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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On a Friday, this is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm David Greene. The conviction this week of the 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. He was sentenced in federal court yesterday to 20 years in prison for drug and money laundering charges. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang explains what made Willis such an unusual criminal.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: There are a lot of things that make this a weird case. Let's start with the name on prosecutor Tim Moran's binder of court documents.

I see you have a binder here, and it's labeled White Devil?

TIM MORAN: Yes. That's what we named this operation. It's named after the lead defendant in this drug conspiracy case, John Willis, also known as Bac Guai John, which is Chinese for White Devil John.

WANG: The man known as White Devil John was born into a white family. According to his defense attorney, John Willis lost both his mother and older brother as a teenager. He was homeless until a local Chinese family took him in as one of their own. They taught him how to speak Chinese and Vietnamese, language skills that helped a white man open doors not only to Chinatown's immigrant enclave, but also to its criminal underworld. Supervisory FBI agent Scott O'Donnell headed the investigation.

How often do you come across a guy like this?

SCOTT O'DONNELL: I have never seen that before.

RICHARD SOOHOO: Oh, Chinatown is always a mystery.

WANG: To try to understand the mystery of John Willis, I turned to Richard SooHoo. He was born and raised in Boston's Chinatown. An insurance agent by trade but by habit, more like a local mayor or a fixer, who seems to know almost everyone and everything about this neighborhood.

SOOHOO: Chinatown itself is very seldom understood only because they don't hang their laundry out to wash. You know, not all crimes are reported.

WANG: Richard SooHoo introduced me to an underside of Chinatown, right down a set of cement stairs, underneath a gift shop and into a smoke-filled basement. Retirees and off-duty restaurant workers huddled around square mahjong tables. SooHoo shuffled some old mahjong tiles as I chatted up a couple of old-timers.

They wouldn't go on the record with their full names, but they said yes, they know John Willis. They know him an enforcer of what was one of the most fearsome Boston Chinatown gangs of the 1980s and early '90s. That's right around the time John Willis was first arrested for violent crime. Prosecutor Tim Moran says in 2010, a wiretapped phone call recorded Willis talking to a brothel operator who wanted to avenge an injured employee.

MORAN: And John Willis was the man who was going to go out and find those other men and beat them up.

WANG: In court yesterday at his sentencing hearing, Willis looked every part the effective enforcer. At age 42, he's baby-faced but with heavily muscled arms. Tattooed on his left arm, Chinese characters for strength and righteousness, his adopted culture inked right on his sleeve. Willis' ability to straddle different worlds is unusual in a criminal, says prosecutor Tim Moran.

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.

WANG: In court, Moran detailed how Willis - from Florida to Massachusetts - distributed hundreds of thousands of oxycodone pills, an addictive prescription pain killer. Willis's sentencing yesterday came after he pleaded guilty to charges of drug trafficking and money laundering in March. Moran hopes other illegal oxycodone dealers will learn from John Willis' example.

Of course, this example is not your average crime story. Willis upends the stereotype that mafia-like activity only stays within the same ethnic family, says Jim Goldman. He was a Boston-based gang investigator for what used to be known as the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

JIM GOLDMAN: I think if the opportunity presents itself and somebody can make an illegal dollar, I don't really think anybody cares what your ethnic background is.

WANG: Let's face it - money talks, and in this case, Hollywood is already listening. Warner Brothers is now working on a movie inspired by the life of John Willis. It's called - what else - "White Devil." Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Boston.

GREENE: And Hansi covers race, ethnicity and culture for NPR's Code Switch team.

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