Attorneys for Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, an admitted San Francisco gang leader implicated in a federal indictment that also includes state Sen. Leland Yee, argued today that Chow is a changed man since his release from prison a decade ago and has committed no new crimes.
Chow, 54, whose Ghee Kung Tong organization was infiltrated by the FBI for five years, has been charged with money laundering and conspiracy to traffic stolen goods in a far-reaching federal indictment that includes 28 other defendants.
But veteran defense attorney Tony Serra said at his North Beach office this afternoon that the FBI only charged Chow after five years of surveillance without witnessing any crimes, charging him once they had evidence to implicate Yee, "the celebrity defendant they wanted all the time."
Chow has a lengthy criminal history including a 1996 conviction in federal court for weapons trafficking charges.
According to the federal criminal complaint filed against Chow, he previously pleaded guilty to racketeering charges involving murder for hire, conspiracy to distribute heroin, arson and conspiracy to collect extensions of credit.
He testified the trial of Peter Chong in 2002 that he and Chong ran a criminal enterprise in San Francisco's Chinatown, collecting "protection" money from gambling dens.
His sentence was shortened in exchange for his cooperation in the Chong case, according to prosecutors, and Serra said today that since his release from prison a decade ago, Chow has changed his ways, taking a vow of poverty and working on charitable causes for San Francisco's black and Chinese youth.
"We don't represent a gangster, we represent an exemplary human being," Serra said.
Serra said he, along with attorneys Curtis Briggs and Gregory Bentley, have taken Chow's case pro bono even though he was eligible for a court-appointed attorney because they believe that Chow is innocent of the charges and that the FBI and federal prosecutors' version of events detailed in federal court documents is deceptive.
That Chow was eligible for a court-appointed attorney suggests that he is "indigent" and did not have the funds that someone running a large criminal enterprise would be expected to have, Serra said.
"If he was a real gangster he would have real money," Serra said. "He does not."
Federal investigators and prosecutors claim that after infiltrating Chow's ghee Kung Tong organization five years ago, undercover agents were approached for a variety of criminal enterprises including laundering money, trafficking in narcotics, firearms, stolen cigarettes and liquor and engaging in murder for hire schemes.
It was through the organization that agents were introduced to former San Francisco School Board President Keith Jackson, who allegedly assisted the agents in purchasing illegal firearms, and eventually Yee, who allegedly helped them purchase illegal weapons in exchange for campaign donations, according to court documents.
But Briggs said today that Chow repeatedly tried to dissuade FBI agents from the criminal activity that they were suggesting, and said the criminal complaint includes records of him telling agents that he did not want to commit any crimes.
The criminal complaint quotes Chow as saying "no, no, no" when offered money by agents for his assistance in a money laundering schemes, however he would then open his sport coat and accept payments in an inside pocket.
Briggs said the FBI was "simulating" and "fabricating" the charges against Chow, and did not implicate him in any of the firearms, drugs or violent charges that other defendants in the case are charged with.
Furthermore, the attorneys argued that the Ghee Kung Tong is not a criminal organization and that the FBI fabricated those allegations as well.
Chow "wanted to keep the Tong innocent," Briggs said. He called the group, "a beautiful group of people who bonded together to do beautiful things."
But the undercover agents, Serra said, are experienced liars, in the business of pretending they are someone who they're not for long periods of time, in this case five years.
"It takes a certain kind of human being to be a five-year mole," Serra said. Lying and deception "has to be their forte."
Furthermore, Serra said that despite the fact that he is still waiting for the full evidence in the case, he sees no connection between Chow and Yee, and that Yee has "a great entrapment case."
Serra said the case would eventually go to trial and that Chow would testify at his own trial. Chow is next due in court Friday for a discovery hearing.