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Shrimp Boy’s Day in Court

Shrimp Boy’s Day in Court

What happened when one of San Francisco’s most notorious underworld bosses tried to go clean.
Source: Shrimp Boy’s Day in Court – The New York Times

One day five years ago, Shrimp Boy found himself in a hardware store in Chinatown in San Francisco, buying big plastic paint buckets to make pruno. Pruno is jailhouse wine, and Shrimp Boy was an experienced vintner, though he had only ever made pruno in an empty fire extinguisher, because that’s how the masters make it in prison. Yet there Shrimp Boy was, a middle-aged former Chinese-mafia don, now a free man, living at his girlfriend’s condo in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, trying to become what he called ‘‘normal’’ — a state he found exotic and thrilling. Normal, to Shrimp Boy, included mild environmentalism, like conserving gas (‘‘Nobody in prison thinks about the next generation!’’); scooping up after his girlfriend’s dogs, a terrier named Happy and a mastiff named Valentine; and hosting dinner parties, like the one for which he was making pruno. The entire menu was prison food. His girlfriend was curious about it, and he wanted to please her. As Shrimp Boy told me recently: ‘‘I learned a lot from normal people. She’s very square, strict.’’

Shrimp Boy’s prison-party dishes included a dip made with smoked oysters ­(available in the commissary) and ‘‘the tuna and the jalapeño, green onions and mayonnaise,’’ he said. ‘‘We put that on a Ritz cracker or corn chip — that’s a very good spread. We also make the pork- and the chicken-tamale-egg-roll kind of thing.’’ The tamale-egg-roll kind of thing, which Shrimp Boy ate when he could abscond with some leftover grits from breakfast in prison, is made by spreading the cooled, thickened grits out flat like sushi rice, adding a chicken or pork filling, rolling it all up, wrapping the log in a damp paper towel and a piece of plastic trash bag and steaming it in a microwave. Shrimp Boy’s pruno is a classic blend: grapefruit juice (for acid), apple juice (for sugar), bread (for yeast) and orange slices. Eight days before the party, Shrimp Boy placed all the ingredients in a paint bucket, then left the bucket on his girlfriend’s porch, in the sun, so its contents could ferment. A couple of hours before the guests arrived, Shrimp Boy strained the pruno through his girlfriend’s stockings. ‘‘I felt pretty funny about that,’’ he told me, as if he strongly suspected that this wasn’t normal but wasn’t totally sure.

Shrimp Boy met his girlfriend, Alicia Lo, one night in a club in 2008. Lo is a U.C. Berkeley graduate from the upscale Bay Area suburb Walnut Creek, beautiful, the mother of an 11-year-old daughter and fairly normal, though not so normal that she wouldn’t date Shrimp Boy. (His given name is Kwok Cheung Chow; Lo calls him Raymond, the name a teacher gave him during the one month he attended high school. Shrimp Boy calls himself Shrimp Boy.) When Lo began Shrimp Boy’s re-education, she told me, she treated him ‘‘as a foreigner’’ or ‘‘like a baby.’’ ‘‘He was so out of place in society,’’ she said. ‘‘He drove an old bulletproof Mercedes.’’ So Lo started teaching Shrimp Boy the contemporary San Francisco basics: to hold her daughter’s hand when crossing the street, to not throw trash out car windows, to put the recycling in the blue garbage can and the vegetable scraps in the green compost one.

 

Shrimp Boy’s transition from gang boss to upstanding citizen was not always easy. For instance, Shrimp Boy organized a field trip for students at Lo’s daughter’s school to participate in the Chinese New Year parade. But some parents complained that a man who had spent close to two decades in prison should not be involved with children. Shrimp Boy’s feelings were badly hurt when the principal informed him that he could no longer volunteer. Shrimp Boy made some more egregious missteps too. While taping a 2008 segment for the TV series ‘‘Gangland,’’ he gloated, ‘‘In this city, I’m the man that calls the shots.’’ (He later attributed this to a grammatical error; Shrimp Boy learned English as a second language, and he said he meant to use the past tense — that he was the man who called the shots.) In hindsight, Shrimp Boy also probably should not have worn all white to the funeral of a murdered rival Chinese gang leader in 2006.

But given where he came from — as a United States attorney put it in a recent court filing, he has an ‘‘extensive and horrible criminal record’’ involving ‘‘almost all manner of racketeering possible’’ — he did pretty well. He counseled at-risk high-school students about addiction to crime. Shrimp Boy worked with a ghostwriter on a memoir he titled ‘‘Son of the Underworld.’’ He gave advice to young men who sought him out — what to do if, say, you fall in love with a prostitute and want to take her home to your Chinese parents. He told fellow ex-cons about the solace he found in Lo’s dogs. He cooked oxtail soup, enjoyed Marvel comics and learned to paint faces to entertain Lo’s daughter after school.

