Monday, April 21, 2014

The Gangster Who Couldn't Shoot Straight

Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow thought he would clean up as Peter
Chong's Number Two Man.
Instead, Chow just took a bath.

From the way he's been written about in the local papers, you'd think that Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow was some sort of master criminal -- an underworld genius like Moriarity, the archfiend who squared off against Sherlock Holmes.

In fact, Chow was more like another fictional criminal: Kid Sally Palumbo, the hapless Mafia leader modeled on "Crazy Joey" Gallo in Jimmy Breslin's classic cosa nostra comedy, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.

The FBI affidavit that details Chow's misdeeds as the Emperor of Chinatown's rackets portrays him as the "Dragonhead" of the Chee Kung Tong, also known as the Chinese Freemasons, a branch of a secret society that was originally founded during the Ching Dynasty and is suspected of a variety of criminal activities including extortion, prostitution and illegal gambling.

The affidavit also identifies Chow as a leader of the Hop Sing Tong, another secret society involved in criminal activity. As a boss of the Hop Sing, Chow supervised "underlings" who were directly involved in racketeering, the affidavit says.

As part of a negotiated plea of guilty in a racketeering case involving the Hop Sing in the late 1990s, Chow admitted that he had dealt heroin and cocaine, engaged in loan sharking, murder for hire, arson, robbery and illicit gaming.

Sounds like a genuine nogoodnik, right?

What the affidavit doesn't say is that Chow was a flop in most of these activities. The proof of that is the fact that he has spent much of his adult life in state and federal penitentiaries. His first trip to the big house came in 1978 when he was arrested for a string of robberies. He did an eleven year jolt for those crimes and paroled out in 1985.

Only two years after hitting the street, however, Chow was involved in shooting incident and was busted again. The gunplay earned him another three years in the state pen.

When he got out, he ran into a man named Peter Chong.

Peter Chong wanted to amalgamate various
Chinatown gangs into a single national syndicate.

Now Chong actually was a criminal mastermind. An ambitious member of the Wo Hop To triad, one of China's largest criminal organizations, Chong came to the U.S. posing as a promoter of Chinese entertainers, like Amy Yip, a big star in Hong Kong. In fact, Chong put on a number of Chinese language shows that drew their audiences from Chinese expats living in America, but the song and dance business was just a front.

What Chong was really in the U.S. for was to build a nationwide syndicate of Chinese gangs into a single mob headed by his own Chinese organization, the Wo Hop To. 

The umbrella group he established was fancifully referred to as the "Whole Earth Association," and consisted of troops recruited from disparate Asian crime gangs, many of which had previously been at each other's throats. 

They included the Hop Sing Tong and its youthful auxiliary, the Hop Sing Underlings; a Hop Sing splinter group from Portland, Oregon; Other members were part of the old Wah Ching street gang that had been involved in the infamous Golden Dragon massacre (Chow was at the Golden Dragon the night of the shooting, but the gunmen responsible for the attack missed him and his associates); the Jackson Street Boys; and the Suey Sing Tong.

Chong even sent some associates to Boston to assassinate another gangster as part of a plan to bring Beantown's On Leong organization into the fold. 

He enlisted Chow as a deputy because Chow knew the Bay Area and had his own small following within the Hop Sing Tong. Chow, in turn, recruited members of the Hop Sing Tong and another gang of young street criminals, the Jackson Street Boys, as enforcers for Chong's Whole Earth Association.

Remember that Chow's career as a racketeer had been anything but stellar up to this point. He was a small timer with a small timer's outlook, and Chong was the real brains behind the Whole Earth group. His partnership with Chong didn't turn Chow into an overnight success as an organized crime leader, either -- he still was short sighted and prone to the kind of violence that almost certainly would draw the attention of law enforcement agencies.

For example, "Shrimp Boy" sent some of his deputies in the Hop Sing group back to Boston to eliminate Bike Ming, a rival gangster, in a Golden Dragon-style ambush; the underlings blew the job and had to return to the Bay Area.

