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.
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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.
John Willis and Anh Nguyen with Anh's daughter, Mai Linn. Courtesy of Anh Nguyen
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."
Don't be like your dad."
That's what Willis' mother, Francine, always told him. According to Willis, his father, John, was a hard-drinking carpenter who collected money for the Irish mob. But after getting his life threatened for breaking the jaw of one mobster, he left the family and headed back to his home state of North Carolina when John Jr. was three and never came back. "I just knew that I didn't want to be like my father because I didn't want to be a drunk," recalls Willis. "I didn't want to be abusive towards women."
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Though Willis wasn't told about his father's shady past or why he abandoned the family, he promised his mom, who struggled to support the family by working in a shoe store, that he'd never wind up like him. Growing up in a triple-decker in Dorchester, Willis fit right in with the neighborhood boys. Dorchester was a scrappy town, famous for producing gangster Whitey Bulger and, later, the Wahlbergs. While Willis's older half-brother Ritchie and half-sisters descended into drug abuse, Willis channeled his anger into hockey, playing goalie six hours a night and capitalizing on his hulking physique.
John as a young boy. Courtesy of John Willis
Though he never drank or did drugs, he had his dad's temper. When a kid stole his sneakers in middle school, Willis beat him with a chair and got sent to an alternative school for kids with bad behavior. After one of his niece's friends kicked him in the groin, Willis, then 14, spit at her, and Richard, 34, hit him, knocking him down the steps of their three-decker home. "I hope you die," Willis yelled at him.
Two days later, Richard dropped dead of a heart attack (which Willis now thinks was brought on by a coke binge). Willis' half-brother's death traumatized the vulnerable young boy, who blamed himself for cursing him. Willis didn't get a reprieve. The next year, his mother had her legs amputated from diabetes. Unable to maintain her job at Stride Rite, Willis skipped school to wheel her around the house and bathe her. She meant everything to him, and was all he had left. But one day the next year while Willis was off with his friends, his mother died suddenly of a blockage to her heart. Willis broke down when he got the news. His father. His brother. And now his beloved mother. Gone. Just like that, the 14-year-old was alone. "It was tough, I ain't gonna lie," Willis says. "You grow up, you become a man, in an hour."
The house was in his brother's name, so he could remain there, but he had no clue how to provide for himself. As far as social services knew, he was being taken care of by his half-sisters – but they were living elsewhere, lost in a haze of drugs. Willis would come back from school to an empty house and struggle to survive. It was the winter of 1985, and with no money for heat and no one to care for him, Willis slept under blankets in a chair in the kitchen, warmed by the open oven as his breath fogged in the frigid air. But as scared and alone as he felt, he'd rather suffer than take handouts.
John with his mother, Francine, at his sister's wedding. Courtesy of John Willis
He made sure no one would fuck with him either. He threw himself into weightlifting – and steroids. "He went from a chubby kid to a monster," his childhood friend Sean Gaudet tells me. But he fit right in with his boyhood crew. "He was a regular neighborhood kid," recalls another old friend, Brant Welty, "we all used to run around in the streets getting in trouble." Though Willis ate meals at friends' homes, he was too stubborn and proud to take many handouts, and would rather go hungry than beg. "I didn't want any help from anybody," he says. Welty helped Willis cash in on his size by getting him a job as a bouncer at a club, where the teens lied about their ages in order to work. Breaking up bar fights was a good way to get out his aggressions. "Johnny has a lot of rage," his cousin, Deborah Jelley, tells me. "He's never dealt with his mother's death, never dealt with the fact that his father left."
Sundays were Asian nights at the bar, and Willis was impressed by all the sharp-dressed young guys with spiky hair and brick-sized cell phones, along with their fashionable girlfriends. "They're gangsters," his boss warned him, "whatever happens, stay out of their business." But one night when Willis saw a guy whom he says looked liked "a Chinese Rod Stewart" get maced by a big Korean, Willis punched the attacker and pulled the victim away, rushing him back to the bathroom and flushing out his eyes.
