Con artist claimed to be Lee Kuan Yew's granddaughter

A Virginia judge this month sentenced Siew Im Cheah to 51 months in prison for identity theft.
A Virginia judge this month sentenced Siew Im Cheah to 51 months in prison for identity theft.

WASHINGTON • A Washington Redskins player and his agent met Cindy Lin in 2015 at a suburban Porsche dealership.

She told them she was in her 30s, wealthy, well-connected and ready to buy a majority stake in the city's NBA team. According to a letter the agent wrote to the court, they eventually invested in what they thought was a bid for the Washington Wizards.

After a time, the two became suspicious. There were inconsistencies in her stories. They wondered about her parade of sports cars and even her age. They asked for their money back; to date, they have not received it, the agent wrote.

Neither have most other victims of the Malaysian-born woman, whose real name is Siew Im Cheah.

At other times, she convinced professional athletes and successful executives that she was the granddaughter of Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and a close friend of president Barack Obama.

US prosecutors say that over the past two decades, the con artist, now 59, has stolen at least six identities and several fortunes. From Virginia to California she would take on the personas of her roommates and nail technicians, then use those identities to profit from scams.

A federal prosecutor called her "a one-woman crime spree". Another, in a sentencing motion, said she "has perfected the art of identity theft". The money her victims gave her for supposed investments in Nigerian oil and Washington sports they now believe she spent on high-end cars, plastic surgery and designer handbags.

She "is very manipulative and has shown no remorse for the heartaches she caused," the sports agent wrote in a letter to the court.

Cheah pleaded guilty this year in federal court in suburban Alexandria, Virginia, only to identity theft and fraud, having been caught speeding through south-west Virginia in a Porsche with an old roommate's driver's licence.

Up until her Oct 4 sentencing, at which Judge T. S. Ellis III put her in prison for 51 months, Cheah's true identity was in question. "I'm a little confused about what name to use for you," Judge Ellis told the small, quiet woman with chin-length black hair streaked white.

Court records say her victims included a chef, a trainer, multiple manicurists and an appointee of a Virginia governor.

 

Victims described a mix of anger and awe at Cheah's near-mystical powers of persuasion. At first, she was personable and affectionate. She wowed them with her fancy cars and clothes and apparent ties to the wealthy and famous. But some said she soon became demanding and, when challenged, cruel, threatening them with ruin.

"She does not use guns, knives, or any other sort of physical weapon like many criminals," chef Alan Perez wrote in a letter to the court. "Language, and emotion are her weapons, and armed with them she can easily infiltrate the mind of anyone she wishes to prey upon."

When she was arrested in 2017, Cheah was living in a US$14,000-a-month (S$19,000) high-rise on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, leased under the name of a friend's unwitting mother.

According to court records, she claimed that various people allowed her to use their names and that she planned to pay them back for any debts she incurred.

In a phone interview from prison, Cheah said the people who spoke against her "were not victims at all" and had "nothing to do with the situation" that put her behind bars. "I don't think it's fair," she said.

Her attorney argued that prosecutors were provoked not by what she did but the mysterious ways she did it. "They're upset because they would like to know everything about her," he told the judge.

 

It is a mystery federal agents have been trying to solve for years.

According to court records, the woman born Siew Im Cheah entered the United States from Malaysia on a visitor's visa under the name Sau Hoong Lee in 2001. The real Ms Lee is a homemaker in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur who says she never met Cheah.

Her first known crime in the US dates to 2004, when she was convicted of burglary, auto theft and identity theft in Monrovia, California, for stealing her landlord's name and driver's licence to buy a BMW.

In 2011 she was arrested in Monterey Park, California, after writing a bad cheque for US$350,000 under the name "Claudia Lee" to buy a diamond ring that she then pawned for US$100,000. She impressed other victims with lies about her grandeur. She said she had access to a government investment fund in Singapore through her family but was "Google-proof" to avoid being killed by the people who kidnapped her father.

Cheah's connections to the rich and famous were why Mr Jimmy Rhee thought "Lin" was the real deal. She once introduced him to the Redskins player at a Porsche dealership, Mr Rhee said, and she claimed to be friends with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.

And when Mr Rhee visited Cheah while she was sick, he saw flowers with a card that appeared to have been signed by president Obama. He now believes she sent them to herself. "She was always creating, manipulating a fictitious situation and environment," Mr Rhee said. "She was a master at that."

 

She persuaded Mr Rhee to invest US$300,000 in a Nigerian oil venture. She seemed to know the oil and entertainment businesses well, and she had financial papers that appeared to back up her claims.

"She is a very, very personable lady," he recalled. "It's hard to resist her friendship."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2019, with the headline 'Con artist claimed to be Lee Kuan Yew's granddaughter'. Print Edition | Subscribe