The public corruption and arms-trafficking allegations levied against state Sen. Leland Yee on Wednesday may have shocked some, but to those who have kept an eye on the criminal underworld of the San Francisco area, it came as little surprise that the most colorful figure in the indictment was a man authorities say is an ostentatious gangster known as “Shrimp Boy.”
Raymond Chow, who has been in and out of prison for his roles in the San Francisco Chinatown underworld since the mid-1970s, also identifies himself as the “dragon head” of a Freemason organization that was among several places raided early Wednesday by federal and local law enforcement officials. Also among them was Yee’s three-story home in San Francisco.
All told, 26 people were identified in the complaint as having violated federal statutes. They were accused of participating in a free-ranging criminal ring that dabbled in a spectrum of activity, including illegal marijuana “grows" and a scheme to transport stolen liquor to China.
Despite claims from Chow that he had turned from a life of crime to become a legitimate businessman and community volunteer, longtime observers of Chinatown’s underground crime world were not surprised to see him listed in the indictment. Federal authorities allege Chow maintains a position of “supreme authority” in the Triad, an international organized crime group.
“You could always count on one thing, that he was up to something no good,” said Ignatius Chinn, a former California Department of Justice agent who spent two years investigating Chow in the 1990s.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Chinn said Chow “was used to doing things his own way and getting things his own way.... He was always an organizer; he was always a person who was behind the scenes.”
After monitoring Chow closely with wiretaps, federal authorities charged him and 19 associates with racketeering-related crimes in 1992.
Chow faced 48 counts, including murder for hire, heroin trafficking, conspiracy, violent racketeering, debt-collecting and importing firearms.
He was convicted on gun charges and sentenced to more than 23 years in prison.
Chow was released in 2003, and has since promoted himself as a legitimate businessman.
He spoke to students about the perils of gangs, became active in community politics and talked openly with reporters about his past.
Born in Hong Kong in 1960, he came to the United States at 16. His grandmother, according to documents and law enforcement sources, gave him the nickname “Shrimp Boy,” in part because of his small stature.
In a 2012 story and video for ABC-7 News in San Francisco, Chow said, “I want to do something for the kids. I want to do something for the community. I want to do something for myself.”
But law enforcement monitored him closely and concluded that he was still associated with Asian gangs.
Asked if he believed Chow had gone straight in recent years, Chinn, the former investigator said, “One word would answer that – no.”
Times staff writer Joe Mozingo contributed to this report.