which fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors ac­cused Zhang of be­ing so bent on en­ter­ing the posh club

to meet Trump that she lied to Secret Ser­vice agents and Mar-a-Lago staff, telling them she wanted to at­tend a gala event that she knew had been can­celed be­fore she left China. The text mes­sages on her iPhone 7 showed not only that Zhang had learned the Mar-a-Lago event was can­celed but also that she had asked the trip or­ga­nizer for a re­fund, ac­cord­ing to trial evidence.

“She said she was there for a United Nations friend­ship event. Well, that was a clear lie,” As­sis­tant U.S. At­tor­ney Rolando Garcia told the ju­rors dur­ing clos­ing ar­gu­ments Tues­day. “She was bound and de­ter­mined to get on that prop­erty . ...

She lied to everybody to get on that prop­erty.”

Zhang, who did not put on a de­fense, did de­clare her innocence dur­ing clos­ing ar­gu­ments, say­ing she had a con­tract to at­tend a United Nations friend­ship event be­tween the United States and China at the Mar-a-Lago club. “I do think I did noth­ing wrong,” said Zhang, speak­ing in English. “I did no ly­ing.”

Dur­ing the trial in Fort Laud­erdale fed­eral court, Zhang spoke oc­ca­sion­ally in halt­ing English and in Man­darin to raise an ob­jec­tion or ask U.S. District Judge Roy Altman a ques­tion about the govern­ment’s evidence. While it was ap­par­ent that Altman, a for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor re­cently ap­pointed by Trump to the fed­eral bench, tried to give Zhang a fair trial, it seemed clear that Zhang’s de­ci­sion to fire her as­sis­tant pub­lic de­fend­ers sealed her fate from the out­set.

Be­fore she was es­corted out of the court­room back to her jail cell, Zhang gave her for­mer at­tor­neys, Robert Adler and Kristy Militello, a weak smile. Both lawyers, at the re­quest of the judge, pro­vided be­hind-the-scenes ad­vice dur­ing the trial.

Zhang’s trial be­gan in un­usual fash­ion Mon­day when she showed up in a jail uni­form rather than the civil­ian clothes that had been pro­vided to her. She com­plained about not hav­ing any “un­der­gar­ments” to wear. Altman al­lowed her to change into khaki slacks and a blouse, and the trial got un­der way.

Zhang, who says she is a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­woman from Shang­hai, is also un­der scru­tiny from a fed­eral coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tion, although she has not been charged with spy­ing. The secret “na­tional-se­cu­rity” in­ves­ti­ga­tion — re­flected in govern­ment evidence that has been filed un­der seal in Zhang’s tres­pass­ing case — never came up at trial. That probe, delv­ing into pos­si­ble Chi­nese es­pi­onage at Mar-a-Lago and else­where in South Florida, will con­tinue even though the tres­pass­ing trial is fin­ished and Zhang’s sen­tenc­ing is set for Nov. 22.

Trial evidence showed that Zhang bluffed her way past two se­cu­rity check­points be­fore she was al­lowed to en­ter Mara-Lago af­ter 12 p.m. on March 30. Ini­tially, she told Secret Ser­vice agents and club staff that she was go­ing to the pool. Her last name — one of the most com­mon in China — happened to match that of a mem­ber, so they let her in. That likely led ju­rors to de­bate whether she had in fact been al­lowed on the premises and had there­fore not tres­passed.

But when Zhang walked into Mar-a-Lago’s or­nate lobby in a long gray evening dress while shoot­ing video with her cell­phone, a sharp-eyed re­cep­tion­ist thought she looked sus­pi­cious. Zhang breezed past the re­cep­tion­ist, Ariela Gru­maz, into a lounge area.

“As soon as she en­tered the lobby, you could see she was fas­ci­nated by the dec­o­ra­tions and that’s when I re­al­ized she had never been here be­fore,” Gru­maz tes­ti­fied.

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors based their case on evidence that Zhang knew she had no rea­son to en­ter the pres­i­dent’s club and none­the­less lied her way in. Gru­maz, the re­cep­tion­ist, proved a valu­able wit­ness.

That af­ter­noon at Mara-Lago, Gru­maz re­called in her tes­ti­mony, she stopped the woman and asked for her name. She said Zhang was not on the list of mem­bers or guests at the pres­i­dent’s pri­vate club. Zhang showed the re­cep­tion­ist some­thing on her cell­phone in­di­cat­ing she was at­tend­ing a United Nations friend­ship event be­tween China and the United States that evening. But Gru­maz said she checked with the cater­ing man­ager and found there was no such event sched­uled.

Zhang had in fact bought a ticket for a Sa­fari Night char­ity gala orig­i­nally on the cal­en­dar for that evening. But the event had been can­celed a few days be­fore, some­thing Zhang was well aware of at the time, pros­e­cu­tors ar­gued.

Secret Ser­vice Agent Sa­muel Ivanovich said that he and other agents ques­tioned Zhang in the Mar-a-Lago lobby be­fore es­cort­ing her off the premises.

He said that when the agents be­gan to search the elec­tronic de­vices in­side her purse, Zhang “be­came ag­gres­sive in na­ture.” But she agreed to go to the Secret Ser­vice’s West

Palm Beach of­fice for ques­tion­ing, he said.

Ivanovich said Zhang ex­plained dur­ing the in­ter­view that she made arrangemen­ts for her trip to Mar-a-Lago through a man named “Charles,” and that she also planned to visit other parts of the United States. She told him that she only knew Charles through their phone mes­sag­ing on the We Chat so­cial-me­dia app pop­u­lar in China.

The agent said he pressed Zhang about why she ini­tially told the Mara-Lago se­cu­rity staff that her rea­son for com­ing to the pres­i­dent’s pri­vate club was to go to the pool.

“She stated that she did not say that,” Ivanovich tes­ti­fied.

Fed­eral agents later searched her iPhone 7 and dis­cov­ered that Zhang had re­ceived text mes­sages from a man named “Charles” who told her that the March 30 event had been can­celed days be­fore she left China. But Zhang, who booked her own flight with $2,000 in cash, flew from Shang­hai via Ne­wark to Palm Beach on March 28 any­way, ac­cord­ing to trial evidence.

Af­ter Zhang’s ar­rest, agents searched her ho­tel room and found a bevy of elec­tronic de­vices, in­clud­ing a hid­den-cam­era de­tec­tor, along with $7,600 in U.S. cur­rency and $600 in Chi­nese cur­rency.

As­sis­tant U.S. At­tor­ney Michael Sher­win said in court that Zhang’s de­meanor through­out her brief visit to Mar-a-Lago sug­gested she was up to no good.

“It shows she was not a wan­der­ing tourist,” Sher­win said, “who fell into this sit­u­a­tion by mis­take.”

Trial evidence showed that Zhang was pas­sion­ate about meet­ing Pres­i­dent Trump and his fam­ily mem­bers, who were stay­ing at Mar-a-Lago on the week­end of her brief visit. On the af­ter­noon of March 30, how­ever, Trump was play­ing golf off the premises.

Yu­jing Zhang

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