When Willis turned around, there were four of the guy's friends staring him down suspiciously. For all they knew, Willis had attacked their buddy. But just as they were about to retaliate against Willis, the man barked at them in Chinese. On his way out, the young gangster, Vapeng Joe, or John Joe for short, handed Willis a card. "Here's my number," he said, "if you ever need something, call me."
John in his late teens. Courtesy of John Willis
A few days later, Willis was down to his last 76 cents, having spent his meager earnings on food. He trudged through the snow to the home of his half-sister. But she refused to answer the bell, and slipped a piece of paper under the door telling him he to go away. "I didn't understand it at the time, I was a kid," Willis recalls. "She was probably getting high." Too broke to afford a cab home, he called the one person he could think of who had a car, John Joe. "Hey, white boy!" John Joe answered. When Willis told him he needed help, John Joe didn't hesitate. "OK," he said, "where are you?"
Five minutes later, two BMWs pulled up with young Asian guys in stylish suits with spiky haircuts inside. "Are you John?" One asked.
"OK, come with us."
Willis checked for a familiar face. "Where's John Joe?" He said.
"Don't worry, we're gonna go see him."
With nothing to lose, Willis got inside, and they took him to a big house in South Boston. The many rooms inside overflowed like an Asian gangster frat full of young toughs and their girlfriends. "I see all these guys with different tattoos, crazy haircuts, guns, all kinds of shit," Willis recalls. "I'm like, what the fuck am I doin'?" But John Joe welcomed him inside.
They gave him a plate of hot noodles. When they saw him struggling to eat with chopsticks, the gang members handed him a fork. They told him John Joe had said to "Stay here." As foreign as this new world seemed – the indecipherable language, the clouds of cigarette smoke, the Chinese gangster movies on TV — Willis didn't hesitate to agree. It was warm in the house and the crew was treating him like family. He needed a home, even if it was just for one night.
The next day, Willis was the only white guy among the young Asian gangsters at a small Vietnamese restaurant near the paifang gate in the heart of Boston's Chinatown. The neighborhood of noodle shops and fish markets was among the densest in the city, with more than 6,000 people living in less than one-fifth of a square mile.
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John Joe and the others were part of the gang, Ping On, that ruled the area's illicit gambling dens and massage parlors. The group had been in power since the 1970s, when its notorious founder, Stephen "Sky Dragon" Tse, immigrated from China. Sky Dragon had deep and storied roots. Back in China, he was a leader in the 14K Triad, a faction of the country's organized crime underworld, with roots to the 17th Century. Tse came to America to make Boston a new stronghold, recruiting local immigrants and schooling them in the gang's maxims of familial loyalty and ruthless enforcement.
Ping On provided protection for local merchants, who let them eat and drink for free in exchange. Tse ran his prostitution and loan-sharking rackets out of a Chinese restaurant he managed in town as a front. The gang cracked down hard on debtors, roughing them up if they didn't pay their bills. But they also stood by their own. When Sky Dragon was called before a presidential commission on Asian organized crime, he refused to testify – and was jailed for not cooperating. But even with him behind bars, Ping On continued to reign.
In Willis, John Joe saw something of unusual value to Ping On: a tough but vulnerable young orphan twice their size who could provide muscle and loyalty. "Don't go back to work," Joe told him, "from now on, you stay out here." Then he gave him $500. "Throw all this shit away," he said, pointing to Willis's Southie getup of baggy jeans and hoodie. "They're going to take you shopping." Willis got fitted for Miami Vice-style custom suits, equipped with a pager and cellphone, his hair gelled into spikes. Though Willis had just met John Joe a few days before, he embraced the transformation. "These people took me in, took care of me, like, you know, I was their brother, their son," he says, "So that became more important to me than anything else."
There was nothing Willis wouldn't do to fit in with his new family. When they told him they wanted him to go learn the ropes in New York City, where Ping On had a network of connections, Willis happily ditched high school and hit the road. But he had never been to the Big Apple, and the size of the place felt overwhelming – not to mention he had to deal with the surreal experience of moving to Chinatown. The area bustled with Asians crowding the markets, narrow noodle shops and neon bars. He shared a small apartment under a Chinese video store on Canal Street with a few Chinese recruits, who didn't know what to make of this big white teenager in their midst, whom they nicknamed Bac Guai John.
