Desperate to broker a weapons trafficking deal that could land $100,000 for his secretary of state campaign, state Sen. Leland Yee allegedly called on an old friend and donor with connections to a militant Muslim terrorist group looking to overthrow the Philippines government.
The secret source supposedly said he could get the buyer, an undercover FBI agent posing as a Mafia gangster from the East Coast, Israeli-made assault rifles and possibly up to $2.5 million worth of military-grade weaponry. Who was this mystery international arms smuggler?
Meet Wilson Lim, a frail, balding, 60-year-old nearly bankrupt dentist. Three years earlier, court documents say, Lim was recovering from a massive heart attack that left him in a coma for a month and mentally fragile, unable to handle his financial affairs. A psychologist found him not fit to practice dentistry, let alone traffic arms.
While the Daly City dentist doesn't fit the profile of an international gun smuggler, he's the linchpin in the federal weapons trafficking case against his politician friend Yee and the state senator's campaign donation lieutenant, Keith Jackson.
Lim, Yee and Jackson are charged with conspiracy to deal firearms without a license and to illegally import firearms, among other charges. The gun trafficking charge could bring each man five years in prison.
Despite the serious allegations, the federal complaint filed last week offers no evidence that Lim or Yee could actually pull off an international weapons trafficking operation, and it's unclear what Lim's connections are to the notorious Philippines terrorist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Still, according to the complaint, Lim and Yee spent at least two March meetings with the undercover agent trying to convince him the deal could happen. Since the arrests, an English-language newspaper in the Philippines reported that the government there has launched a probe to find out if the country's military has been sending weapons to the terrorist group, as alleged in the FBI complaint.
While there has been speculation that Yee and Lim didn't have the wherewithal to pull off an arms deal and may have been bluffing, an international weapons trafficking expert said the negotiated deal had all the hallmarks of a legitimate plan with a "mom-and-pop-style arms pipeline."
"There's sufficient information in the affidavit that represents an accurate pattern of what would happen for an arms deal," said Kathi Austin, executive director of Conflict Awareness Project and an internationally recognized arms trafficking expert, after reviewing the complaint. "I'm not seeing something that would ¿indicate a major bluff going on." Lim's physical weakness -- he appeared in court in a wheelchair -- would have no bearing on a deal, she added.
The FBI likely has additional information that was not contained in the complaint, Austin said. A red flag is the fact Yee allegedly initiated the arms dealer talk, she added, when he could have suggested a number of more plausible, less dangerous pay-for-play options to raise campaign cash.
Calls and emails to Lim, who is out of custody on $50,000 bail, and his wife were not returned. His attorney, Jonathan McDougall, emailed a statement on behalf of his client: "Dr. Wilson Lim and his family are devastated with his arrest, and the allegations contained in (the FBI complaint). ... The affidavit reflects a few minimal statements attributable to Dr. Lim in an investigation that spanned more than three years. Dr. Lim is eager to have all the facts presented and has confidence in the process."
Weapons dealer or not, Lim has been an ardent supporter of Yee's political career. From 2009 to 2012, Lim personally donated $2,500 to Yee's campaigns, and another $1,000 from his dental practice. Photos from Philippine newspapers show the pair together at numerous fundraisers, including a Southern California event where Yee announced his run for secretary of state. While he has no criminal record, Lim was sued by his landlord in January 2011 after he failed to pay rent on a San Mateo Chinese restaurant. Club Mango had been closed "due to acts of ill-repute and prostitution being committed in these upstairs rooms," according to the lawsuit. A source said Lim would brag about hosting Yee fundraisers there.
After the heart attack, which led to kidney failure and dialysis, Lim could no longer perform as a dentist and his income dropped from $154,300 in 2010 to $45,000 the next year and finally $18,500 in 2012, according to bankruptcy documents, which included an asset list of $5,000 worth of guns.
By 2012 Lim had amassed more than $3 million in debt, wrote Randy Sugarman, his court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, and his inability to work "snowballed" his financial crisis.
"Dr. Lim also stated he had suffered substantial memory loss and could not remember many financial transactions," Sugarman wrote, adding that a psychologist found Lim unable to "perform as a dentist or to oversee a dental practice."
Sugarman characterized the two-year bankruptcy process with Lim as "chaos" and "complicated," continually finding unreported cash payments going to and from Lim that raised "serious questions about (the dentist's) credibility."
Last November, Sugarman sold the Lims' Hillsborough home for almost $2.8 million, paying off his creditors and dismissing the bankruptcy. Despite the ordeal, Sugarman in a phone interview said he could not fathom the federal charges of gun trafficking.
"I find it astounding that Dr. Lim would be involved in anything like that and have the ability to do anything like that," he said.
And yet, on March 11, Lim showed up at a San Francisco restaurant with Yee, Jackson and the undercover FBI agent and detailed how his nephew in the Philippines could acquire weapons, the federal complaint says.
Yee called Lim a "gun lover" who had "no moral arguments of selling weapons." Lim allegedly said the undercover agent would have to meet with the head of Moro Islamic Liberation Front and any type of weapon was possible -- "all kinds of things, we just have to look for it."
Three days later, Lim was sent a weapons list to mail to the Philippines, according to the federal complaint.
Staff writer Aaron Kinney contributed to this report. Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.