Chow himself traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, to pick up a load of heroin. That caper also fell through -- Chow, gripped with paranoia, funked out on the purchase. On his return through New York he was stopped by the cops and caught with $12,000 in buy money. He was eventually released but the cops grabbed the cash as evidence and Chow failed to bring back the drugs that had occasioned the entire trip.

During the same period, Chow attempted to kidnap Norman Hsu, a wannabe bag man for the Democratic Party who supposedly owed the Wo Hop To a wad of money. That scheme, too, fell through:  shortly after Chow grabbed Hsu, the car he was transporting the abductee in was pulled over by police; Hsu made himself scarce and Chow was lucky to escape without being arrested.

Meanwhile, underlings were getting pinched right and left for petty crimes. Theoretically, Chinese organized crime has the same code of silence as the Italian Mafia, but the underlings had no real discipline and were given to blabbing to the police the minute they were arrested, even for minor crimes.

By the early 1990s, the cops and feds were putting together a complete organizational chart for the Whole Earth Association. The process accelerated when they convinced a federal magistrate to let them tap the telephones of Chong, Chow and other key Wo Hop To players. Now the gang was under federal scrutiny and it was only a matter of time before arrests would be made.

The last straw seems to have been an arson fire that was set in 1992 by Andy Li, 18, a "red pole" or enforcer for the Wo Hop To, and Chol Soo Lee, a Korean man with a long prison record. The fire was supposed to destroy a three-unit apartment house in the Richmond District that Chong had been using as a house of prostitution. 

The arson Chol Soo Lee had been hired to set left him crippled and disfigured.

Neither Li nor Lee had any prior experience as arsonists, however, and after they had sloshed the structure with gasoline, the pilot light on a kitchen stove touched off the fuel. Not only was the building set afire, but the flames also horrifically injured the two would-be firebugs.

The Whole Earth Association was crumbling. Chong split and turned up years later in Macao. Without him as the glue to hold the association together, it was doomed. 

Between the probe by the feds, the wiretaps on top members' phones and the loose lips of Hop Sing Underlings and other junior-grade gangsters, law enforcement began to roll the organization up from the bottom, persuading lower-level members to give evidence against their bosses in return for a break in sentencing.

Chow found himself in federal court with a dozen former criminal associates testifying against him. He took a fall for gun running and drew a twenty year sentence, though the racketeering charges lodged against him ended in a mistrial. Even Chow, Peter Chong's right hand man, found the prospect of a negotiated plea impossible to resist. Had he held his mud and taken the full fall, he would probably still be serving time in the federal joint.

Instead, he turned state's witness against Chong. 
And Chow played a role in its collapse -- not because he turned state's evidence and testified against Chong, but because he and his confederates were so inept that every crime they attempted ended up leading the feds back to Chong and his crime organization.

Mind you, both the Hop Sing and Jackson Street gangs remain a serious criminal threat in San Francisco, even though Chong was sent to prison and remains there. On Nov. 22, 2010, for example, Michael Tsan, an identified member of the Jackson Street Boys, was sentenced to more than three years in federal prison for extorting the operator of a Chinatown Mah-Jong parlor.

It was not Tsan’s first brush with the law: in 1995, he was a passenger in a car with two other gang members when rivals opened fire on them in an ambush at the intersection of Bernard and Taylor streets, wounding two people and killing one.

Five years later he was arrested as part of a gang sweep by 140 FBI agents and a host of other law enforcement officers connected to a massive loan sharking operation that preyed on the patrons of Bay Area card clubs.

In the case that led to his most recent conviction, federal prosecutors said Tsan had been pressuring the Mah-Jong operator for an extended period, taking money from her to “protect” her gaming operation. In March of this year, she refused to make the payment and Tsan responded with violence, striking her and threatening her life. He was arrested a month later and pleaded guilty to a single count of extortion earlier this fall.

“Extortion is a deplorable and rarely-reported crime,” said Stephanie Douglas, the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Northern California, after Tsan was sentenced.

The conviction will allow the citizens of Chinatown to rest easier said U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, the head U.S. prosecutor in San Francisco. 

