THE CASE FILES OF ALFONSO SWANSON

NEWGRACENEWS.COM - justice for all part two

by Shawn Erickson

A week after we had visited the local street gang, and learned of the potential involvement of the gang called Tau Alpha in Veronique’s killing, Special Agent Garry Hamlin of FBI’s field office in Columbia stopped by for a visit.We were hard pressed not to accept their help.  After learning Veronique’s name, we ran it through local law enforcement and public databases, but came up blank.  There was nothing on her, in South Carolina or Virginia.  No driver’s license or government issued ID, no arrest, not even a speeding ticket.  We were nowhere closer to finding her killer.

Special Agent Hamlin looked like a prototypical FBI agent — tall, handsome, clean cut and very somber.  We sat down in a conference room, and he wisely declined the offer of a cup of stationhouse coffee.  He started off by reminding us that everything he was about to tell us was classified, as it pertained to an ongoing Bureau investigation.  He was willing to share it with us because of Johnny’s great service to the Bureau and the State of New York, and also because they understood we could be of some help.  They were fully committed to assisting with the murder investigation and having the perpetrator arrested, so long as it did not jeopardize any ongoing investigation or prosecution of the gang he was affiliated with.  I knew that meant delay after delay, as those investigations typically took years.  But I soon forgot my misgivings, as Special Agent Hamlin proceeded to tell us a most extraordinary story.

Veronique Wang had arrived in the US some six months before, along with 45 other people tightly packed into a shipping container.  As the freighter pulled into Newport News and the container was unloaded, US Customs authorities were waiting to inspect the cargo.  The container was opened, and out came a large group of confused Chinese nationals, who appeared to have been smuggled illegally into the country.  Agents of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency were called, and the same evening the immigrants were taken to a holding facility, pending deportation proceedings.

That’s when the story took an unexpected turn.  Each immigrant was carrying a valid passport, and not long after having arrived at the detention facility, an attorney showed up with work visas exactly matching the names of each person who had been found in the container.  As the customs agents scratched their collective heads, the attorney calmly explained that the immigrants had elected to travel economy class, but because of the ship captain’s incompetence, the people had not been properly taken through immigration upon their arrival.

As all Chinese nationals had a passport and a valid visa, there were no legal grounds for detaining them, and they were put on a bus conveniently provided by the attorney.  They disappeared into the night, never to be seen or heard from again.  That is, until one of them was found dead in a back alley in downtown New Grace.

Johnny and I looked at each other, and then back at the agent.  “So it was all legal?” we asked.  Special Agent Hamlin immediately shook his head, and explained that the customs people had no legal ground to detain the immigrants, because the work visas were valid.  However, the Bureau believed there was no legitimate job waiting for these people, and the visas were only used when a shipment of people got caught in customs.  The FBI also believed the passports were very good counterfeit products, and for each new shipment of people, new passports were produced with names that matched the names on the visas.

Johnny was still confused, and asked the agent why they went through this elaborate process.  In China, people were cheap; in fact people were much cheaper than counterfeit passports.  Why would the smugglers not simply sacrifice a shipment of people once in a while?  The agent just shook his head and told us he did not know.  Neither did I, but I had a feeling it was connected to why Veronique had to be killed after she escaped.

Special Agent Hamlin left us with a thick binder full of information on the Tau Alpha street gang.  It was labeled CONFIDENTIAL in big red letters, something he reminded us of a couple of times before he left.  He told us to call him with any new information we developed, and I agreed on two conditions:

First, that Johnny and I would be allowed to be present when they took down the perpetrator.

Second, to the extent the FBI had only lesser offenses to pin on the gentleman in question, he was first going to New Grace to be tried for the murder, before being returned and tried for the remaining crimes in Federal court.  Special Agent Hamlin looked at us and told us that he’d see what he could do.  If he wanted the information, he had to do better than that.

Johnny and I spent the next few weeks going over the binder trying to find information that fit into the death of Veronique Wang.  At first it didn’t.  But then Johnny came through for us, big time.

The larger Asian street gang in New Grace was affiliated with Tau Alpha.  One of its up-and-coming members got arrested one Saturday night, after having assaulted two men from the rival gang with a knife, but ending up gravely wounding himself in the process.  To add insult to self-inflicted knife injury, he had in his possession enough drugs to send him away for a significant time on an intent to distribute charge.

As soon as Johnny learned of the identity of the gang member, he departed for the hospital to sit at the young man’s side as he recovered.  The man was none other than Jaw-long Zhu, the son of the leader of the street gang, and the heir-apparent to the throne.  As a future leader, Jaw-long had taken on increasingly dangerous missions, culminating with the one that nearly got him killed.  He had been scheduled to spend some time in Baltimore, working for the upper echelons of Tau Alpha, doing their dangerous dirty work.  That’s how he would earn his stripes, and come back a strong leader, scarred in the battlefield.  If he survived.

But as it turned out, Jaw-long was fed up with living the life of violence and crime, and did not want to spend the next few years living on the edge as an enforcer of Tau Alpha.  Hence the botched assault, and the knife wound that nearly killed him.  Or perhaps saved his life.