But at dawn on March 26, 2014, while Shrimp Boy, Lo and her daughter were asleep in her home, law-enforcement officers broke down the front door, semiautomatic weapons drawn. ‘‘That didn’t scare me,’’ Shrimp Boy said. ‘‘What really scared me was worrying about Alicia and her daughter and the two dogs. They never had that kind of thing around.’’ To minimize the havoc — it was a school day — Shrimp Boy cooperated, and as he lay on the living-room floor in handcuffs, with more than a dozen people standing above him, he thought back through his recent activities. ‘‘I didn’t sell no drugs,’’ he recalled thinking. ‘‘I didn’t have no gun. I didn’t have no money.’’ Then, he said: ‘‘I kind of laughed. What I did is O.K.! I’m a changed man!’’

On Nov. 2, in Judge Charles Breyer’s courtroom at the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California, Shrimp Boy, who is 55, is scheduled to stand trial on 140 counts, including racketeering, money laundering, conspiracy and trafficking in contraband cigarettes. Between 2008 and 2014, the F.B.I. ran a sting called Operation Whitesuit. Confidential informants infiltrated San Francisco’s Chinatown and presented Shrimp Boy, who the government claims was back in the gang business, with opportunities to participate in crimes, including drug trafficking and murder for hire. Shrimp Boy claims he abstained.

 

Shrimp Boy and his lead lawyer, J. Tony Serra, are both characters from a bygone San Francisco. Shrimp Boy describes Serra, who is 80, as ‘‘an old, very old wizard.’’ Earlier in his career, in 1979, Serra successfully defended the Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton against the charge of murdering a prostitute. He has also represented members of the Hells Angels, Earth First! and the Symbionese Liberation Army, the revolutionary group that kidnapped Patty Hearst. His office is filled with threadbare furniture and Grateful Dead posters, as well as posters featuring the work of his younger brother, the sculptor Richard Serra. They have been estranged for almost 40 years, since their mother committed suicide by walking into the Pacific Ocean.

‘‘I’m just so happy I’m not dead,’’ Serra, who has thinning white hair and less than a full set of teeth, told me on a recent Sunday morning at his office. He wore a tie-dye T-shirt that looked new. Within 10 minutes of my arrival, Serra described Shrimp Boy to me as ‘‘beautiful.’’ When I asked what he meant, he said: ‘‘Every time I go to talk to Shrimp Boy, it’s like being in the presence of a holy man. He’s soft and gentle and considerate and empathetic.’’ For Serra, representing Shrimp Boy is an honor and a privilege. ‘‘This is the type of case that any politically inclined lawyer — this is your holy grail,’’ he said. ‘‘This is a government-created crime. This is a five-year and probably $3 million investigation.’’ He concluded: ‘‘I’m just delighted to take on the goddamn case.’’

Serra grew up in a working-class family near San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. After playing football as an undergraduate at Stanford, he tried to become an expat writer in Morocco, but at that point he had never smoked a cigarette and was put off by the heroin and the opium. He returned to San Francisco, discovered the Haight and took a vow of poverty. He graduated from law school at U.C. Berkeley in 1961 and has worked almost exclusively pro bono since. Among Serra’s many strong beliefs is that nostalgia is a scourge — ‘‘the first sign of death,’’ he says. Still, it bears noting that one of the biggest cases of his early career also involved Chinatown. Serra exonerated, in a retrial, a Korean-American man convicted of the 1973 murder of a Chinatown gang leader. That case formed the basis of the 1989 movie ‘‘True Believer,’’ with James Woods starring as a character modeled on Serra.

Serra himself has served two prison terms, as a tax resister — four months in 1974 and 10 months in 2005. He would be happy to serve a third, should anyone care to arrest him. He loves life on the inside — ‘‘It’s like locking a doctor who likes to practice medicine in a hospital,’’ he once said. Less felicitous, to Serra, is contemporary, gilded San Francisco. (‘‘Look out the window! Do you see the common man?’’) Serra has no bank account, no credit card and no cellphone. ‘‘My DNA is nonmaterialistic,’’ he explained. He abhors what he perceives as the extravagance of American law enforcement after Sept. 11: As part of the sting, F.B.I. informants ate meals with Shrimp Boy at the Four Seasons, the Fairmont and the Ritz, according to a co-defendant’s filing.

 

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