Tsan is a relatively minor figure in the Jackson Street Boys, a gang that federal prosecutors said largely supplanted Chong’s Wo Hop To organization by the year 2000. Law enforcement agencies say the gang is involved in loan sharking, the sale of illegal fireworks and the extortion of legitimate businesses. One leader of the San Francisco group, Simon Shixiang Ruan, was arrested by Seattle police in 1997 as he was trying to establish a branch of the gang in Washington State.

The Jackson Street Boys have clashed repeatedly with rival gang members in a series of violent confrontations, some of which have resulted in deaths. According to an affidavit filed in connection with the 2000 loan sharking investigation, the gang’s members rely “on intimidation and their reputation to collect the money . . . The consequences include the sending of underlings to threaten, assault and possibly shoot those who own money.”

Chow may have had some role in those crimes, but hardly as the world class villain he seems to be in news accounts.

His attorney, Tony Serra, says "Shrimp Boy" has gone straight and the charges against him are bogus; that seems equally unlikely. If a leopard has trouble changing his spots, think of how difficult it must be for a tiger shrimp to switch his stripes.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Suburb Full of Squares So Twisted They Could Be Called Parallelograms

The Warlord of Willow Ridge
By Gary Phillips
340 pages
(Dafina; Oct. 2, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0758203853
ISBN-13: 978-0758203854

If you like pulpy crime fiction -- and I am guessing that you do, otherwise, why in hell are you reading this blog? -- I wholeheartedly recommend Gary Phillips' latest novel, Warlord of Willow Ridge. It has just about everything you might want in a hardboiled story about the underworld:

Rape; Murder; meth cookers, dealers and users; money laundering; counterfeit designer goods; outlaw bikers; Mexican gang-bangers; armed robberies; an armored car heist; theft from commercial businesses.

Not to mention assault with a deadly weapon. Several deadly weapons, in fact: knives, a weed-whacker, a cricket bat, shotguns and semiautomatic pistols. At one point, the insecticide Chlordane is even brought into play with telling effect.

The action revolves around Phillips' anti-hero, a professional badass named O'Conner (his first name is never disclosed, but his friends call him Connie), whose police-auction motorcycle peters out on him as he is tooling to a caper in the Bay Area from L.A.

He ends up in Willow Ridge, a gated community that has fallen on hard times courtesy of the bank-engineered crash of the U.S. economy. Many of the houses have been abandoned by their former owners because of the credit meltdown. Connie ends up squatting one of the repos, using it as a temporary headquarters while he rebuilds his bike and prepares to be "in the wind."

As a newcomer to Willow Ridge, Connie is met with reserve by the not-so-solid citizens who remain. For one thing, he is big, strong and violent -- surprisingly so for a man of advanced years; for another, he is black, while most of the community's residents aren't. He is tight-lipped about his past and intentions, but the residents of the Ridge get the impression his life hasn't exactly been on the up and up.

No worries; a lot of these suburbanites are more than a little bit twisted themselves.

His neighbors quickly realize that Connie is living in a house to which he has no legal title -- which also makes them nervous. But after he breaks a menacing biker's jaw with the previously mentioned cricket bat, several of them decide to live and let live.

Welcome to Willow Ridge, neighbor! Want to borrow a cup of sugar? A cricket bat, maybe?

Besides, the folks who remain in the community have bigger problems than termites and crabgrass: Mas Treces, a Mexican drug gang, has set up a crank kitchen in one of the abandoned homes and is dealing meth to all and sundry in partnership with an outlaw motorcycle club, the Vandal Vikings. 

Both groups come and go as they please, scaring the neighbors and menacing small animals: the gated community's gate may remain operational, but the guards who previously patrolled it are long gone. What's more, the local sheriff's department places a low priority on answering minor complaints from Ridge residents: it seems that county taxpayers in less exclusive settings need assistance, too.

Bikers and dope peddlers are not the only parasites at Willow Ridge: a resident who is a real estate broker is running a Ponzi scheme on the side, suckering a group of the residents into an investment that will put them all further in the red; meanwhile, another member of the community is peddling phony designer purses, shoes and other knock-offs to suckers who think the products are legit, despite their ridiculously low prices.

