They called him "Bac Guai," or as the FBI translated it, White Devil. He was a kid who grew up in Dorchester, a hardscrabble Boston suburb, and played hockey like the other Irish Americans denizens and blue-collar workers who dominated the Charlestown and Southie locales. Boston is a town steeped in deep-rooted traditions, proud of its colonial history, sports teams, and even its crime legacy. But the man born John Willis, the "White Devil" who would become a crime boss for a sect of the Chinese Mafia, ended up loyal to a group of people far different from the Boston natives he grew up with.
Willis's father left by the time he was two and his mother passed just after he turned 15. He had some relatives around town, but they didn't take in the teenage orphan. Like any kid feeling hurt and alone, Willis looked for acceptance. When he didn't find it from his own people, he gravitated towards a community that did. Surprisingly enough, that group was a Chinese gang called Ping On.
From the mid-80s to the late aughts, Willis's rank grew within one of Boston's larger mob groups, starting as a loan collector and body guard before he became the trafficker behind a $4 million oxycodone ring (though the he's claimed it was "10 times that"). In 2011, he was sentenced to 20-years in prison for drug trafficking and money laundering. Scott O'Donnell, the FBI Agent whose task force eventually caught the White Devil, was quoted saying he had "never seen" a criminal quite like Willis , due to his high status within the Chinese mafia underground.
In early January, BenBella Books will release a book detailing the life and crimes of the Boston mobster titled, fittingly, White Devil. Written by Bob Halloran, a news and sports anchor at Channel 5, the ABC affiliate in Boston, White Devil chronicles Willis's rise in the mafia, including thoughts and anecdotes from the gangster himself. Though Halloran is better known for being a sports announcer who worked at ESPN, the award-winning journalist is no stranger to true crime. He's published Irish Thunder: The Hard Life and Times of Micky Ward , which was turned into the Mark Wahlberg movie, The Fighter, and Impact Statement: A Family's Fight for Justice Against Whitey Bulger, which Halloran wrote after meeting Steve Davis, whose sister was killed by the Boston gangster and his cronies. I called up Halloran to learn about his prison visits with John Willis, as well as how a Dorchester kid got into a Chinese gang and climbed the ladder to become the White Devil.
VICE: To start, how exactly did a white kid from Dorchester end up in a Chinese gang in Boston and New York?
Bob Halloran: A lot circumstance and fortuitous events. Willis got lucky in some respects. When he was 16, he lied and said he was 18 so he could work as a bouncer at a bar near Fenway Park. He was already into steroids and body building at the time, so he was a big kid. This was a bar where a lot of Asians would show up. One night there was a fight and he helped one of the Asians get out of a big jam and that guy—Woping Joe—gave him a card with a phone number on it. He said John should give him a call if he ever needed help.
And he ended up calling it, of course.
Right. One night John was particularly in dire straits—he was broke and sleeping on a dead family member's apartment floor—and he decided to call this number when he needed a lift, not knowing exactly what to expect. Suddenly a car showed up outside the phone booth he made the call, and six or seven Chinese guys got out and made room for him before driving him to a house filled with Chinese people, including mothers, children, and other guys in their gang, which was called Ping On at the time. This group controlled a large sector of Boston's illegal gambling dens and massage parlors from the 70s to the mid-80s when they met Willis.
He had dinner with them, and the next day they gave him clothes, started showing him the ropes, and welcomed him in. It sounds so simple, but he doesn't have a tremendous explanation for being accepted into the gang, except that he showed them respect and they showed him respect in kind. Over time, a bond was formed. He was basically trained up in the gang, starting by traveling up to New York to collect money from gambling dens and work as a bit of a bodyguard for a crime figure in New York.
Was there a language or cultural barrier Willis had to navigate?
When he was in New York, the gang used to go out to Chinese places and try to pick up girls. There were mostly Asians there, and one of his good friends that he was training with in the gang told him he needed to learn Chinese if he wanted to pick up women. He learned by paying attention during group conversations, as well as watching Chinese movies and listening to Chinese music. He became really fluent, including correct grammar and a spot-on accent. That was very important as he moved along with the gang, he had to deal with a lot of first generation Chinese that didn't speak much English.
He joined the gang as a kid, but why did they continue to accept him in the criminal underground once he got older?
