A federal judge in San Francisco Tuesday ordered a solo racketeering conspiracy trial for Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow and kept the trial on track to begin on Nov. 2.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer granted motions by Chow and seven codefendants to have the others’ trial on the racketeering conspiracy charge severed, or made separate.
The seven others were originally slated to be tried together with Chow, but unexpectedly pleaded guilty last week and this morning to some charges, not including the racketeering count.
They and Chow argued that the partial guilty pleas by the seven codefendants would result in conflicting defense strategies for Chow and the others and jeopardize their rights to a fair trial.
Breyer agreed Tuesday, saying:
“There is a potential of prejudice if several defendants who have pleaded guilty go to trial with one who has not pled.”
Chow, 55, an admitted former gang leader who says he has turned his life around, is the “dragonhead” or chief of the Chee Kung Tong fraternal association in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Prosecutors allege he led a criminal faction of the group that engaged in drug trafficking, sales of stolen goods, extortion and money laundering.
In addition to the racketeering conspiracy count, he faces charges in the upcoming trial of conspiring to receive and transport stolen liquor and cigarettes and several dozen counts of laundering money gained in illegal activities.
The codefendants pleaded guilty to various counts, including money laundering, conspiring to transport stolen goods, illegal gun possession and marijuana distribution, but not to the central racketeering conspiracy charge.
In a surprise to prosecutors, six entered their guilty pleas on Sept. 9. The seventh, Kongphet Chanthavong, 37, of South San Francisco, pleaded guilty at an unannounced hearing this morning to one count of distribution of marijuana, three counts of dealing in firearms without a license and three counts of being an ex-felon in possession of a gun.
One defendant who pleaded guilty last week, Andy Li, 42, of South San Francisco, filed a notice Sunday saying he had changed his mind and was prepared to go on trial with Chow on the racketeering charge and several other charges remaining against him.
But in an order issued late this afternoon, Breyer included Li among the defendants whose trial on remaining charges is severed.
Chow and the seven codefendants were among 29 people charged last year in a wide-ranging indictment that included organized-crime charges against Chow and others and separate political corruption charges against former state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo.
In July, Yee and his fundraiser, former San Francisco school board president Keith Jackson, pleaded guilty to conspiring to accept campaign contributions as bribes for political favors.
Jackson’s son, Brandon Jackson, and sports agent Marlon Sullivan pleaded guilty to the unrelated organized-crime racketeering conspiracy, the same charge that Chow and others now face.
After Yee and Jackson pleaded guilty, Breyer designated Chow and seven others for the first trial in the case.
No trial has been set yet for 16 others named in the indictment. Six of them also face the racketeering conspiracy count.
One other defendant, Daly City dentist Wilson Lim, who was accused of conspiring with Yee and Jackson in a never-completed international arms deal, died last year.
Jury selection in Chow’s trial was scheduled to begin on Oct. 19 and opening statements on Nov. 2.
But Breyer said the jury selection may have to be delayed because Chow’s lead lawyer, veteran defense attorney Tony Serra, is representing a murder defendant in a Yolo County Superior Court trial that is taking longer than expected.
In any case, Breyer said, jury selection will occur no later than Nov. 2:
“The only certainty I can give you is that the trial is going ahead on Nov. 2.”
The future of the racketeering charges against the seven codefendants is unclear. Prosecutors told Breyer in a filing that they were willing to dismiss the racketeering count against five defendants if Breyer allowed a joint trial against Chow, Li and Chanthavong.
“The government views it as important that these three defendants be held accountable for their culpability as members of the RICO (racketeering) conspiracy.”
Prosecutors also unsuccessfully argued, “It simply makes no sense for the court, a jury, and counsel for both sides to engage in a RICO conspiracy trial for one defendant that lasts several weeks.” Since Chow will now be tried alone, the offer to dismiss remaining charges against the five defendants is not in effect and those charges are still pending.
The purportedly stolen liquor and cigarettes and some of the money to be laundered were supplied by undercover FBI agents who began investigating Chow and other association members in 2010.