This may sound like an awful lot of ground to cover in a 288-page book and there is no question that stories with this many plot elements can be a mess. Trust me: this one isn't one of them.

Phillips, an ex-community organizer, the former director of a political action committee and head of a pair of non-profit organizations, is one of the new breed of neo-pulp writers who are resurrecting the old form with a Twenty First Century sensibility. 

Neo-pulp author Gary Phillips
(photo courtesy of Thalia Press Authors Co-op)

He has done several stand-alone pulp thrillers and two series: a pair of novels featuring Martha Chainey, a former Las Vegas showgirl who works as a courier for casinos, and three featuring badass private eye Ivan Monk.

He is also one of the writers for Stark Raving press, an e-book publisher that specializes in short form pulp novellas -- the kind of story that used to be the featured piece in the Mike Shayne, Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock mystery mags.

Phillips works that pulp fiction magic here, with tough guys, sexy gals and plenty of action (to quote Raymond Chandler in his Black Mask days, "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand").

His dialog manages to tell you a lot about his characters without wandering into boresville. For example, at one point, he tells us that O'Conner and a crime partner are in a stolen car: "He and Reynolds were parked across the street from the strip mall at a Taco Bell. They crunched away on the hard-shell tacos, sitting in a new model Mustang that didn't belong to either of them."

When characters do meth, they refer to it as "Tina:" "The four sparked up and lazed on the large couch," he says, conjuring the scene with a doper's phrase for smoking drugs. Earlier an associate named Maeline mentions a woman named "Sheila:"

"'Sheila?' O'Conner frowned. 'The one who put the knife in the head of that boyfriend with the false leg?'"

"'Uh huh.'"

"'They around these days?'"

"'The old man's doing a bid in Mule Creek,' Maeline says, referring to the tough state prison that contains serial murderer Herb Mullin among others. "'And as for Sheila, I don't know and won't be finding out."

In another sequence, Phillips has O'Conner warn the head of Mas Trece not to pee in his empty swimming pool again. The 'banger -- soaring on grass and vodka -- is so surprised by Connie's in-your-face manner that he isn't sure how to respond:

"[Chan, the Mas Trece jefe] could get all up in this chump's grill, but stomping on the home owners was off-limits unless necessary. There wasn't much of a law presence and the homeys needed to keep it that way. But this dude was straight challenging him without directly sounding like he was challenging him. Like a motherfucka who done time, he concluded."

Only two of his new neighbors seem completely square. Both are unreserved in their appreciation of Connie: a retiree named Stan Yamashira takes an immediate liking to the big man's no-nonsense attitude and enormous heart; and single mom Gwen Gardner, the owner of a chain of auto repair shops, is just as quickly attracted to an even more massive part of his anatomy.

As for Connie, what's an enterprising thief to do? The squares in Willow Ridge are bent enough to be trapezoids and the professional criminals, geometrically speaking, are plane dumb. He smells a big score: debts are pleading to be called in and alliances put to the test. The only question is, can all these loose threads be gathered together and tied up in a way that gives our protagonist enough green to get him to his next job?

Perhaps more to the point: is O'Conner cleaning up his twisted little community so completely he'll be tempted to go straight himself? He's just starting to get used to the little house he's liberated when he gets a letter from the bank telling him to quit the premises or deputies will evict him; he begins to fantasize filling that empty swimming pool with water and settling down for a life of backyard beer, barbecue and boffery with Gwen.

When visions of roses growing along a picket fence start to crowd out reality, a man can drop his guard long enough to end up with a bullet in the body mass. Can O'Conner keep his edge long enough to stay alive?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Convenience Store for Professional Criminals

“The weather here is gorgeous. It's mild and feels like it's in the eighties. The hot dog vendors got confused because of the weather and thought it was spring, so they accidentally changed the hot dog water in their carts.”
--David Letterman

The little silver cart with the white and beige umbrella that sat in the parking strip at Alum Rock and Foss avenues may have looked like a garden variety food stand but looks can be deceiving.

Lethally deceiving.

