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Twice Burned 

A Hong Kong mob's attempted takeover of Chinatown went up in flames when a gang arsonist snitched. Now Peter Chong, the mob's alleged U.S. leader, is in custody and feeling the heat.

Wednesday, Jun 14 2000
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"I'll look into it," Chow told her.

This news, of course, worried Chow. If Lee reported the license plate to the police, the attack could be linked back to the gang. So he instructed his underling to report the car stolen. That way, if Lee reported the license plate, they could always claim that someone else had been driving the car.

Then he ordered the boys to attack her again.

This time they fell on her outside the Hong Kong Flower Lounge in Oakland. But before things got ugly, a passing cop intervened, and arrested an underling named Raymond Lei.

Lee still didn't realize who was behind the attacks, however, and she called Chow a second time. "It happened again," she said. "What's going on? I'm scared. I want to get out of here."

Chow didn't waste any more time eluding her questions. He told her in no uncertain terms to drop the charges. "I don't care what happened to you. Drop the charges against Raymond Lei," he told her, then repeated his command in a subsequent conversation. "I want you to show them that, hey, we are all of the same group, you know, not outsiders."

But Lee did not drop the charges, and the arrest of Raymond Lei, combined with Lee's identification of the car from her previous beating, spelled the beginning of the end for the Wo Hop To. With the cooperation of other informants like Chol Soo Lee, Wayne Kwong, and numerous underlings, police gathered enough evidence to arrest the top officials involved with the organization.

When they appeared at Chong's door in October 1992, warrants in hand, however, police found an empty apartment. Apparently tipped off, "Uncle" had fled town just days before.

Chow was also missing when police came to his Beale Street town house, but they found his wife leaving the building with a pistol in her purse. Police discovered a champagne-colored Jaguar in the garage and $50,000 in cash stashed in the apartment. Chow, unlike his boss, was still in the country, and was soon arrested. In 1995, he was convicted on six counts of gun trafficking and sentenced to 24 years in prison. The federal government's attempt a year later to convict Chow and other reputed leaders of the Wo Hop To on racketeering charges ended in a mistrial. U.S. Attorney William Schaefer decided to postpone retrying the case until Chong could be returned to the country.

Virtually all of the 19 individuals named in the original indictments either pleaded guilty or were convicted on at least some of the charges brought against them.

But not Peter Chong.

To its credit, the U.S. government has persisted against long odds in its pursuit of Chong. The fugitive was arrested shortly after he fled the United States, but two months later, Hong Kong officials released him, stating that the Justice Department had failed to provide adequate evidence that Chong was, as the U.S. government claimed, leader of the Wo Hop To crime syndicate. But in 1995, the United States returned with an amended indictment containing new and stronger evidence. This time Hong Kong complied with the request for extradition. Chong, however, remained missing until 1998, when he was arrested in a Hong Kong airport coming in from Taiwan.

While in custody, Chong appealed the extradition, first claiming he would not receive a fair trial in America on account of his race. When that failed, he claimed that Hong Kong, turned over to the People's Republic of China in 1997, was not a sovereign nation and had no right to extradite him. But that failed too, and last month, U.S. marshals escorted Chong back to this country to stand trial.

"We're obviously grateful Hong Kong decided to do this," says U.S. Attorney Schaefer.

Sgt. Foley says the streets grew quieter after the collapse of the Wo Hop To. Aside from a few isolated incidents, "the open violence stopped. There were no more shootings in broad daylight."

But gang activity has continued in Chinatown, with a group calling themselves the Jackson Street Boys. The three brothers who lead the gang, Bobby, Johnny, and Tommy Tsan, began their careers years ago with the Wah Ching, then defected to the Wo Hop To when Chong came to town. The Tsans were among the shooting victims outside the Purple Onion, and later, Bobby Tsan was arrested with Peter Chong for gambling in Portsmouth Square. But the Tsans were never charged when law enforcement swooped down on the Wo Hop To, and since then, they have picked up where their former organization left off, shaking down local merchants and running small-time gambling dens, police and recent gambling and extortion indictments allege.

"It's the same stuff on a smaller scale and without the same visibility," Foley says, "which is a benefit to the community because it's less likely young people will join the gang. The community has really benefited without all these gangsters hanging around."

In March, the U.S. Attorney's Office charged 19 individuals associated with the Jackson Street Boys, including the Tsan brothers, for alleged crimes connected with gambling dens and extortion. Though Foley would not comment on the indictments, law enforcement officials say the arrests were made in an attempt to persuade more people to testify against Chong upon his return.

Chong has appeared in court twice over the past few weeks, represented by attorney Maureen Kallins, who also defended Chow a few years ago in the racketeering case that ended in a mistrial. In her closing arguments of that case, Kallins said Chong was the one the government should be going after, not Chow. She now finds herself in the sticky situation of representing the same man she blamed in a previous trial.

Kallins now argues that the government's case is based on the unreliable testimony of lowlifes who have pleaded guilty to "sweetheart deals," adding in a written argument to Magistrate Wayne Brazil that the government's star witness and "resident psychopath is an admitted gangster, arsonist and witness for hire."

About The Author

Matt Isaacs

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