Friday, February 20, 2015
Last of the Chinese Godfathers? Mugshots: Frank Ma
Photographs provided by the Department of Justice and the F.B.I.
IT was 1994 — the Year of the Dog — and Frank Ma was in a quandary.
Mr. Ma, a 40-year-old crime boss, had just arranged the murder of his longtime heroin supplier, who, on his orders, had been gunned down in a Los Angeles parking lot. He had recently found a new supplier: Golo Keung, a member of the Big Circle Boys, one of Hong Kong’s largest criminal triads.
The quandary was this, according to court records: Mr. Keung, in classic gangster fashion, had been asking for a favor. He believed his partner in Toronto had been cheating him. He wanted the partner dead.
Mr. Ma, who had arrived in the United States a decade before from China, had pondered this request for several days, and in early May, witnesses said later, he summoned his lieutenants to his doorman building in Rego Park, Queens. Before talking shop, the half-dozen men played cards: Pick Two, one of the boss’s favorite games. Mr. Ma loved gambling, federal agents say: mah-jongg, casinos, almost any sports event. Wiretaps would later catch him wagering thousands on a basketball game he did not even seem to understand: he picked teams not by standings or statistics, but according to the color of their uniforms.
As the cards were dealt that day, Mr. Ma made an announcement. He was going to take the job for Mr. Keung. There was no way of knowing that the decision would result in two botched murders, an international investigation spanning 16 years, and his own arrest and prosecution. Its effects would ripple from central Queens to Canada to Northern California and back to Manhattan, where, only two months ago, Mr. Ma was sentenced to life in prison in what the authorities describe as the downfall of the last of New York’s Chinese gangsters.
That day around the card table in Rego Park, though, all of this was safely in the future. Mr. Ma asked an underling to secure two weapons for the job. For the hit itself, he planned to use a man from California.
That man, Ah Wah, was good. In fact, as one of Mr. Ma’s associates would later testify, he was Frank Ma’s “most helpful killer.”
Mr. Wah had once killed two men in a graveyard, federal agents say, forcing them to kneel in front of a headstone before putting bullets in their brains. His partner was a man named Luyen Nguyen; people called Mr. Nguyen “Psycho.”
Mr. Wah was from Vietnam and had pledged allegiance in the early 1990s to Mr. Ma, whom he referred to as his “dai lo,” or elder brother, according to the authorities. Mr. Wah’s associates included Paul Cai, another Vietnamese man, and William Nagatsuka, a felon from Japan. Together, they made quite a crew. According to courtroom testimony, the four immigrants killed, robbed brothels, broke into computer stores, stole cars, defrauded banks, illegally cloned cellphones and took people’s welfare checks.
Not long after Mr. Ma’s card game, court papers say, Mr. Wah invited Mr. Cai and Mr. Nagatsuka to his home in Monterey, Calif. Mr. Nagatsuka later testified that Mr. Wah said that Mr. Ma was looking for some “fresh faces” for a hit. Mr. Wah had already gone to Toronto to scout the location: the Seafood Alliance Corporation, a wholesale fish seller. He asked Mr. Nagatsuka to prepare supplies: ski masks, gloves, walkie-talkies. Mr. Nagatsuka’s roommate, referred to in the court file only as Simone, bought the walkie-talkies at a Costco in Alhambra, Calif. The four of them would split $30,000 for the job.
Days later, Mr. Wah, Mr. Nguyen, Mr. Cai and Mr. Nagatsuka flew to New York. Mr. Ma’s top lieutenant, Bing Yi Chen, met them at Kennedy Airport, court papers say, and, after they had eaten at a Chinese restaurant, took them to the boss’s home. There, they met two women, referred to in court papers as Christina and Salina, who, as Mr. Nagatsuka later said, would serve as their “tourist cover in Canada.” Expense money — $2,000 in a paper clip — was handed out.
They left Queens that night in a minivan and, hours later, checked into a small motel near Niagara Falls. The following day, July 19, they surveilled Seafood Alliance, a large, nondescript storefront in an industrial park, checking for cameras and security guards. They sent Christina and Salina shopping and promptly stole a Honda as a getaway car. They met two of Mr. Ma’s Canadian associates at a Baskin-Robbins to pick up two pistols. Back at the motel, court papers say, they cleaned the guns with WD-40 and discussed the next day’s plan: fake a robbery, tie up the victims, shoot them.
