Six defendants who were slated on go on trial with Chinatown association leader Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow on organized-crime charges next month unexpectedly pleaded guilty in federal court in San Francisco today to some of the counts against them.
The pleas were accepted by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, who was scheduled to preside over the trial beginning Oct. 19 of Chow, the six defendants and one other defendant, Kongphet Chanthavong.
Chow, 55, an admitted former gang leader who claims he has turned his life around, is “dragonhead” or chief of the Chee Kung Tong fraternal association in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Prosecutors allege the civic group had a criminal faction, allegedly led by Chow, that engaged in drug trafficking, sales of stolen and contraband goods, extortion and money laundering.
The charges to which the six defendants pleaded guilty include money laundering, conspiring to receive and transport stolen liquor and cigarettes, illegal gun possession and marijuana distribution.
None pleaded guilty, however, to a central charge in which they and Chow are accused of conspiring to conduct a continuing criminal enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity.
Because the guilty pleas included no agreement with prosecutors for dismissal of remaining charges, the racketeering count is still pending against those defendants as well as Chow, and those defendants could still be included in the upcoming trial.
Lawyers for the six who pleaded guilty and for Chanthavong told the judge they will now ask him to sever their cases from Chow’s.
Breyer said that he will decide at another hearing on Tuesday whom to include in the upcoming trial, but he said the trial will definitely go ahead for Chow, whose lawyers have consistently said he wants to go to trial and will not consider a plea agreement.
“I think he should go to trial. We’ll see on Tuesday who’s going with him,” Breyer said.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin on Oct. 19 and opening statements on Nov. 2.
Chow and the other defendants were among 29 people who were charged last year in a wide-ranging indictment that also included a separate political corruption racketeering charge against former state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo.
In July, Yee and his fundraiser, former San Francisco school board president Keith Jackson, pleaded guilty before Breyer to engaging in a racketeering conspiracy to accept campaign contributions as bribes for political favors.
Jackson’s son, Brandon Jackson, and sports agent Marlon Sullivan pleaded guilty to the unrelated organized-crime racketeering conspiracy, the same charge that Chow and others now face.
Keith Jackson was also accused in the organized-crime racketeering count, but that charge was dropped as part of his plea agreement with prosecutors.
Another defendant, Daly City dentist Wilson Lim, who was accused of conspiring with Yee and Jackson in a never-completed international arms deal, died last year.
The most recent version of the indictment, issued by a federal grand jury in January of this year, contained 230 counts against the remaining 28 defendants.
Today’s guilty pleas, at a hearing scheduled for argument on pretrial motions, appeared to surprise lead prosecutor Ralph Frentzen.
“This is like waking up on Christmas morning with a true surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever taken so many pleas in a single day,” Frentzen told Breyer during the hearing.
Frentzen hinted that prosecutors may decide to dismiss the racketeering charge against some of those who pleaded guilty.
“The government may not find it in its interest to proceed against all defendants as to Count 1 (the organized-crime racketeering conspiracy),” he told Breyer.
But Frentzen said prosecutors would have to get approval from both Acting U.S. Attorney Brian Stretch in San Francisco and the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C., to dismiss that count.
George Nieh, 42, of Daly City, pleaded guilty to a total of 142 counts, including 130 counts of money laundering and charges concerning the trafficking of purportedly stolen liquor and cigarettes.
The supposedly stolen items and at least some of the money to be laundered were supplied by undercover agents working on the case.
Outside of court, Nieh’s attorney, Gilbert Eisenberg, said of the guilty plea, “It was in his interest to do so based on the evidence.”
Nieh said during his plea that he had conspired with Chow in the trafficking of the purportedly stolen liquor and contraband cigarettes.
The other defendants who pleaded guilty did not say they had worked with Chow in carrying out the crimes.
Curtis Briggs, one of Chow’s attorneys, called that a victory in comments after the court hearing.
“This is a huge victory for us because the government’s racketeering case has lost its credibility,” he said.
“The undercover agents after a long time managed to persuade some of the people around Raymond Chow to do bad things, but he had nothing to do with it. He didn’t conspire with them,” Briggs said.
Briggs said Nieh’s statements implicating Chow “may not have been well thought out.”
Leslie Yun, 47, of Oakland, pleaded guilty to five counts of money laundering, two counts of possessing marijuana with intent to distribute it and three counts of conspiring to distribute contraband cigarettes.
Her husband, Yat Wa Pau, also known as James Pau, 56, pleaded guilty to two counts concerning the cigarettes and admitted traveling to Flushing, N.Y., to inspect $173,000 worth of cigarette cartons in 2012 and $168,000 worth in 2013.
Kevin Siu, 32, of Daly City, pleaded guilty to eight counts and Alan Chiu, 62, of San Francisco, to 13 counts of money laundering.
Andy Li, 42, of South San Francisco, admitted to two counts of felony possession of a gun, two counts of dealing in firearms without a license, two counts of money laundering and one count of possessing marijuana with the intent to distribute it.
U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Abraham Simmons said prosecutors had no comment.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News