Jane Collins for NPR
John Willis, also known as "White Devil John" in Cantonese, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for money laundering and drug charges.
John Willis, also known as "White Devil John" in Cantonese, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for money laundering and drug charges. Jane Collins for NPR
The conviction this week of mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger put an end to one of Boston's highest-profile crime sagas.
Less well-known, though, is the case of John Willis, a white man from Dorchester, Mass., who was sentenced in federal court on Thursday to 20 years in prison for drug trafficking and money laundering.
Willis masterminded an organized crime group that distributed and sold hundreds of thousands of oxycodone pills, according to prosecutors.
What made Willis such an unusual criminal, however, was his unlikely rise as a white man through the criminal underworld of Boston's Chinatown.
Doors Opened For The 'White Devil'
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Moran has a binder of court documents with a label "White Devil," named after Willis' Cantonese nickname, "Bac Guai John" — "White Devil John." ("Bac guai" is often used as a pejorative term to describe white people in the Chinese dialect of Cantonese.)
The man known as White Devil John was born into a white family. Willis lost both his mother and older brother as a teenager, according to his defense attorney, Jeffrey Denner. He was homeless until a local Chinese family took him in as one of their own. They taught him to speak Chinese (both Cantonese and Toisanese dialects) and Vietnamese — language skills that helped a white man navigate Chinatown's immigrant enclave and gain access to its organized gangs.
Supervisory FBI agent Scott O'Donnell, who says he has "never seen" a criminal quite like Willis before, headed Boston FBI's Organized Crime Task Force's investigation into criminal activity in Chinatown that led to Willis' arrest in 2011.
"The fact that [Willis] could speak various languages and communicate with these folks opened doors up to him that weren't typically available for other criminals," O'Donnell says.
The Underside Of Boston's Chinatown
Richard Soo Hoo is a community leader who was born and raised in Boston's Chinatown. He's an insurance agent by trade, but by habit, he's more like a local mayor or a fixer who seems to know almost everyone and everything about this neighborhood.
"Chinatown itself is very seldom understood only because they don't hang their laundry out to wash. You know, not all crimes are reported," he explains.
Soo Hoo introduced me to an underside of Chinatown — right down a spiraling set of cement stairs, underneath a gift shop and into a smoke-filled basement, where retirees and off-duty restaurant workers huddled around square mah-jongg tables.
A couple of old-timers, who wouldn't go on the record with their full names, said they know John Willis as an enforcer of the Ping On Gang, one of the most fiercesome Boston Chinatown gangs of the 1980s and early '90s, when Willis was first arrested for violent crime.
Strength And Righteousness
The Ping On Gang is no longer active, prosecutors say, although Willis has maintained connections in the Asian crime world. In 2010, a wiretapped phone call recorded Willis talking to a brothel operator who wanted to avenge an injured employee.
"John Willis was the man who was going to go out and find those other men and beat them up," says Moran, who prosecuted the case against Willis.
In court at Thursday's sentencing hearing, Willis looked every part the effective enforcer. At age 42, he's baby-faced, but with heavily muscled arms. Tattooed onto his left arm are Chinese characters for strength and righteousness — signs of his adopted culture inked right on his sleeve.
Willis' ability to straddle different worlds is unusual in a criminal, says Moran. "A criminal who has this sort of ability and these connections to other areas of crime is more dangerous. That's what we mean by organized crime. It's the associations that make these types of criminals more dangerous," he explains.
Not Your Average Crime Story
During the sentencing hearing, Moran also detailed how Willis distributed oxycodone pills, an addictive prescription painkiller, through a wide network of associates from Florida to Massachusetts and laundered millions of dollars in profit.
Court documents describe Willis as "the kingpin, organizer and leader of a vast conspiracy" with details that "would sound like a Hollywood cliche if they were not true," complete with fast cars, luxury homes, firearms and a 38-foot speedboat. Thursday's sentencing came after he pleaded guilty to charges of drug trafficking and money laundering in March.
Moran hopes other illegal oxycodone dealers will learn from Willis' example. But, of course, this example is not your average crime story. Willis upends the stereotype that mafialike activity stays only within the same ethnic family, says Jim Goldman, a former Boston-based gang investigator for what used to be known as the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"If the opportunity presents itself and somebody can make an illegal dollar, I don't really think anybody cares what your ethnic background is," Goldman says.
In other words, money talks, and in the case of Willis, Hollywood is already listening. Warner Bros. is now working on a movie inspired by Willis' life, although Willis' defense attorney says he and his client have not been contacted about the project.
A Warner Bros. spokesperson declined to give details but did confirm that the studio has recruited James Gray, the filmmaker behind Russian mafia movies like Little Odessa and We Own the Night, to write and direct the film.
It's called (what else?) White Devil.