The men who became America’s first Chinese gangsters arrived here in the mid-1800s, mostly settling in San Francisco, where many worked for prospectors during the Gold Rush, or as laborers on the rapidly expanding transcontinental railroad. Faced with harsh conditions and anti-immigrant riots, they quickly formed social groups, called tongs, that offered protection from a hostile culture alongside basic services like credit unions.
For decades, the tongs, which also dabbled in gambling and prostitution, were mainly Cantonese, but in 1965, with the passage of a new federal immigration act, the scope and nature of Chinese immigration changed. One result was the arrival of a large number of alienated youths from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some of them were put to work by the tongs as muscle at clubhouses, gambling dens and brothels in California and New York.
It is impossible to know precisely how many men were involved in Chinese organized crime over the decades, experts say. But in just two years, 1990 and 1991, at the height of the gangsters’ power, federal agents in New York alone made 130 arrests, confiscated 200 pounds of heroin and seized $25 million in assets, including $15 million in cash, as well as homes, boats, apartment buildings, jewelry stores, even the Golden Palace restaurant, one of Chinatown’s biggest, which was used to launder money.
This was the world that Frank Ma eventually inherited after slipping into the country illegally in the 1980s, court papers say. Born in China as Sui Min Ma, he started his career in the Boston rackets, moved to San Francisco and, by the early 1990s, federal agents say, settled in New York. By that point, Manhattan’s Chinatown was owned by two main tongs, each one connected with a youth gang. The On Leong tong dominated Mott Street and was allied with the violent Ghost Shadows. The Hip Sing tong controlled Pell Street and ran the Flying Dragons, whose boss, Johnny Eng, had moved into the heroin trade when the Italian Mafia’s role decreased.
(Mr. Ma, now in a federal prison in Brooklyn, declined through his lawyer, Don Buchwald, to be interviewed.)
The government does not believe that Mr. Ma was ever formally associated with a tong, but he would have known the major players — like Clifford Wong, leader of the Tung On tong, or Paul Lai, president of the Tsung Tsin Association, who once served on an advisory panel for Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and even attended the wedding of the governor’s daughter. (Both men were eventually convicted on racketeering charges.)
Mr. Ma was instead a member of the 14K triad, federal agents say, a Hong Kong group founded more than 60 years ago by 14 leaders of the Kuomintang nationalist party. Based in Queens, he oversaw gambling parlors, a luxury car-theft ring, extortion rackets and an immigrant smuggling operation. By his own admission, though, his most profitable business was always heroin — and that, of course, was why he had sent his killers to Toronto.
In the morning, their getaway car was gone.
Perhaps someone had stolen it. The men, at any rate, had a backup plan. They had stolen license plates from another car, according to court papers, and they put these on the minivan they had driven from New York. They dropped the women at a park and drove past Seafood Alliance. In the afternoon, when the coast was clear, Mr. Wah pulled the van into a parking spot. Mr. Cai and Mr. Nguyen walked toward the door. It was locked, so Mr. Nguyen fired a few shots, shattering the glass. He stepped inside. Mr. Cai followed.
Waiting in the van, Mr. Nagatsuka heard more shots. Many, many more. Years later, at the murder trial of Bing Yi Chen, he testified as to what happened next:
Mr. Wah “started putting the minivan into reverse, started pulling away from the parking lot. Once we were driving away, we see Paul Cai and Luyen coming out, running fast. Along the way, Paul Cai disassembled his handgun, threw the handgun parts to an empty lot on the right side. We were following at a slow pace along with Luyen and Paul Cai. There was a Home Depot nearby. We went to the back of it. That’s where the plan was to meet, in the back of the Home Depot. Once we turned the corner to the Home Depot, we start hearing the siren.”
They found Christina and Salina and hurried the 80 miles back to Niagara Falls. The next day, they saw news coverage of the murders on TV: two bodies being carted off by the police. They returned to New York City and to Mr. Ma’s apartment. There, court papers say, they apologized to Mr. Chen.
They had escaped unscathed. But, on reading the morning papers, they realized they had killed the wrong two men.
Within hours, the case was assigned to Detective Sgt. Douglas Grady of the Toronto homicide squad.
It was a Wednesday, Detective Grady’s day off, and he was at home watching the Blue Jays on television. After six years on the job, he was accustomed to the untoward hours of police work and immediately left for the scene. He found Seafood Alliance’s glass door shot out and bullet casings strewn across the ground. “In my entire career,” he recalled in a recent interview, “I’d never seen so many shots fired at a scene.”