Though his big size had made him a confident, cocky kid, he now felt ostracized, like the runt pledge of an alien gang. "I was the only white guy," he recalls. "In the beginning, nobody really spoke to me too much." Refusing to address him in English, the other guys laughed as he struggled to use chopsticks; he might as well have been eating with hockey sticks. When they went out on the town, Willis would just quietly nurse his Coke as the other guys drank and sang Chinese karaoke and flirted with the waitresses. He'd never felt so far from Dorchester in his life.
Then a few weeks later, in a foul-smelling Chinatown pig slaughterhouse, Willis got handed a gun for the first time as he trained on shooting homemade targets. He was a decent shot, and the grip of the pistol in his hands felt empowering. Willis and the others got tasked with robbing gambling dens and check-cashing joints for brothers Peter and Jackie Lau, two of the city's most notorious crime lords. Respected and feared, the Laus were part of Hung Mun, a gang faction that ran nightclubs, drugs and robberies in New York and was in good relations with Ping On at the time.
Willis's first heist for the Laus didn't go well. Armed with a .45, he and his crew drove to a midtown sweatshop, where they were supposed to rob the guy with the money going in. But the moment Willis climbed the steps inside, he heard a deafening boom as a bullet rushed by, leaving a smoldering hole in the wall behind him. He fled down the stairs outside, shooting behind him wildly as he ran. Though he and his crew escaped unharmed, Willis swore he'd never be so unprepared and taken by surprise again. "I was horrified," he recalls.
For his subsequent heists, he learned to wait outside until a guy delivering money in a suitcase approached the target – then attack. If the bag was chained to the guy's wrist, no problem, he'd just whip out a machete and offer to hack it off. Before long, he'd become so hardened that he could get chased by a rival gang of machete-wielding punks through Chinatown and escape unfazed. "You're scared, but you're not scared," Willis says, "because you belong to something. . .you've just done something with these people that are supposed to be your family."
As his bond with his Asian "brothers," as he calls them, grew, Willis dedicated himself to learning their language. Late at night while the other gang members slept, he carefully transcribed Chinese characters onto notecards, which he carried with him and studied throughout the day — at the Laundromat, on the crowded street corners, at the noodle shops. With his other gang members only speaking to him in Chinese, he began learning more and more, and could soon decipher lines of dialogue from the many Chinese gangster films they'd watch at the apartment.
As he began learning how to speak with the others, he adopted the principles of Asian culture too. After growing up with an explosive temper, he absorbed the importance of what he calls "your face: how people perceive you, and how you react towards others. If you're disrespectful, people are gonna look at you as a hot-headed, foolish person." He learned respect for his elders, how he had to let them eat first and pour them tea – facing the spout away from them, and holding his fingers just so under the teacups. One night, he finally mustered the courage to take the microphone at the Karaoke bar, and impressed his brothers by belting out his favorite Chinese pop song, which he had learned on his Walkman by heart.
Stephen 'Sky Dragon' Tse Boston Globe/AP
By 1990, after nearly two years of ingratiating himself in New York, Bac Guai John, now a respected member of the gang, was called back to Boston. But he would not be going back empty-handed. Though the Asian gangs shied away from dealing drugs because of the heat they brought, Willis agreed to deliver some coke for a brother on the side. Before he hit the road, Jackie Lau took him for his first visit to a Buddhist temple. Willis prayed for safety. A priest blessed a Buddha necklace and strung it around Willis' thick neck. The moment felt strange for a Catholic boy from Dorchester, but "I was very open to it," he says. "It was part of the culture. If you're gonna learn the culture, you gotta learn every aspect of the culture."
On the drive back, Willis fell asleep at the wheel, and the car careened off the interstate into a wall. Willis came to several feet away from the car, which had flipped upside down. He stumbled back to find his friend inside, bruised but safe. Remarkably, he was unscathed too. "It was like something had picked me up," he recalls with wonder. Though the Buddha around his neck was gone, it seemed to have done its job. "Whoa, this is crazy," Willis thought, "this is an omen." He made it back to Boston the next day. With the coke intact.
