Back in the summer of 2012, when Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow was musing about his notorious past as a Chinese gang leader for a History Channel feature, he was straightforward about his place in San Francisco’s hierarchy.
“I run this city,” Chow said in an interview for the series “Gangland.” “Who can tell me something I cannot do? Nobody.”
What Chow apparently didn’t know was that the FBI had other ideas.
By then, the bureau was two years into an undercover investigation of Chow that resulted earlier this week in a federal criminal complaint against him, two dozen alleged associates and state Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat who, until his arrest, was a candidate for California secretary of state.
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Today, the 54-year-old Chow is in federal custody facing eight felony counts that include money laundering, conspiracy to receive and transport stolen property in interstate commerce, and conspiracy to traffic in contraband cigarettes. The penalties on the individual charges range from five years to 20 years in prison and fines up to $250,000.
It is not an unprecedented predicament for Chow, who has spent time in federal and state prisons for crimes such as robbery, assault with a firearm, racketeering involving murder for hire, and arson.
But it may be the biggest challenge yet for the enigmatic Chinese native, who despite his criminal history had managed to reshape himself into a community leader in Chinatown and courted some of San Francisco’s most prominent political leaders.
His Facebook page depicts a bon vivant enjoying fat cigars and glasses of red wine or liquor at nightclubs, art galleries and restaurants.
Photos on the page show him posing with former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, now the state’s lieutenant governor, as well as artists and entertainers.
A June 2012 “certificate of recognition” from Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, honors Chow as a “change agent” and pays homage to his “efforts to turn your life around and help others.” The following month, a letter from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., lauds him and other honorees as “ex-offenders who assist other ex-offenders in changing their lives.”
A large part of Chow’s self-portrayal rests on his persona as a reformed gangster who spoke to schoolchildren and community groups in an effort to warn them of the evils of drugs and alcohol.
A year ago, he posted a complaint that his image as a reformer was being damaged unfairly.
“I’m MAD!” he wrote, according to the Facebook page. “Many of my so-called ‘brothers’ try to use my name and my past reputation to do their hustle out there on the street.
“I am not involved with illegal activity but you want to use my name to benefit yourself and hurt me at the same time. I’m done with those of you who do that. You will no longer be my ‘brother.’ ”
Since his arrest, the page has attracted a number of scornful comments, but as late as Friday morning a post attributed to Chow asked people not to judge him harshly.
“There is too much negative in this world,” the post read. “Stay positive and share that with me.”
Chow rose to prominence in San Francisco’s Chinatown as a member of the Hop Sing Tong, which is alternately viewed as a civic organization or organized crime group, according to an FBI affidavit that spells out the undercover probe of Chow, Yee and the two dozen other defendants.
As part of that group, “Chow engaged in such activities as heroin and cocaine trafficking, attempted murder, arson, robbery, gambling and extortionate credit transactions,” the FBI affidavit states.
He pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges in 2000 and was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison, but he won early release by cooperating with federal prosecutors in another case.
Chow also belongs to another group, the Chee Kung Tong organization, or CKT, that the FBI says it has monitored since at least 2006, when the organization’s leader, Allen Leung, was killed in a crime that has never been solved.
After Leung’s slaying, Chow became the group’s leader, or “Dragonhead,” a position that eventually drew the attention of FBI undercover agents who began meeting with Chow in 2010, according to the affidavit.
The entrance for the organization’s hall opens onto Spofford Street, tucked between a massage parlor and a mahjong gaming room. Neighbors in the district described Chow as an ebullient presence.
“He says hello to everybody, he is friendly to everybody and he is always smiling,” said Jenny Horn, who runs Jenny’s Flower florist directly across the alley.
She recalled how Chow always seemed to stand out as people came to events at the hall. “He looked like a good person,” she said in an interview Thursday.
At a mahjong parlor nearby, people were poring over copies of a Chinese language newspaper, the Sing Tao Daily.
On the cover was a photograph of Yee emerging from the federal courthouse after his release on political corruption and gun trafficking charges. Inside the newspaper was a photograph of the senator reading a proclamation as Chow – wearing a black fedora, black jacket and silver earrings – stood nearby at a ribbon cutting for a Chinatown business.
Around the corner, Chan Lee, 77, a volunteer for a community group, the Chin Lien Association, which provides family assistance and resettlement services for immigrants from China and Southeast Asia, said the latest charges against Chow had brought shame to the community.
Although Chow stands just 5-foot-4 – a stature that led to the “Shrimp Boy” nickname that he embraced – Lee remembered him as “the big guy with the bald head” who just a few weeks ago was surrounded by people going into a gathering at a local restaurant.
Lee didn’t know Chow personally but said the criminal case “is not good for the Chinese people” in San Francisco.
