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‘Shrimp Boy’ Chow federal trial begins in Bay Area

Chow and Serra

J. Tony Serra, right, is defending Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, left, in his trial.

(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

The racketeering and murder-for-hire trial of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, dragonhead of Chinatown’s Ghee Kung Tong, opened in a  San Francisco federal courtroom Monday, with attorneys for both sides pressing a number of motions in advance of opening statements.

The trial, which could last until February, is expected to provide vastly differing versions of the multi-year federal investigation that led to Chow’s indictment, with prosecutors contending they snagged a big fish in the Chinatown criminal underworld and the defense hoping to show that the government’s undercover agents – particularly UCE 4599 – plied Chow with alcohol and spent millions to steer the criminal schemes that Chow is accused of -- conduct so “outrageous” that the case should be thrown out.

The defense filed a motion to that effect last week. But on Sunday, the U.S. Attorney countered with its own motions, claiming that since Chow is not asserting an entrapment defense, jurors should not be permitted to hear evidence of alleged “outrageous government misconduct.”  The matter, they assert, should instead be heard by U.S. District Court Judge Breyer outside the jurors’ presence.

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Breyer is expected to hear those competing motions later this morning.   

Federal prosecutors contend Chow, 55, who previously served time for racketeering and violent crimes, never reformed his ways after he turned government witness and was released early from prison in 2003.

“Operation Whitesuit,” named after the outfit Chow wore to the 2006 funeral  of his Ghee Kung Tong predecessor, Alan Leung, ultimately captured more than two dozen others in its widening net. Key among them was former state Sen. Leland Yee, who pleaded guilty last summer to accepting bribes in exchange for political favors, laundering campaign contributions and plotting to traffic in weapons.

Former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee were among the others captured on wiretap recordings in connection with the broad probe. Neither faced charges.

Half a dozen of Chow’s co-defendants pleaded guilty in September. Chow, however, has vowed to mount a vigorous defense. He faces dozens of counts of money laundering, trafficking in contraband cigarettes and stolen liquor and being part of a violent criminal organization. He also stands accused of arranging the killing of Leung, and conspiring to arrange the killing of another man, an alleged gang rival who was shot to death in Mendocino County along with his wife two years ago.  

Prosecutors added those counts just last month.

The defense motion filed Wednesday contends that the government reneged on a promise to place Chow in witness protection and secure him an S-Visa so he could legally work. Instead, they note, he was returned to Chinatown with an ankle monitor – forced to get by in the heart of enemy gang territory and surrounded by other unsavory members of the fraternal organization he would come to head.

The U.S. Attorney is seeking to exclude any testimony about the visa issue. If it is allowed in, prosecutors wrote in their motion filed Sunday, the government should be able to bring in evidence of why the visa was never granted.

“It would open the door to the admission of reporting by various sources and witnesses – including Allen Leung – to the FBI and to the San Francisco Police Department regarding Chow,” they wrote, not “for the truth of the reports themselves, but to explain the FBI’s determination that it could no longer support Chow’s S-Visa application in good faith.”

Leung, they wrote in their filing,  gave “repeated interviews” to the FBI contending that  Chow “was in the process of attempting to take over the Hop Sing Tong and the Chee Kung Tong and then subsequently that Chow was extorting Mr. Leung.”

Leung, shot to death in 2006,  “declined to wear a recording device against Chow out of fear for his safety,” they added. “Additionally, FBI was receiving other credible reports of Chow’s return to organized criminal activity and that Chow was surrounding himself with individuals who were involved in criminal activity.”

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Leung’s family was in the courtroom on Monday. The defense planned to argue a separate motion attempting to disqualify the witnesses who are being called to testify on the murder-related charges, saying they are unreliable and motivated to lie.  Two are among the Chow co-defendants who pleaded guilty in September. The defense contends they have been housed together in the same jail and have been seen engaged in discussions, which could indicate they are coordinating their testimony. The men are expected to testify that they heard Chow order the killings.

The defense is also seeking to exclude the testimony of a third man – an alleged Chow gang rival who is in prison – who is expected to testify that he drove two men to a meeting at Chow's house two days before the killing but didn't hear what was said. He is expected to testify that he then took those two men to Leung's business on the day of the killing, and later saw them disassemble their guns.

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For the record

11:40 a.m.: An earlier version of this post said that a third man would testify that he drove Chow and another man to Leung's place of business the night of the shooting, and then saw the men disassemble guns and toss them in the bay. Actually, the third man is expected to testify that he took two men, neither of them Chow, to a meeting at Chow's house two days before the killing.

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The trial is expected to be theatrical. The lead defense attorney is J. Tony Serra, 80, a highly regarded and eccentric criminal defense lawyer known for his threadbare suits, long flowing white hair, and federal tax evasion conviction.  The 1989 film "True Believer" starring James Woods was based on Serra. It was  based on an acquittal Serra won in a retrial of immigrant Chol Soo Lee, who had been convicted in connection with a 1973 San Francisco Chinatown gangland murder.

Twitter: @leeromney.

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