In this courtroom sketch, Guo Wengui, seated center, and his...

In this courtroom sketch, Guo Wengui, seated center, and his attorney, Tamara Giwa, left, appear in federal court in New York, March 15, 2023. Wengui, a self-exiled wealthy Chinese businessman became an internet sensation and conned thousands of people worldwide into sending him $1 billion, enabling him to spend lavishly on a mansion, two yachts and even a $35,000 mattress, a prosecutor told a New York jury Friday, May 24, 2024 at the start of his fraud trial.. Credit: AP/Elizabeth Williams

NEW YORK — A self-exiled wealthy Chinese businessman became an internet sensation and conned thousands of people worldwide into sending him $1 billion, enabling him to spend lavishly on a mansion, two yachts and even a $35,000 mattress, a prosecutor told a New York jury Friday at the start of his fraud trial.

Guo Wengui, 57, promised his online followers that they'd get rich before he blew their investments on a lavish lifestyle and risky investments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Micah Fergenson said.

He said Guo “ran a simple con on a grand scale.”

“He lived a billionaire's lifestyle from money he stole from people he tricked and cheated,” Fergenson said.

But defense attorney Sabrina Shroff said Guo was not guilty of any of the dozen charges lodged against him since his March 2023 arrest, a decade after he left China in 2014 during a crackdown on corruption that ensnared individuals close to him, including a topo intelligence official.

She promised jurors trial developments that would be “both surprising and eye opening” and warned them not to let ornaments of Guo's wealth cloud their judgment since Guo had been wealthy for a long time after making a fortune along with his seven brothers on real estate in China.

Shroff said her client had intentionally developed a following as he formed a movement to let the people of China know that there was an alternative to the Chinese Communist Party and had drawn the wrath of the Chinese government.

During opening statements, there was no mention of Steve Bannon and other associates of former President Donald Trump, although Judge Analisa Torres said during jury selection that the names of former Trump advisers could arise during a trial projected to last seven weeks.

While living in New York in recent years, Guo developed a close relationship with Bannon, Trump's onetime political strategist. In 2020, Guo and Bannon announced a joint initiative to overthrow the Chinese government.

After leaving China, Guo was accused by Chinese authorities of rape, kidnapping, bribery and other crimes. Guo said those allegations were false and designed to punish him for publicly revealing corruption as he criticized leading figures in the Communist Party.

When he was first charged in Manhattan, prosecutors identified him as “Ho Wan Kwok,” but they recently changed how they refer to him in court papers, saying “Miles Guo” is how he is commonly known.

That was the name Fergenson used as the prosecutor told jurors that Guo became an internet sensation after 2017 by speaking in videos about his wealth while criticizing China's government.

He said Guo deceived thousands of people into contributing toward bogus investments so he could resume a luxurious lifestyle that he lost when he left China.

The prosecutor said Guo and his family had various assets, including a $70 million apartment on Central Park, a $30 million yacht, a second luxury yacht, a 50,000-square-foot mansion, a $35,000 mattress, a $60,000 television and luxury cars, including a $4 million Ferrari.

He said trial witnesses would include individuals who trusted Guo and “believed the lies he told them” before losing their life savings in the fraud.

Shroff warned jurors not to be distracted by her client's lifestyle.

“It is easy for a person to judge another as either shallow or rich,” she said. “Shallow or rich does not mean a criminal.”

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