The victims were identified as Samson Yip, 32, a computer technician, whose body was found slumped against the wall, and Stephen Kwan, 36, an accountant, who was lying in a pool of his own blood. Detective Grady saw that both men had suffered “torture shots” to the leg and had been finished off with “coup-de-grâce shots” to the head. Mr. Kwan’s lunch — a hamburger and orange juice — still rested on his desk.
By the next morning, Detective Grady was working several leads. In a nearby parking lot, the police found a knapsack containing ski masks, walkie-talkies, a canister of WD-40, a Niagara Falls baseball cap and pieces from a 9-millimeter pistol. And in a neighborhood park, they recovered two guns and another ski mask and baseball cap.
Witnesses reported seeing a van leave the scene, but no one could identify the license plate. The guns turned out to be untraceable; the masks and clothes were tracked to the United States. Even the victims, Detective Grady said, were puzzling: college graduates with no criminal records. “There seemed to be no reason at all,” he said, “for these guys getting killed.”
One potential investigative path was the walkie-talkies. Detective Grady’s team quickly determined they had come from the Costco in Alhambra, Calif. But the list of people who had bought such radios ran into the dozens, if not the hundreds, he said. He could not — or would not — ask officials in Alhambra to track down every person on the list. Nor could he do it himself. “What? I’m going to ask my bosses to let me go to California? From Ontario? They’d think it was a scam,” he said.
The only other avenue was Seafood Alliance’s owner, David Seto, who, Detective Grady determined, had a reputation for sharp elbows and late payments. So his team investigated Mr. Seto’s finances and discovered that he lived a much more opulent life than importing shrimp or cod should probably allow. They interviewed his workers, competitors and suppliers, but it was not until they examined his investors that they found a startling clue: Mr. Seto had been in contact with a man named Golo Keung.
“Every time we interviewed him, he was nervous,” Detective Grady recalled of Mr. Seto. “He wasn’t forthright — he was dodging and weaving, as they say. He thought that somebody had tried to kill him, but he couldn’t say why or who. It just became clearer that he was the intended victim, that he was the reason these two men were dead.”
When Mr. Seto left the country in 1995, the case went cold. Months, then years, went by without another lead.
“We’d gone to Crime Stoppers,” Detective Grady said. “We’d gone to our informants in the Asian community. We dealt with the constabulary in Hong Kong. But we weren’t getting anywhere.
“There was nothing left as to who did this,” he said. “Or why.”
Eight years later, in 2002, Special Agent Bill McMurray of the New York office of the F.B.I.busted a drug ring connected to a Chinese triad called the Wo Lee Kwans. Cooperating witnesses in that case led to the arrest of a killer known as Psycho: Luyen Nguyen.
One day, as often happens in police work, Agent McMurray mentioned his triumph to a friend, Officer John Glenn of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Officer Glenn, it turned out, had once been assigned to Detective Grady’s homicide squad and had never forgotten the seafood murders. On a professional whim, Officer Glenn sent Agent McMurray the one outstanding, albeit long-shot, lead in the case: the list of people who bought those Costco walkie-talkies all those years ago.
The whim paid off. Agent McMurray recognized the name Simone, Mr. Nagatsuka’s former roommate. Psycho had mentioned him while being questioned.
Within a year, the case had broken open. Mr. Nagatsuka, already in custody on other charges, began to cooperate. Bing Yi Chen, Mr. Ma’s right hand, was arrested in Arizona in 2003 and eventually went to trial, where he was convicted of committing murder while engaged in a narcotics conspiracy. The authorities found Paul Cai in Los Angeles, and he pleaded guilty to similar charges. Ah Wah, who had fled to China, was returned by extradition in 2007 and pleaded guilty to racketeering and murder charges. He now awaits sentencing.
Frank Ma, who had also fled to China in 1996, was arrested in Boston after he slipped back into the country in mid-2003. His case took nearly as long to wind through the courts as it had to investigate. He pleaded guilty to murder and narcotics charges. Finally, in February, Judge Deborah A. Batts of Federal District Court in Manhattan handed downthe life sentence.
“He’d killed the wrong guys, and it caused a conflict with his supplier back in Hong Kong,” Agent McMurray said in an interview. “Before he left, Frank Ma was this mysterious godlike creature, but in China, on the run, he didn’t have the support to live the lifestyle he was used to. People owed him money in America. That’s why he came back.”
His downfall marked the passage of an era.
“Could there be another Ma-type guy still out there?” Agent McMurray asked. “The fact is our source base is so good that we’d probably be aware of his existence, even if we couldn’t make a case.
“Frank Ma was probably the last of the Chinese godfathers.”