Until Sept. 2, 2011, the innocent-looking cart alongside the Valero gas station was actually a sort of convenience store for criminals.

A Dairy Mart for dirtbags, so to speak. A veritable 7-Eleven for shitbirds.

If you needed Schedule "A" drugs, you could hit the stand up for blue crystal in large quantities. The cart jockeys would hook you up with a pound of the stuff, enough to wire your eyeballs to the max but still leave you some to peddle to the kids at James Lick High less than a mile away.

You say you want to withdraw a little walking around money from the till of the local 7-Eleven but you forgot to stock up on the ammo you need to get the job done? No sweat: With just a couple hours lead time, the cats behind the food cart's steam table could set you up with 2,000 high-grade rounds and five magazines to contain them.

Got guns? If not, you're covered, homes: your friendly food stand vatos could front you revolvers, automatic pistols, sawed off shotguns -- everything right up to a full rock 'n' roll AK-47, a handful of clips and enough shells to pop a cap in every one-timer wearing a badge in Santa Clara County.

A fully automatic AK-47 like one of these was available through the hot dog stand in San Jose less than a mile from a city high school. Federal gun experts test fired the weapon after they bought it and found it was a true "street sweeper" that would empty a magazine with a single pull of the trigger. 

When undercover cops posing as criminals bought the machine gun, the food  stand's proprietors tossed in a Ruger magnum six-shooter like this for a few bucks more. Such a bargain!

Hell, if you worked up un poco apetito while you were shopping for illicit merchandise, the two carneros who ran the wagon could even provide you with a fully-loaded perro caliente, complete with chips and a cold can of soda to wash it all down.

Dig it: a hot dog stand that actually sold dogs -- along with virtually all the tools of the criminal's trade.

Sure the dogs might be made out of horsemeat and contain more fat that a chunk of cheap chorizo, but at least they were filling; Consider them a convenience for customers, sort of like eating the rubbery meatballs at Ikea after you've wandered around for an hour or two trying to locate the bathroom.

This wasn't some cheap-jack set up, either: no drugs stepped on so many times they looked like a welcome mat at a Nevada whorehouse; no nickel-plated Saturday Night Specials more likely to blow away your fingertips than the manager between you and the money on the other side of your neighborhood  mom-and-pop's check-out counter.

No sir: this was the real deal, the genuine article. The cart moved methamphetamine that assayed out at 73 percent pure; that's primo toot, my friend. What's more, it dealt 17 firearms in only four and a half months -- and those were just the guns it sold to undercover cops! 

God only knows how many more it put into circulation when the 5-Oh was looking the other way.

As Ginzo the grifter once said: "They'd sell you everything you needed  but a piece of ass."

These days the food stand is still sitting in the Valero parking strip with an ice chest full of cold ones on the ground alongside, surrounded by locals with a junk food Jones. But the cart's lucrative sideline arming the underworld and supplying those damned blue-collar tweakers with Tina are through.

As it turns out, the food stand was the target of an undercover investigation by the San Jose police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The probe went on for nearly five months. On Sept. 2, 2011, during the second of two crystal meth buys engineered by undercover cops and the feds, the men behind the underworld convenience store were collared like a pair of gimps at a BDSM play party.

That was then; this is now. Last week, the saga of the crime cart was scheduled to come to a partial close when one of the two proprietors, Guillermo Gonzalez  Castillo, 23, was up for sentencing in U.S. District Court in San Jose.

It isn't clear from court records what happened at his April 7 sentencing. The last document in the case was filed on April 4, and U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila placed the record under a court-ordered seal that makes it unavailable to the public.

What we do know is that Castillo, who goes by the street name "Gallo" (Rooster), has been cooling his heels in jail since his arrest back in 2011. He agreed to plead guilty to thirteen separate violations of the federal criminal code last Sept. 16. 

Those counts included dealing in firearms without a federal license, sneaking back into the U.S. after being deported, selling undercover officers illegal AK-47 assault rifles, being an illegal alien in possession of firearms, possession of a Ruger Mini-14, a 9-millimeter Marlin Model 9 rifle, a Simonov Semiautomatic carbine, a second AK-47, a sawed-off Remington twelve gauge and selling methamphetamine.

