The first day of the organized crime trial of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, an alleged Chinatown crime boss who prosecutors say ordered the death of two rivals, was marked by an omen: rain.
“It’s purifying. It’s nourishing,” said defense attorney Tony Serra to jurors, in regard to what the morning’s downpours portend for his client. “[It] conveys regeneration and replenishment.”
Omens aside, after more than a year of courtroom wrangling, Chow has finally appeared in federal court for his trial, and for the first time faced the jury that will decide his fate.
Those jurors, along with the packed courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer, were presented with two conflicting versions of Chow.
Prosecutors described Chow as a cunning crime boss who played gangster-turned-community-leader — all the while acting as the mastermind and leader of the criminal element of the Ghee Kung Tong, a benevolent organization that itself had two faces.
But defense lawyers for Chow urged the jury to see their client as a truly reformed man, who, instead of being a crime boss, was the victim of an overzealous and profligate FBI investigation.
Chow faces charges that sound as if they were torn from the pages of a mobster movie script: Illegal cigarette and alcohol trafficking, murder for hire, racketeering and money laundering. But the charges are very real and until recently held the prospect of capital punishment.
Chow was arrested in March 2014 in one of a series of Bay Area-wide raids. He was indicted on racketeering charges along with more than 20 others, including former state Sen. Leland Yee and former school board member Keith Jackson.
But over the past year and a half, most of the case’s other defendants have fallen to the wayside as the case, and federal prosecutors, centered in on Chow.
The murder charges, for instance, were filed against Chow only last month after his co-defendants pleaded to a number of lesser charges — and several agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.
Now the case, which will see Chow, two undercover agents and several Chinatown gangster testify, looks like it will center on the most serious allegations against Chow: That he ordered the death of two rivals.
In his opening statement, federal prosecutor Waqar Hasib painted a picture of Chow’s alleged leadership of an organized crime group in Chinatown.
“Like planets revolving around the sun, this case is about the man who was at the center of that criminal underworld universe,” Hasib said.
That activity, according to Hasib, manifested itself most prominently in the killing of Chinatown businessman and tong leader Allen Leung in 2006. Leung, the former head of the Ghee Kung Tong, was shot dead on Chow’s orders, said Hasib.
“This was not some random robbery. This was something much larger, much larger, much deeper, much more sinister,” Hasib said.
“This was a hit, a cold-blooded gangland-style hit, a murder. Something straight out of ‘The Godfather.’”
Hasib said the case will show evidence proving this, as well as Chow’s leadership and involvement in a list of other crimes, including the killing of a rival in Mendocino County.
But the picture painted by Hasib, said Serra, is a false one that will be revealed as the case moves along.
“My client did not participate in any criminal act,” said Serra during his reading of wiretap transcripts of Chow repeatedly denying participation in the underworld. “My client did nothing. He changed his life. Can people change? Of course they can.”
Serra at several points in his spirited opening statement, which induced laughter from the crowd, said Chow not only has respect as a leader in Chinatown, but has reached some level of spiritual enlightenment.
“This is not the face of a human being who has killed to achieve that status,” said Serra. “It is quasibeatific.”
The trial continues this morning.
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