Boston gang member John Willis, who also goes by “white devil” in Cantonese, will be sentenced for federal drug and money laundering charges on Aug. 15.
Willis emerged as an unlikely white member of one of Boston’s Chinatown Asian gangs after joining a Chinese family and learning to speak Cantonese as a child.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
This week began with the high-profile conviction of Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger, so we'll end the week with the story of another Boston criminal who's also got an interesting moniker. He's real name, John Willis. His Cantonese nickname is White Devil John. That's because Willis' white, but he had close ties with Asian organized crime in Boston. He was sentenced yesterday in federal court to 20 years in prison for money laundering and drug trafficking. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been following the case of John Willis, and he joins us in the studio. Hi, Hansi.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hi.
CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, tell us how did John Willis end up being involved with Boston's Chinatown gangs.
WANG: Well, it really started in his teenage years. John Willis is 42 now. But when he was a teenager, he lost his mother and his older brother. And they died and ended up - he ended up an orphan, homeless practically and had to kind of take care of himself and somehow or another ended up living with a Chinese family here in the Boston area, and through that learned how to speak Chinese, how to speak also Vietnamese and becoming more familiar with the Chinese culture.
And that's apparently was a very important key for him, that's according to Scott O'Donnell. He's a supervisory FBI agent in charge of this investigation.
SCOTT O'DONNELL: The fact that he could speak various languages and communicate with these folks opened doors up to him that weren't typically available for other criminals.
WANG: And O'Donnell also told me that he'd never seen a case like John Willis before, a white man having very, very close ties with the Asian organized crime scene. This was a very unusual case for him.
CHAKRABARTI: Unusual to say the least. You've spent some time in Boston's Chinatown in the course of reporting this story. What did people there say about John Willis?
WANG: It's hard to say the least to get a real sense of Chinatown. So I was looking for guides. And so one person I talked to after making lots of calls was a community leader. He name's Richard Soo Hoo. He's an insurance agent by trade, and he really wanted to kind of take me on a tour of Chinatown, walk me through the different streets, and because he said that Chinatown can really seem like a mystery to outsiders like me.
RICHARD SOO HOO: Chinatown is often very seldom understood only because they don't hang their laundry out to wash, you know, not all crimes are reported.
WANG: So he took me around, and he wanted to show me the kind of undersides of Chinatown. I've been to Boston Chinatown once before, and the second time walking around with Mr. Soo Hoo, I saw places that I had just kind of walked right by.
And there is this one spot, which was right underneath this kind of old, dingy gift shop. There's a store kind of towards the basement. We walked down some cement steps and ended up in this really smoke-filled basement. And it was full of mahjong tables and also retirees and just restaurant workers who were, you know, their day off or kind off duty. And Mr. Soo Hoo said, you know, these might be people who might know a little bit about Mr. Willis, John Willis, here.
And so we - he introduced me two of his friends, and they, in fact, did know of John Willis. And they told me that he was known as an enforcer for one of the most active Asian gangs in Chinatown, the Ping On gang. This was during the '80s and '90s, late '80s or early '90s.
CHAKRABARTI: Interesting. Now, in your reporting, you found that maybe while residents in Boston's Chinatown don't necessarily want to talk all that much about John Willis, what else did you see yesterday at Willis' sentencing hearing in Boston?
WANG: Well, it was - I would say what really was compelling was what I heard, which was a case put forth by both the prosecution and also the defense attorney - I mean, really trying to do - helped the judge decide what exactly is a fair sentence for John Willis. John Willis had already pleaded guilty to drug charges and money laundering charges back in March. And so yesterday's question was, you know, how long should he serve in prison? And ultimately, it was decided - the judge decided 20 years.
But before that decision came about, this is the first time I heard some back story of how John Willis became an orphan, how he ended up with the Chinese family and learning Chinese and Vietnamese and getting inroads into Chinatown, that Asian community and the Asian organized crime scene.
CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. And so, how has the organized crime scene in Boston's Chinatown changed?
WANG: You know, that's a topic that most of the Chinatown residents I talked to, especially the community leaders, are really happy to talk about because it's been a dramatic change. I bumped into one former gang member of the Ping On gang, which was that really active gang that John Willis had ties to. And he says basically that it doesn't exist anymore today.
CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Now, Hansi, you cover race, ethnicity and culture for NPR's Code Switch team. This is one of the first examples I have heard about code-switching in the criminal underworld. So tell me, how does the story of John Willis fit into your team's coverage?
WANG: Right, right. Well, let me - just in case anyone doesn't know what code-switching means,. Basically, it's the phenomenon where people who are bilingual or bicultural, they switch from one way of communicating to another because they have the facility to do that. And so because John Willis is able to code-switch, if you will, because of his language abilities, because he has these connections in different criminal worlds - you know, in Asian immigrant community, also in the more mainstream criminal underworlds, if you will - that made him that much more dangerous, that much harder to keep track of. He had that many more opportunities to do illegal business.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. Now, Hansi, let me ask you in all of your reporting, I've noticed that you've never once said that John Willis was a member of any of these Chinatown gangs, that he was associated with it or had connections to that criminal underworld. But you never said he's a member. Now why is that?
WANG: Well, because from what I've read and what I've - from my sources, they tell me he was not officially a member, if you will. He was very closely affiliated and he made very close ties. People knew of him. But in court documents, he's described as someone who followed a member of the Ping On gang and he served as an enforcer. And I think part of that reason, based on some of the residents in Chinatown what they told me, was that because ultimately to be part of specifically the Ping On gang, you have to be Chinese or at least of Asian descent. There are certain lines, I guess, you can't cross.
CHAKRABARTI: Hansi Lo Wang is with NPR's Code Switch team. He has been reporting on the fascinating story of John Willis, a white man from the Boston Metro area who formed unusual ties with Asian gangs in Boston's Chinatown. Hansi, thank you so much.
WANG: Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, code-switching criminals are just the tip of the iceberg of what we offer you on this program, so we'd love to hear your thoughts on anything you hear on HERE AND NOW. Go to our website, hereandnow.org, or on Facebook, facebook.com/hereandnowradio. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.