The name of the Chee Kung Tong association caught up in the FBI sting operation roughly translates as “Society of Heaven,” said Steve Yee, a prominent Sacramento Chinese historian.
Its roots date back to the Chinese secret societies of the 17th century, he said. By the 1930s, the powerful Bing Kong Tong of San Francisco had branches throughout the West and called itself “Chinese Freemasons,” Steve Yee said. CKT members also identified as freemasons, and the group had branches in Vancouver, Taipei and the Philippines, Yee said.
“There seems to be a sort of stigma, that Chinatown is dangerous, corrupt, filled with opium and gambling, but that has a lot to do with the immigration experience,” Steve Yee said. “Shrimp Boy, who came from Hong Kong, has quite a reputation – in Jackie Chan movies they talk about the Triads (organized crime syndicates), and that’s sort of his legend.
“He went to prison, came out and said, ‘I’m going straight,’ and like a lot of legends, he helps the community,” Steve Yee said.
The FBI acknowledges that Chow repeatedly insisted he was no longer engaged in criminal behavior through CKT, but the affidavit notes that he once whispered to an undercover agent in a karaoke bar that he “knew of and approved all criminal activities within his organization.”
Undercover agents portrayed themselves as Mafia members or crime lords involved in illegal gambling, drugs and marijuana grows in their dealings with Chow, and concluded that “it became apparent that Chow was in charge of the criminal element of the CKT,” the affidavit states.
Eventually, the FBI claims, Chow and his associates helped launder nearly $2.3 million in cash that an undercover agent told them had come from illegal schemes. In return, they were paid a 10 percent laundering fee, the affidavit states.
But the FBI also notes that Chow adamantly maintained he was a reformed man interested in selling his life story for a book and movie deal and lecturing groups in Sacramento on the evils of drugs and alcohol for $200 per lecture.
“It should be noted that throughout this investigation, Chow has made several exculpatory statements about how he strives to become legitimate and no longer participates in criminal activity,” the affidavit states.
But the 137-page document adds that Chow also “readily accepted” envelopes of cash from an FBI undercover agent as payment for helping in various schemes run through his organization.
A July 2011 payoff described in the affidavit indicates that an undercover agent used a Chow associate to launder money supposedly obtained illegally, then tried to hand Chow $1,000 in an envelope for allowing the agent to work with Chow’s associate.
“Chow immediately said ‘no, no, no’ but opened his sports coat to reveal an inside pocket,” the FBI affidavit states, adding that the agent placed the envelope inside the pocket and then Chow hugged him.
Eventually, the undercover agents dealing with Chow and his associates found their way to Leland Yee and his political consultant, Keith Jackson.
In a November 2012 meeting, one undercover agent told Jackson that Chow needed the senator’s help in winning approval to remove an ankle monitoring device Chow has worn since his release from prison in 2005.
The agent added that he would help pay off a $5,000 campaign debt of Yee’s if the senator helped Chow, the affidavit states.
Jackson later told Yee that “our friend Raymond” needed help, the FBI stated, but Yee was cautious. “Senator Yee expressed concern because Chow wanted to publicize and glamorize his life through a book and movie, and added, ‘You know, some people still think he killed that Allen Leung guy,’ ” the affidavit states.
Yee later added in a phone call with Jackson that Chow “is a gangster” and that he should “lay low,” the affidavit states.
“…(A)s much as I want that $5,000, I can’t do that, man,” Yee said, according to the affidavit.
The FBI allegations already have destroyed Yee’s hopes of becoming secretary of state and threaten to send him, Chow and others to prison.
But in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, Chow assumed an air of confidence.
Dressed in black, he strode into the 17th floor courtroom with 10 other defendants. While the others appeared tense and confused, Chow smiled broadly as he took his seat.
Chow was noticeably chatty when court officials and a federal public defender surveyed the suspects on whether they needed legal representation. He threw back his head and laughed.
He listened to the Cantonese translation on headphones as Assistant U.S. Attorney William Frentzen read the charges against him in the government’s criminal complaint.
“Mr. Chow, do you understand what you are charged with?” asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins.
“Yes,” Chow answered in crisp English. “I understand.”
Frentzen argued that Chow was a ruthless criminal who should be denied bond, saying he “has an extremely serious and violent criminal history.”
But Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth M. Falk characterized Chow as a reformed man whose criminal history was well in the past. Arguing for his release, she cited his ties to the San Francisco community and his ongoing application for U.S. citizenship. She also said he has a close relationship with a girlfriend in San Francisco and is due to check into the hospital for evaluation of a heart condition.
“For the last 10 years Mr. Chow has been on release, he has not been engaged in criminal conduct,” Falk said, adding: “The fact that he has been fighting so long to stay in the United States suggests he will not flee.”
Cousins didn’t buy it and ordered Chow held without bond.
“There is a serious danger the defendant will attempt to flee or obstruct justice,” he said.