Young Chinese Immigrant Gave His Life for American Dream : Crime: He was shot to death in a robbery, allegedly by five youths looking for excitement. Waterbury, Conn., agonizes over incident.
They told Yeung Fai’s father that his son had been shot and would survive. Then, as hot summer night became hot summer morning, they told him his son was dead.
Yeung Fai was 21. Those charged with his murder are even younger.
In this western Connecticut city of 100,000, sustained by immigrants who came to work in the brass mills and stayed after the mills were gone, people shake their heads over the waste: a young Chinese immigrant murdered, and five local teen-agers--the oldest 18, the youngest 13--in custody.
“People are horrified to think something like that could happen,” said Waterbury Police Lt. Robert Segal. “The guy’s out there trying to make a living, grind out a week’s pay, and he’s got to fall victim to something like this. It’s sad.”
Banners flapping over the city’s two Main Streets--one running east and west, the other north and south--proclaim Waterbury “Renaissance City.” On East Main, where the Yeung family’s Kwok Hing restaurant is located, red bricks have replaced the concrete surface for several blocks, and old-fashioned streetlights line the sidewalk.
It could be any midsize community trying to bolster spirits in the midst of a recession, trying to persuade itself that it’s still the kind of place where people looking for a good life might find one.
Yeung Fai was one of those people, working long hours in the family’s restaurant, buying a car to attract girls and calling himself Mike because it was easier to say and because it sounded as American as he wanted to be. At 21, he was a man with a plan: a wife, a family and a restaurant of his own someday.
Five teen-agers had a plan too, and they invited their friends to watch them execute it. When Yeung showed up with food they had ordered, one would grab it from him. One would hold the gun. One would search him for money. One would lead them all through the nearby woods. One would steal his car.
“These kids with very low self-esteem would just follow a leader,” said Kelly Cronin, director of Waterbury Youth Services. “I just think it was kids in the same neighborhood led by an older youth with some power who said, ‘This is what’s going to happen.’ And everyone just went along with it.”
Their friends say they wanted free food and easy money, some excitement to relieve the boredom of a long hot summer, the thrill of getting something for nothing. Yeung Fai just wanted a future.
“He wanted to live the good life in America,” said Chris Lin, a close family friend working at the Yeungs’ restaurant. “He had a dream of a better life here. There’s nothing in China, so people come here for something more. More chances. More opportunity.”
Lunch hour still bustles at Kwok Hing, the restaurant purchased last year by Yeung’s father, Yeung Ping. He came from Foo Chow, China, about 20 years ago, owned restaurants in New Jersey and Georgia and brought his children over in 1984. Yeung Fai and two sisters often worked 12-hour days, cooking, taking orders and making deliveries.
“He didn’t have a chance to make many friends,” Lin said. “There wasn’t time for a social life. He worked hard all the time.”
Noon brings a steady stream of customers, many of them regulars, who wait on red vinyl chairs for orders that emerge in a matter of minutes. The hiss of cold vegetables hitting hot oil comes in quick bursts from the kitchen, and flames leap from steaming woks.
Yeung Ping leans over his stove, stirring shrimp and chicken with a deft hand and carefully filling containers with food to go.
Now, when it is time to make a delivery, he does it himself.
Yeung Fai was filling in for his sister Jen when he took $18 worth of food to a vacant apartment just after 10 p.m. on July 29. As he approached the address in a working-class eastside neighborhood, police say he was ordered to “Freeze!” He held onto the food, backed away and was turning as if to run when he was shot with a .22-caliber rifle. He died the next day.
“He didn’t offer any resistance. Why this kid pulled the trigger, I don’t know,” said Police Sgt. Sam Beamon, juvenile division commander. “They have people out here with Ph.D.s who can’t figure out why kids go wrong. They’re out looking for excuses--whether it’s a one-parent family, whether there’s domestic violence in the house, whether there’s child abuse.”
There were no excuses here. The kids weren’t privileged, but they weren’t poor, Beamon said. “It has absolutely nothing to do with economic factors. I’d say they wouldn’t have a reason for being emotionally deprived in any way. The only thing they took from him was the food. And they weren’t starving.”
The teen-agers fled, and several ate the food. Friends of the group said they heard boasts about the crime. Police said some kids who knew about what was about to go down had stayed to observe, but some of those who had been invited to watch said no one hung around.
The five were arrested within hours. They had been in trouble before, petty stuff, breaching the peace and fighting. Nothing really violent, as far as authorities knew.
Yeung Fai had been beaten the week before in the same neighborhood, his family said. And Gerrod Ellis, 17, who police believe shot Yeung, has now been charged with an earlier robbery of a pizza delivery person. Ellis; Vince Hancock, 17, and Linas Zelvis, 18, have been charged with felony murder and robbery in connection with the Yeung killing, as have a 14-year-old and 13-year-old whose names were not released because of their age.
The 13-year-old took the rifle from his parents’ gun collection, and returned it after the shooting, police said.
“We definitely feel that his death could have been avoided,” said Ann Marie Chan, Yeung’s cousin, who marched in a demonstration demanding justice in the case on the day of his funeral. His mother, who is still in China, was too ill to be told of Yeung’s death.
Residents still struggling to make sense of the crime bristle at the suggestion of racism, either in the crime or the investigation. They have been through some tough times, they say, but racial tensions aren’t high on their list of problems. They mourn Yeung Fai as one of their own, a hard-working dreamer who thought he could find what he wanted in Waterbury.
“Waterbury’s a place where people haven’t fled to the suburbs,” said Chris Scalzo, aide to Mayor Joseph Santopietro. “It’s a place where people still live, work and thrive inside the city limits. It’s remained that kind of place because of the quality of life here, and it’s a quality of life that isn’t riddled with violent crime.
“This was a senseless tragedy,” he said. “And that’s not a common occurrence in Waterbury.”