A student at a Scottish university who laundered tens of thousands of pounds for a Glasgow-based Chinese crime lord wept as she was jailed.
Xiaotong Huang, 28, laundered nearly £85,000 for the “Mr Big”, or “main nominal”, who travelled round Scotland in a Mercedes handing bags of cash to associates to clean.
For nearly two years, Huang, who was studying for a masters in publishing, paid the money into her bank accounts, transferred sums, purchased “high value luxury items,” and used crime cash to pay her University of Stirling tuition and accommodation fees.
Tens of thousands of pounds, as well as thousands of pounds worth of expensive wine, were sent to China.
Solicitor-advocate Calum Weir, defending, said Huang had been “naive, and to some extent exploited”.
He asked for her to be given a non-custodial sentence, so she could return to her parents in Beijing – described as people “of more than adequate means”.
But jailing Huang for 18 months, Sheriff Keith O’Mahony said he was not persuaded there was any appropriate disposal other than custody.
He noted, though: “I do accept she’s not at the top of the tree.”
Huang, who was appearing for sentence at Stirling Sheriff Court, after being found guilty at Falkirk Sheriff Court in March, sobbed uncontrollably as she was led, handcuffed, to the cells.
The court was told the Mr Big, named as Wai Ma, had absconded.
He was described as the “main nominal” in a “significant” money laundering racket targeted by a police in a probe codenamed Operation Skipper.
On April 6, 2021, police watched as Huang got into his Mercedes in a car park near her halls of residence in Wellgreen, Stirling, before emerging with a brown paper bag which she took to the travel money section of the nearest Post Office.
She later claimed the bag contained only Chinese dumplings, but she was seen taking a wad of notes “an inch and a half thick” out of it and depositing £3,500 in one of four bank accounts she was juggling.
Police swooped on Ma’s car in Dundee a fortnight later.
He was in the driver’s seat, had three passengers, and £50,000 in cash in the boot and rear footwell.
Huang was arrested in her halls of residence on May 5, 2021.
An analysis of her accounts showed that between June 2019 and April 2021 she had banked more than £160,400 in her accounts at the Santander, Monzo and Starling banks – some £56,000 of that in cash.
More than £32,000 had been transferred abroad and £31,000 had been used to pay the University of Stirling for tuition fees and accommodation.
Over £37,000 had been used to purchase high value goods from designers and retailers including Gucci, Lancome, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Harvey Nichols, Harrods and House of Fraser.
Huang pleaded not guilty to laundering money in connection with serious organised crime.
She claimed she’d got the money from her Chinese fiance, then living in Germany, whom she said was now dead; from Chinese fellow students at the University of Stirling, whom she said had since returned to China; and from her parents, still in China, who did not travel to the UK to give evidence in support of her claims.
After a six day trial, a jury of eight men and seven women unanimously found her guilty of laundering £84,912.
The prosecution had originally claimed she had laundered nearly £300,000, reduced to £160,000 at the start of the trial.
None of the luxury goods, including £7,000 worth of wine bought in a single day and sent back to China, were ever recovered.
Prosecutor Colin Wilson said there was no legitimate explanation for the “sheer amount of cold hard cash” Huang had.
He said the inference that she knew the criminal origin of the cash was irresistible, and she had “tried to divert the jury’s attention with homemade dumplings”.
Huang arrived in Scotland from China in 2019 on a temporary student visa, which allowed her to work only a maximum of 20 hours per week during term time.
But the court heard there was no record of HMRC activity or of any benefits having been paid to Huang, who had no visible income stream.
Prosecutors enlisted a financial intelligence analyst to forensically examine Huang’s accounts and compile an itemised breakdown of her banking activities.
Deputy crown agent Kenny Donnelly said he hoped the sentence would be a deterrent to others who are lured into a world of organised crime and money laundering.
He said: “Money laundering is not a victimless crime and plays an integral role in a complex, large-scale operation which facilitates the criminal activity of others.
“I hope this conviction demonstrates the ability of police and prosecutors to investigate, prepare and prosecute serious and organised crime of this nature.”