A federal jury in San Francisco heard conflicting portrayals of Chinatown association chief Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow Monday as either a crime impresario who arranged the cold-blooded murder of a rival, or as a “visionary” leader dedicated to helping Chinese immigrants.
Chow, 55, is the leader or dragonhead of the Chee Kung Tong civic association.
Today was the first day of his trial in the court of U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer on charges of racketeering conspiracy, murder in aid of racketeering, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to receive stolen property and money laundering. The trial is expected to last three months.
Prosecutors allege that he ran a faction of the tong as a criminal enterprise and ordered the 2006 murder of his predecessor as the dragonhead, Allen Leung. He is also accused of seeking the murder of another former associate, Jim Tat Kong, who was fatally shot in his car in Mendocino County in 2013.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Waqar Hasib began his opening statement with a vivid description of a masked gunman bursting into Leung’s import-export office in Chinatown the afternoon of Feb. 27, 2006.
The gunman shouted “Robbery, robbery” and then shot Leung and fled without taking the several thousand dollars in his office, Hasib said.
He told the jury that although Chow did not pull the trigger, he ordered the murder and was responsible. Chow became the Chee Kung Tong dragonhead later that year.
“This was not some random killing. This was something much darker, much deeper. This was a cold-blooded gangland-style hit — it was murder,” Hasib asserted.
The charge of murder in aid of racketeering carries a mandatory life sentence if Chow is convicted.
Chow was at the center of the other crimes carried by his tong associates as well, Hasib alleged.
“All the crimes being committed revolved around Raymond Chow. This person was at the center, like planets revolving around the sun. One might call him the sun. That’s what he called himself,” Hasib told the jury.
By contrast, Chow’s lead attorney, veteran criminal defense lawyer Tony Serra, 80, contended Chow turned his life around after serving prison time for previous racketeering and gun-dealing convictions and became devoted to keeping young Chinese immigrants from turning to crime.
“He had an epiphany and changed his life,” said Serra, who called Chow a “visionary” and a “true leader of his people.” Serra told the jury:
“The evidence will not show that my client participated in the murder of anyone, period. My client did not participate in any criminal acts.”
Serra showed the jury a photo of a smiling Chow at his inauguration as the tong dragonhead:
“This is not the face of someone who has killed to gain his position. It’s quasi-beatific.”
Chow was one of 29 people indicted last year in a wide-ranging indictment that included both organized-crime charges against most defendants and political corruption charges against former state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo.
The investigation led to Yee through Keith Jackson, a political consultant and fundraiser and former San Francisco school board president who knew both Chow and Yee.
Last July, Yee and Jackson pleaded guilty before Breyer to engaging in a racketeering conspiracy to accept campaign contributions as bribes for political favors.
Jackson’s son, Brandon Jackson, and sports agent Marlon Sullivan pleaded guilty to participating in a separate racketeering conspiracy to engage in organized crime, the same conspiracy charge that Chow faces.
Chow was originally slated to go on trial with seven co-defendants, but the other seven all pleaded guilty to various charges in September, leaving Chow as the only defendant in the current trial.
Two of those co-defendants, Kongphet Chanthavong and Andy Li, have now cooperated with prosecutors and will testify against Chow.
Chanthavong, described by Hasib as acting as a security guard for Chow, is due to take the witness stand sometime on Tuesday. Hasib said he will describe disputes between Chow and Leung in 2005 and will testify that he conducted surveillance of Leung’s office for several weeks in preparation for the murder, but got cold feet and did not participate in the killing.
Chanthavong, Li and Chow met in federal prison in Dublin, according to prosecution documents.
Hasib said Li will testify that Chow asked him in 2011 or 2012 to murder Kong, but later told him his services were no longer needed and that “it was handled.”
Serra told the jury the Chanthavong, Li and several other associates scheduled to testify against Chow are doing so in hope of receiving light sentences and are not credible:
“They are acting out of desperation. They’ll say anything to save their own skin, to get some kind of leniency.”
The trial evidence will include hours of recordings secretly made by undercover FBI agents, including tapes recorded on a body wire beginning in 2010 by an agent who went by the name of Dave Jordan and posed as an east coast Mafia member who wanted to launder money and deal in stolen goods through tong associates introduced to him by Chow.
Hasib and Serra clashed in their opening statements about the interpretation of tapes on which the agent is heard offering money as thanks for the connections and Chow is heard saying “No, no, no, no.” Hasib said Chow kept up “an elaborate cover” by saying he was refusing the money, but nevertheless silently accepted envelopes of money placed in his pocket by the agent.
Serra told the jury he was sincere in refusing it:
“When he says ‘no, no, no,’ he’s telling it like it is.”
Serra said Chow will testify in his own defense when his side of the case is presented in the second half of the trial.
He predicted that testimony “will make all the difference in this case” and enable to jurors to see Chow’s “spiritual side.”
The first prosecution witnesses this afternoon were a now-retired police officer who was the first arrive at the scene of Leung’s murder and FBI Agent William Wu, who testified Leung told him he was frightened of Chow.
Wu will continue on the stand when the trial resumes in Breyer’s Federal Building courtroom at 9 a.m. Tuesday.