White Devil Kingpin: How John Willis Became a Chinatown Overlord
Early one morning in Dorchester, Massachusetts, John Willis Junior gently lifted his girlfriend’s daughter, Mai Linn, from her sleep. Willis, a burly 39-year-old with close cropped gray hair and bright blue eyes, had been away in Florida and come back to celebrate her ninth birthday that weekend. His beautiful Vietnamese-American girlfriend, Anh Nguyen, suggested they bring Mai Linn to bed with them so she could wake up and see his face first thing.
As Willis lay there beside them, he appreciated how far he’d come. This was what he’d always wanted more than anything: a family and a sense of belonging, even if he had to find them in the most unconventional of ways. Willis was the most notorious gangster in Asian organized crime – and, even more remarkably, the first white man to rise so high in this insular underworld. He was once just another hockey-playing Catholic kid in this working-class Boston neighborhood. But now they knew him here as Bac Guai John. White Devil.
Starting in his teens, he muscled his way up through the ranks to become what U.S. Attorney Timothy E. Moran later called “the kingpin, organizer and leader of a vast conspiracy.” His business was oxycodone, the opioid known as pharmaceutical heroin. In less than two years, he trafficked over 260,000 pills up from Florida to the Northeast for profits of more than $4 million – though Willis puts the numbers at “10 times that.” And like so many drug lords before him, he blew his cash on oceanfront homes in South Florida, sports cars, strip clubs and speedboats, and was, according to Moran, “a very dangerous, violent man.”
This is why Mai Linn never had a chance to celebrate her birthday with Willis after all. Shortly after putting her to bed, there was a pounding downstairs at their front door. “Stay in the room, stay upstairs,” Willis told Nguyen and her little girl. “I love you. It’s OK. Don’t come out!” Shutting the door behind him, he ran down the steps to find dozens of armed cops in helmets and bulletproof vests.
Three years later, he’s sitting in prison khakis across from me in a small room at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland, where he recently started serving a 20-year sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering. Armed guards patrol watchfully nearby. In person, Willis is cautious but respectful as he shares his story publicly for the first time, but he’s an intimidating presence nonetheless. On his left arm is a tattoo of a dragon, for strength; a koi, for prosperity; and, on his elbow, the Chinese characters tong fu, for pain.
“My life’s been pain,” he tells me in his thick Boston accent. “It hasn’t been easy. You might look at a guy who’s driving around in a Bentley and think that guy’s got the world by the balls. But you don’t know his mind, what he’s been through. I’ve struggled for everything that I did. Look at me now. I’m sitting in prison. It’s not as simple.”
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