And don't let the NRA jerk you around: these weren't guns for repelling burglars, protecting yourself from muggers or resisting the U.S. government when it comes to take you away in chains. With only a couple of exceptions, these were military grade weapons -- the kind being used to kill and cripple American G.I.s in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Gallo" and his crime partner, 58-year-old Jose Gilberto Ortiz, an ex-con who is known on the street as "Chepe," were indicted by a federal grand jury on Oct. 12, 2011. 

Prosecutors identified Ortiz as the man who actually owned and ran the hot dog stand and acted as a contact and intermediary for Castillo. 

The grand jury said Ortiz had violated the federal criminal code a total of eleven times. Specifically he was charged with: engaging in gun sales without a license; being an ex-con in possession of firearms; possession of an unregistered .357-magnum Smith and Wesson revolver; a 5.56-millimeter Romarm SAR 3 rifle that resembles an AK-47; an A.A. Arms, Inc. 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol; a Norinco 9-millimeter knock-off of the Russian Tokarev military automatic; and a Mauser 9-millimeter, a German handgun that looks like a Luger.

"Chepe" Ortiz was an ex-con barred from legally owning firearms, but that didn't keep him from possessing a Romarm 5.56-millimeter AK knock off like the two at the top of this illustration, a Chinese-made Tokarev copy like the one in the middle or a Mauser 9-millimeter like the pistol at the bottom.

Ortiz was originally schedule to stand trial last Aug. 24, but after a court hearing a couple of weeks earlier his trial date was vacated. The court docket for the case does not disclose the status of the criminal charges against Ortiz at the time, and no new trial date has been scheduled to date.

Both men were arrested Sept. 2, 2011, during the second of two transactions in which they allegedly sold crystal methamphetamine to undercover officers at Ortiz' hot dog cart.  Court record said the pinches were the result of a five-month undercover probe.

The charges against Castillo could put him behind bars for 60 years; those pending for Ortiz could result in a 20 year prison sentence.

According to court records, the cart and its unusual merchandise came to the attention of police sometime prior to April 17, 2011. An affidavit sworn by BATF agent Dennis M. Larko said an undercover San Jose police investigator identified only as Flores had learned Ortiz was dealing guns early in the investigation and contacted him by telephone.

"Ortiz told [undercover officer] Flores that he knew someone selling an AK 47 rifle," the affidavit says.  "Ortiz gave . . . Flores the phone number of a person who he referred to as 'Gallo.' UC  Flores contacted 'Gallo' and arranged to purchase the AK 47 with four magazines and 2000 rounds of 7.62 ammunition for $1,400."

It was the first of what would end up being a series of illicit transactions over the next four and a half months. Additional arms buys were made on June 17, June 22, July 8 and 26, 2011, and two months later on Sept. 2. Court records say that during two of those sales, Castillo met with undercover investigators near a house on 343 West Court where the guns apparently were being stored while awaiting a buyer. He used a baby stroller to transport the weapons from his pick-up truck to the buyers' car for sale.

343 West Court, San Jose, California.

In addition to guns, methamphetamine was purchased from the food cart duo during the undercover investigation.

It is comforting to know that Castillo, a scoff-law who clearly was not slowed down by his prior deportation, is facing a long prison sentence, but it is troubling that  the charges against Ortiz have gone nowhere. After all, court records indicate that he owned the food cart and acted as the broker for the gun and drug deals.

What is even more disturbing is the fact that the really big fish in the case is the person that supplied Castillo and Ortiz with their weapons and drugs -- and he (assuming it is a man and not a woman) is not mentioned in the indictment or any other court documents available to the public.

That means that even though the hot dog cart has stopped arming the underworld, there is still somebody in the San Jose area who is putting guns on the street without difficulty: "Gallo" and "Chepe's" original supplier.  

Let's hope that the ATF and San Jose cops are looking for him, too. Otherwise, we may be hearing about another convenience store for hoodlums in the near future. Only this time the weapons it sells may end up wounding or killing some innocent citizen.