But it had come at a price. By raising the stakes so dramatically, he attracted attention and enemies. Not long after his arrest in Dallas, a brutal gang war engulfed Vancouver, and the violence continues to reverberate to this day. A murder trial, in which Roueche is named as an unindicted co-conspirator, is expected to begin later this year.
"There's no doubt Clay Roueche changed Vancouver," says Ian Mulgrew, author of Bud Inc.: Inside Canada's Marijuana Industry. "Before, it was this hippie-dippie place. But the level of violence and the way people started to look at drugs and policing changed. He ushered in a new era."
The Fraser Valley, where Clay Roueche grew up, lies an hour outside Vancouver, not far from the U.S. border. Like the rest of British Columbia, it has a wild libertarian streak, which only increases as you head into the untamed reaches of the province, where glaciers slough into crystal-blue mountain lakes and the air carries with it the smell of freshly cut timber.
Like a lot of guys in the province without college degrees, Roueche's father worked in mining, but by the time Roueche came along, many of those jobs were gone, and a new underground economy had begun to take root in bluecollar British Columbia. "Everybody was in the business," says Roueche's sister Sherry, one of his two siblings. 'You'd see people driving nice trucks, and you knew where it came from."
Guys like Roueche rarely got out of Chilliwack, the Fraser Valley town where he was raised. He'd spent his school years jumping off railroad trestles into the Vedder River, crashing cars into trees and stealing expensive wine from rich kids. He had simple tastes – bonfires down by the river with his friends, joy rides in his dad's '67 Camaro, the thrill of sneaking into bars with a fake ID he'd made himself. "Clay was a popular guy growing up," says his sister. "But he didn't have any big plans to, like, take over the world or anything."
After high school he went to work for his dad crushing cars for the family-owned wrecking business. Roueche hated the work. "If we went out to eat after work, he'd sometimes refuse to get out of the car," his dad, Rip, recalls, "because he wouldn't go into a restaurant looking dirty."
Roueche yearned for something more than the life of a scrap-metal dealer, and when he quit the business, his father couldn't contain his anger. "Go see what's out there for you, then," Rip had said to his son. "I loved my family, don't get me wrong, and we were close," Roueche says, "but you want to improve upon where you started." He'd discovered karate in elementary school through a friend and became infatuated with Bruce Lee. He began taking tae kwon do lessons and got his mom, Shirley, to build him a dojo in his basement, where he memorized the moves that would make him a provincial champ. He even practiced at his dad's wrecking yard, once getting his foot stuck in a windshield he'd just broken with a "sliding side kick."
In high school, Roueche started hanging out on Countess Street in nearby Abbotsford, the heart of the Vietnamese and Laotian communities, with kids he'd met from Thai boxing. He loved the fortunetellers he'd find there, grainy bootlegged kung-fu movies and Vietnamese girls. As strange as it was to say, he felt Asian, drawn to a world completely different from the one he'd grown up in. Roueche even came to believe that he was a reincarnated samurai. "Clay was never white," says a Korean friend. "Maybe he was born white, but his soul was never white."
He graduated from high school in 1993 and was soon introduced to a legendary Vietnamese underworld figure named Vu, who had connections to the city's Asian organized-crime syndicate, known as the Triads. Vu was a few years older than Roueche, but the two hit it off. "He was the type of guy who did what he said he'd do, and I respected that," Roueche says. "He wasn't a paper tiger." Roueche began to see Vu as his dai lo, a Chinese word for "big brother."
Soon police were spotting Roueche in illegal gambling shacks downtown, partying with known Triads. Unlike Roueche's father, Vu seemed to understand his ambitions and how to make them a reality. Vu talked about Buddhism, which Roueche had already been dabbling with, and he became fascinated with a concept called kaizen, or continual improvement. Roueche liked the idea and the possibility that he could reinvent himself, even if it meant casting off something as core to his identity as race.
Roueche soon teamed up with Vu to get into the dope game. Vu had a plan. Some of the white guys Roueche had gone to high school with were weekend-warrior types who liked cocaine, which Vu could score. He'd get someone to front Roueche a few ounces and see how things went. At first, Roueche just sold to his friends, but before long, word spread, and he was making $1,000 a day.
One afternoon, when Roueche stopped by a stash house in Abbotsford, police grabbed him as he walked in. He had so far avoided any run-ins with the cops. As they frisked him, one of the cops noticed a tattoo of Chinese characters on Roueche's neck. He had gotten it a few months earlier with the tight-knit crew he had been running with as a sort of testament to their bond. "It means 'blood brothers forever,'" Roueche told the cops.
Luckily for Roueche, the stash house was clean and the cops couldn't book him. "I was surprised at how cool Clay was," says Abbotsford Detective Andrew Wooding. "Most kids, the first time dealing with cops, they'll get rattled. But he didn't. He just said he didn't know anything."
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