He would semi-brag that he was the only white guy in a Chinese gang. At first, I took it with a grain of salt, but when I asked the FBI about it, they told me his position was extremely rare. The Chinese are very insulated. They do not trust outsiders and John was about as far outside as you can get. I think that the way he was brought in as kid, being an anomaly, led him to get ingrained over a long period of time. He also became a talking point because his boss thought it was interesting that this white kid could speak Chinese.
Most important, though, he was willing to do whatever it took, whatever was asked of him, and he succeeded in task after task. He was trustworthy and loyal. If he was introduced to the gang as a 28-year-old criminal, I don't think it would have gone as smoothly as it did being introduced to the gang as a 16-year-old wide-eyed kid. I think that helped him a lot and he was not a trailblazer because there weren't any white guys who followed him into this mob group. He was the only one.
He was an enforcer and collector at first, but how did he advance in the gang's hierarchy?
After training in New York in the early 90s, he was shipped back to Boston to work for a man named Bai Ming, who was not that high up on the list of gangsters in Boston's Chinatown at that time. He was probably sixth or seventh. But soon enough, the gang leaders in Boston were taken out of the picture, one by one. One escaped back to China, a couple of them killed each other, and suddenly Bai Ming was the number one guy in Chinatown and John is his right hand man. He was his bodyguard, the guy who checked the car in the morning for bombs, the guy who took him safely into restaurants and public places, plus the guy who collected money from the gambling dens for him.
He was the second in command of the Chinatown gangs because he was the assistant to the leader. When he went to New York and learned how to speak Chinese, he rose in the ranks because he could communicate, but also because he was bigger and stronger than everybody else, plus willing to do whatever dirty work was required.
How did he eventually get caught for the 20-year sentence he's serving in the feds?
In the early 90s, when he was very young, his boss Bai Ming ran mostly gambling dens and some prostitution rings, but was not into drug dealing. John went to jail at one point and came out with a few connections that got him involved in selling marijuana. Soon it became large quantities of marijuana, and then it became cocaine. John's boss told him not to do it. But he did it on his own, outside his crew, and started making a lot of money doing that. For a while, he kind of drifted away from strictly working for the Chinese gang, but he still maintained a strong connection there.
He did a couple of more stints in prison, and after the last one he came out with a connection in Florida that allowed him to get his hands on large amounts of Oxycotin. He started trafficking this from Florida to Massachusetts and selling in Cape Cod and the Boston area. There was a year-long investigation that started in Chinatown with a couple of other targets. John got associated with those targets, which led to his ultimate bust.
One of the first things that Willis pointed out is that gangsters kill gangsters and criminals kill criminals. He said that idiots killed civilians. — Bob Halloran
What was it like going into Federal Correctional Institution Cumberland in Maryland to interview John Willis for the book?
I interviewed him in a small room outside his prison cell. I spent seven hours with him over a two-day period. Though it may sound horrible to say, I grew to like him—or at least to understand him. He doesn't ask for forgiveness because he's not convinced that he did anything wrong. I don't know that I need to be the one forgiving him, but as he sat there telling his story from his own perspective, there was definitely reason to empathize with him, but also reason to dislike the way he went about his life. If you met him and didn't know his background, you would think there is a real smart, engaging, interesting guy that thinks things through, has varied interests, and reads a lot.
I didn't know what to expect because he has committed some violent crimes, and was a drug dealer for many years. I don't meet a lot of criminals, so I didn't know exactly how that was gonna go. Sitting down with him, he was extremely pleasant, almost docile. He never raises his voice and there's a semi whisper to his dialogue. I found him very interesting and captivating and he didn't intimidate me once we started talking. Even when I'd challenge him, he didn't get upset.
Do you remember what you talked about during the beginning of your meeting?
One of the first things that John pointed out is that gangsters kill gangsters and criminals kill criminals. He said that idiots killed civilians. I think he could have used a stronger word. What he meant was that when he was in the gang, they fought other gangs for turf and the rights to take money from this gambling den or that prostitution house. It was important to him that I knew he didn't hurt innocent people.
What humanizes him to you and how will you remember him?
We haven't talked at all about his wife and daughter. When I interviewed him, the real tears came when he talked about how much he missed them. It was stunning to me because I thought that he was cold, insensitive, and hard. I don't want to throw the world psychopath out there loosely, but he had no remorse or regret for the crimes that he committed. He lived in denial with those types of things. But when it came to love and relationships, he kind of lost it in front of me for a minute. That really stood out to me because it was in contradiction with every other facet of his personality, as well as his criminal history.
White Devil is on January 12 through BenBella Books.
Follow Seth on Twitter.