SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The murder and racketeering trial of Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow kicked off Monday with two vastly different portraits of the former Chinatown gangster, who is accused of running the Chinese community organization he headed as a criminal enterprise.
In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Waqar Hasib called Chow the "sun of the underworld universe."
Hasib painted Chow as a power-hungry criminal mastermind who schemed to get money without dirtying his hands and orchestrated a bloody coup to seize control of the Ghee Kung Tong, the community group whose headquarters FBI agents raided in March 2014 at the end of a five-year undercover racketeering probe.
But lead defense attorney J. Tony Serra said Chow, who has been in and out of prison since the 1970s for racketeering, robbery and other violent crimes, took a vow after his last prison stint to turn his back on crime.
"People change," Serra said. "If you believe that's true, that's the end of the case."
Serra said Chow focused instead on benevolent community work. He showed the jury a 2006 photo of Chow's Ghee Kung Tong inauguration that displayed a beaming Chow dressed in red, his gaze turned heavenward.
"Look at my client's face. Look at his smile, look at his physiognomy," Serra said. "This is not the face of a person who has killed to achieve that status. It's quasi-beatific."
Chow was rounded up along with 29 other defendants including former California State Sen. Leland Yee, who was charged with accepting bribes from undercover FBI agents. Yee pleaded guilty in July to one count of felony racketeering after reaching a deal with federal prosecutors.
The government's case against Chow took a twist in October when the government added charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
Hasib said Monday that Chow had ordered a hit on Chinatown businessman and Ghee Kung Tong predecessor Allen Leung, who was killed in his import/export shop on Jackson St. because "desperately wanted to take control of the Ghee Kung Tong."
On Feb. 27, 2006, a masked man entered the shop, pulled out a semiautomatic gun, shouted "robbery" and shot Leung. The gunman then fled the shop and into a waiting vehicle.
"This was not some sort of random robbery of a business in Chinatown," Hasib told the jury Monday. "The evidence will show that this was a hit, a cold-blooded gangland-style hit. A murder like something straight out of 'The Godfather.' This hit was ordered by that man over there, Raymond Chow."
Chow assumed control as "dragonhead" of the Ghee Kung Tong that same year, and allegedly began running the group as a criminal organization that ran guns, laundered money and trafficked in drugs and stolen goods.
Later, prosecutors would play for the jury a 911 recording of Leung's wife Jenny frantically screaming, "Robbery! They shot my husband! Please help!"
Serra told the jury that Jenny wasn't all that upset by her husband's death. In fact, he openly kept a mistress, the attorney said.
"So you might infer no love lost," he said, adding that Leung was also a loan shark with a number of enemies and criminal interests.
The government's latest indictment also claims that between 2011 and 2013, Chow encouraged the killing of Jim Tat Kong, a former friend and fellow member of the Hop Sing Tong gang. Kong, whom Chow accused of sleeping with another friend's wife and trying to take over the gang, was found shot dead in Mendocino County on Oct. 17, 2013.
Prosecutors claimed Chow strategically removed his protection from Kong so that someone would eventually kill him. Hasib said associate Andy Li will testify that Chow initially asked him to kill Kong, but later said he had been "taken care of."
"They're saying my client gave a green light. That is a bunch of baloney," Serra countered, arguing that Chow essentially "de-friended" Kong.
"My client says, 'Whatever is [Kong's] karma will happen. I will do nothing. I don't have to do anything. He will fall on his own karma,' words to that effect," Serra said. "He was a character who had a multiplicity of enemies, and when my client took away the friendship that gave him a form of security - that's when his enemies struck."
The trial is expected to stretch well into January.
At least six of Chow's Tong associates are expected to testify in the coming weeks to taking orders from Chow - all of whom were charged with various counts of racketeering and money laundering and took plea deals in connection with the case.
Serra called them all self-interested career criminals looking to reduce their sentences and that two in particular, Andy Li and Kongphet "Joe" Chanthavong, "planned their perjury together" while they were being held in the same jail.
But the prosecution's star witness will be UCE 4599, an undercover FBI agent who posed as an East Coast Mafioso named David Jordan.
Hasib said Chow introduced Jordan to dozens of his criminal associates who helped him launder money and make deals involving contraband liquor and cigarettes.
"Raymond Chow always stays an arm's length away from criminal activity, but every time David Jordan offers him an envelope, Raymond Chow takes the envelope and drops it in his pocket," Hasib said.
During his opening, which came after Hasib's, Serra shouted that the money was forced on Chow.
"He didn't really want it! Half of the time they plied him with drink," Serra said. "He was drunk!"
Serra impugned the government's vast expenditure of resources trying to entrap Chow, noting it has spent over $1 million since 2010 on luxury hotels, vacations and high-end bars in the course of trying to wine and dine Chow.
"I invite you to dislike that," Serra told the jury, eliciting laughter from the gallery. "They had a lark - they'd probably like to do it for 10 more years."
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