When Willis returned to Dorchester, his friends marveled at his bizarre transformation from Southie to Asian gangster. During a neighborhood basketball game in Dorchester, they were shocked to hear him speak Chinese on his cell. "Johnny was walking around the yard and acting like a tough guy on the phone," recalls Gaudet. "We were like, 'What? He speaks Chinese?'"
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"He was eating Asian food and listening to Asian singers," Jelley, his cousin, recalls. "I thought, 'Who in the hell is this child?'"
After being in New York, Boston seemed different to Willis, too – smaller, and, in Chinatown, less organized. With Sky Dragon now having fled to Hong Kong after his jail sentence, there was a new leader in charge: Tan Ngo, nicknamed Bike Ming. A short, middle-aged Vietnamese-born Chinese man who walked with a limp, Ming ran the Hoi Ping Association, a gambling den in the heart of Chinatown. With his high profile, he'd been the target of attacks – according to Willis, Molotov cocktails thrown at his house, gasoline doused on his cars. He needed a bodyguard and someone to enforce the bad debts. On the recommendation of the Laus in New York, he got just the man: Willis. "I could speak Chinese," he says, "maybe he felt that that was like a novelty."
Eager to prove himself with the gang in Boston, Willis devoted himself to being a reliable and hardworking enforcer. Willis already knew how to fight from all his street brawls, and had taken karate classes as a kid. But he had to practice the deferential behavior he'd learned from the Asians in New York, fetching tea for Ming as he shadowed him around town — and checked for car bombs, too. "I was with him everywhere he went," Willis says. "If he went to take a dump, I was in the bathroom with him."
But Willis was no ordinary lackey. He was astutely observing how the kingpin ran his business. As a kid in Dorchester, Willis had been used to explosively settling conflicts with his fists. But Ming stressed his culture's power of restraint. "He taught me a lot about life: how to react, how to behave, what not to do," Willis recalls. "He was like a father figure to me." To build trust and loyalty, Ming told him, Willis had to treat his fellow gang members as if they were his own blood. But when it came to taking action, it was important to be decisive and blunt. The elder mob boss, who only spoke with Willis in Chinese, admired Willis' dedication and gave him a new nickname, Dragon Boy, for his strength.
Willis was feeling more confident in the Asian world, less a stranger in a strange land than a powerful young player ready to stake out his claim. One day, when he went to the hospital with John Joe to see one of their brothers who had gotten his eye knocked out of his socket by a rival gang member, Willis was shocked that no one was taking charge. For years, he'd stayed in the background, but he felt the time had come to rise up.
"What are we doing just sitting around talking and looking at this guy, when we should be out doing something about it?" Willis told them in Chinese. The others were taken aback by his forthrightness, but agreed. He'd earned their respect, and now they were ready to follow him. Under Willis' direction, they tracked down the rivals and brutally beat them down. "I just came from New York where if you bumped into somebody the wrong way it was a disrespect issue and then you had problems," he says. "So I came back kind of amped up."
Though Willis' life became more violent and dangerous, he believed that the ancient rules of karma, which he learned from Ming, were somehow protecting him. One snowy night in January 1991 after shooting pool at Boston Billiards, Willis went to return Ming's Mercedes when he got an ominous voicemail from a friend. "Don't go to Chinatown," his friend warned. Six members of a rival San Francisco Triad had been executed in town, after the Boston crew heard they were making a move for local control. "It went into basically full battle mode," Willis recalls.
Soon after, with the gang wars growing, he was on lookout for a one of Ming's gambling dens, when a crew pulled up and assassinated a Ping On kingpin standing next to him. When one of the gangsters pointed the gun at Willis and pulled the trigger, however, the gun jammed. Willis feared Ming might be the next target, and he was right. As they were leaving a wedding one night, the police apprehended a sniper on the roof of a nearby building, taking aim at Ming, who escaped unharmed. But Willis was becoming more accepting of the worst possible fate. "If you get involved in this life, and that's what you did to get to where you're going, then you brought that on yourself," he says. When asked directly about ordering a hit or playing a part in murdering rivals, Willis replies, "I've never been convicted of killing anybody."
