A trial that starts Monday will determine whether Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, 55-year-old leader of a venerable brotherhood in San Francisco’s Chinatown, will spend the rest of his life in prison for racketeering and murder. The federal court jury will have to choose between alternate versions of reality.
Is Chow, as he portrays himself, a reformed ex-gangster who won praise from elected officials for his good works after release from prison in 2003, only to be set up by undercover FBI agents? Or is he a thug who murdered his way to the top of the Ghee Kung Tong and ran it as a violent gang that trafficked in guns, liquor and stolen goods?
Jurors will also be asked to decide whether the crimes that make up the bulk of the charges – more than 150 counts of money-laundering to hide the proceeds of drug deals and other illegal sales – really happened, or whether they were manufactured by undercover agents who plied Chow with cash and booze, as his lawyers allege. The government spent more than $1 million during the undercover investigation, much of it in high-end restaurants and bars where agents entertained Chow and his cohorts.
The trial will begin with opening statements in the San Francisco courtroom of U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer.
There’s no question about the reality of the most serious charge against Chow, the murder of Allen Leung, the “dragonhead” or leader of the Ghee Kung Tong. Leung was shot to death by a masked intruder at his Chinatown import-export business in February 2006, but no one had ever been charged in his death until, prosecutors said, one of Chow’s racketeering co-defendants told them he had heard Chow order the killing.
If the jury finds that Chow was responsible for Leung’s murder, he will receive a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
Chow is also charged with conspiring to murder Jim Tat Kong, an alleged gang rival who was found shot to death in Mendocino County in 2013. Prosecutors said they filed the charge after they say a second co-defendant told them Chow had tried to set up Kong’s slaying.
Chow’s lawyers say the co-defendants cooked up their stories together in jail only to seek better deals for themselves. Both men have pleaded guilty to charges unrelated to the killings.
The Ghee Kung Tong has an extensive history, recounted in the prosecution’s court filings. It was founded in the Bay Area in the late 19th century, an offshoot of Chinese organizations that sought to overthrow the ruling dynasty. The tong was formed mainly “for civic purposes,” to help Chinese immigrants and protect them from abuse, prosecutors said, but over the decades its members engaged in both legal and illegal activities.
The five-year undercover FBI investigation focused on the organization and resulted in charges last year against 29 defendants. Chow has been held without bail since his arrest in March 2014.
The most noteworthy defendant was state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who pleaded guilty in July to charges of accepting bribes from agents, posing as campaign contributors, in exchange for promises of political favors and an illegal firearms deal. Prosecutors said agents were led to Yee by Keith Jackson, a former San Francisco school board president and an associate of Chow’s. Jackson pleaded guilty to the same charges as Yee.
In attempting to derail the charges against Chow, his lawyers said prosecution documents show that the same agents had found evidence against other political figures, including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. The fact that they were not charged shows that Chow was being selectively prosecuted for political reasons, his lawyers said.
The defense tactic did not impress Breyer, who refused to dismiss the charges against Chow and said he found no evidence of selective prosecution.
Breyer has also rejected attempts by Chow’s lawyers to learn the names of the undercover agents who will testify at his trial, agreeing with prosecutors that identifying them could affect national security. The jury will also hear wiretaps of the agents’ financial transactions with Chow – the type of evidence that often proves highly effective, said Robert Weisberg, a Stanford criminal law professor.
Weisberg said he sometimes plays wiretaps from past trials in his law classes, and “it’s spooky to hear people saying such self-destructive things, not realizing they’re being tapped. It’s unbelievably persuasive evidence.”
On the other hand, Chow’s lawyers have quoted wiretaps in which an agent appears to be pressing money on Chow, who protests “no, no, no.”
Chow’s defense is led by renowned attorney J. Tony Serra, who has insisted that his client is an innocent victim.
“What you can expect,” Weisberg said, “is Tony Serra, a larger-than-life character, varying between trying to make things political, then sentimental.”
The trial could last as long as 10 weeks. The remaining defendants will be tried later.