Encouraged by promises of reduced charges and sentences in exchange for information, Jaw-long gave up the goods on his gang.  Specifically, he told Johnny how a few months before, they had received a message with a picture of a young woman, along with instructions to kill her or to inform the closest Tau Alpha chapter, should she appear.  Jaw-long then told Johnny about the new Chinese street walker who appeared fresh off a truck, and the man who came down from Richmond to visit his father shortly after.  Johnny brought the FBI binder to the hospital, and in ten minutes had a positive identification of the man.  I could not help but being impressed.

Johnny and I called Special Agent Hamlin and asked if he had any thoughts on the deal we proposed, as we had new information to share.  The G-man grudgingly agreed to the terms, and we gave him the name of the enforcer who we suspected had killed Veronique.  Hamlin hit a few keys on his keyboard, and then confirmed that the FBI had a file on the man.  He promised we would receive an appropriately redacted version shortly.

After a week, the file arrived in the mail.  It contained the criminal biography of the suspect Feng Xiao; an impressive list of crimes from assault to property crimes to drugs and gang-related activities, all committed in the greater Richmond area.  He had served time, but never anything major, though he was a suspect in the killing of a Chinese immigrant the year before.  I asked Johnny to find out what he could about that crime, as it was the closest we had to the circumstances of Veronique’s murder.

Johnny got the file from our local colleagues in Richmond, and the same afternoon we sat down to review the gruesome details.  The undocumented immigrant was found dead, floting in Richmond’s harbor, gutted like a fish.  Quite literally.  There was circumstantial evidence tying Feng Xiao to the crime, and he was arrested but never prosecuted for the murder.  As it turned out, the medical examiner concluded that the victim had died from a heroin overdose before being gutted, and there was simply no evidence of Feng Xiao’s involvement in his death.

That’s when all the pieces of the puzzle came together for me … the circumstances of Veronique’s arrival in the country, even the necessity to kill her when she ran away.  I told Johnny what I suspected, and he bought into it.  We then called Special Agent Hamlin back, and as always he promised to get back to us.  It didn’t take long.

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Three weeks later Johnny and I were sitting in an unmarked FBI vehicle, trailing a safe distance behind a bus full of illegal Chinese immigrants that had been apprehended by US Customs, and then bailed out by a lawyer carrying valid work visas, much like when Veronique arrived in the country.  We had waited for an opportunity like this, because we knew the people on that bus had value beyond any ordinary laborer from China.  And now we would get proof.

Through the headpiece I learned that the bus had arrived at a warehouse in Richmond harbor, its cargo led inside.  There were guards stationed at the door and around the premise.  But an hour later they had mostly surrendered to the the FBI Hostage Rescue Team that descended on the building, backed up by local SWAT teams and marked patrol units.  A brief firefight ensued as the HRT team entered the building.  The final score was two hostile, zero friendly casualties, and approximately twenty-five hostiles taken into custody.  It was a good night’s work, in other words.

A little later Johnny and I were escorted into the building.  We stopped right after entering, as the scene was as absurd as it was obvious.  We were looking at a collection of some fifty Porta-Potties, each occupied by a Chinese immigrant clutching a bottle of water.  Special Agent Hamlin told us, not without a streak of humor in his voice, that for each poor immigrant on the throne, there was an empty bottle of liquid laxative onboard the bus. The evidence was on its way, and it would not be a pretty sight to behold.

After I read about the gutted man floating in the Richmond harbor, I recalled a similar crime committed many years before.  In that case, the so-called mule was smuggling diamonds that he had swallowed.  He had tried to escape from his employers after clearing customs, but was caught and gutted so that the precious contraband could be retrieved.  I realized a similar fate must have befallen the man in Richmond’s harbor.  But instead of having tried to escape, that man had the misfortune of having one of the heroin-containing bags break.  After the man’s brief high and quicker goodbye, Feng Xiao, or one of his henchmen, recovered the rest of the cargo though a crude, surgical procedure.

Thus, what made each illegal Chinese immigrant worthy of a false passport and corresponding work visa, were the bags of heroin they had been forced to swallow onboard the ship right before arriving in the US.  Depending on individual circumstances, they had some 24-48 hours from that point to make it to the Porta-Potty equipped warehouse, before the evidence would start to appear.  Hence the pre-approved visas that could be used on a moment’s notice if a flock of mules got caught in customs.

Veronique was not sold on the black market like most of other illegal immigrants, but was retained as a prostitute by the Tau Alpha gang.  Somehow she managed to collect enough information on their procedures and secrets, and at some point knew so much that she would never be let out alive.  She still managed to escape Richmond and made it all the way down to New Grace, SC, where her past caught up with her.

Speaking of her past, Special Agent Hamlin led me to a body surrounded by crime scene tape, laying close to the back door.  He stepped inside the tape and motioned me to follow.  The man was shot several times, but I had no problem recognizing Feng Xiao, the suspect in Veronique’s killing.  Hamlin indicated a large knife that Feng Xiao had strapped to his leg, and I was certain a forensic scientist would be able to link it to the wounds on Veronique’s throat.

As I kneeled beside Feng Xiao, I reflected on the early morning six months before, when I had kneeled next to another dead body, making a promise that I would find her killer.  No such promise was made tonight, as I already knew who killed Feng Xiao.  I also knew he was not a victim worthy of our time or concern.  And that he had already received all the justice he deserved.

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