With his growing sense of invulnerability, the rage that he'd been tamping back since his youth boiled to the surface. For the past few years, he'd been taking steroids, which only made his temper worse, he says. To protect his boss, he began roughing up rivals, and ensuring payback from debtors who owed Ming cash. Willis was convicted and jailed for extortion and then, in 2000, got five years for dealing heroin, serving at Concord state prison in Massachusetts. But the time away only made him more determined. "I'll be honest," he tells me, "to be away for five years, you sit in places like this and what do you do? You network."
John's mug shot in 2004. Boston Police Department
Shortly after he got of jail in 2005, Willis double-parked his Mercedes CL600 outside the 180 Club for a night on the town. Dressed in a black suit and chatting up the bouncers, he was waiting for some buddies when a Vietnamese kid ran up to him, asking if he could get his group into the bar. "Listen, go away," Willis told him, but then one of the kid's friends caught his eye: a striking Asian girl with long black hair and almond eyes. "It stopped my heart, she was so beautiful," he recalls.
Willis told the bouncer to let them in, and quickly sidled up to her in the back of the bar. She was 19, 13 years younger than him, but he was smitten. "I just want to tell you something," he said. "You're drop-dead gorgeous."
"What are you, a white kid with an Asian fetish?" she said.
Just then a fight broke out and Willis began barking out in Chinese, much to her surprise. "Oh, you speak Chinese?" she said, impressed.
Her name was Anh Nguyen. Born in Vietnam, she had emigrated to Boston when she was 10, and had recently had a baby girl, Mai Lin, but was no longer in touch with the father. Unable to raise the daughter on her own, she had sent Mai Lin back to Vietnam to be raised by family friends. Soon she and Willis began dating, going to Hot Pot restaurants and Bruin games. He fell hard for Nguyen, who was more interested in him as a person than his status in Chinatown. "I'm not the type of person that was with him because of money," she tells me over lunch one afternoon in Boston. "He's definitely a gentleman, he never let me open the door."
John and Anh Courtesy of Anh Nguyen
Nguyen appreciated his deep understanding of Asian culture. But after dating for a few months, Nguyen confronted Willis one day outside the nail salon where she worked. Nguyen had heard rumors of his life in organized crime, and had seen him come back with bloody cuts on his hands. She demanded the truth. "I'm a gangster," Willis admitted.
"No matter what, I don't want to know anything," she told him. "Whatever it is you're doing, I don't want to be a part of it." But she trusted him implicitly and the two soon decided that, together, they'd raise her daughter, whom she would bring back from Vietnam. For Willis, the relationship felt like the final missing piece in his search for a sense of belonging. Karma had brought him the adoptive Asian gang, and now, Nguyen and her daughter, a new family to build together on his own.
But the more rooted he became, the more distanced he became from the life he had once known. One night, he came out of a club in Chinatown to find a drunk young guy urinating on the bumper of Ming's brand-new BMW. "Hey!" Willis yelled. When the guy turned around, Willis recognized him as a kid, Tommy, he used to play hockey with in Dorchester. "Oh, I'm sorry I'm not a big gangster," Tommy slurred.
As Willis angrily approached him, a van door opened and a bunch of other Dorchester guys spilled out to surround him. Willis reached for his gun, but he had left it at the club. Just then, he heard Ming and some other gangsters filing out of the club and putting rounds in the chambers of their guns. Willis ran up to Ming. "No, no, no," he told him, "it's my friend. He's just drunk a little bit." Ming eyed the white boys suspiciously. "Well, tell your friends to leave," he said.
Rumors spread around Dorchester that Willis had threatened to kill Tommy and the others, and before long it was never the same going back to the old neighborhood again. The pickup basketball games faded away, and his didn't see any of the guys frequenting Chinatown much anymore. One night, Willis pulled his new Porsche 928 S4 up to an Irish bar in town. Inside he found his niece and some friends. It felt just like the old days. An attractive young white girl came up to him. "You're John?" she said.
"Yeah," he replied.
"I hear you're a gook lover."
Willis eyed her. This was it, he thought. He knew where his home was, and it wasn't here anymore. It was Chinatown.
Willis was in his usual spot one day in 2010, hanging in the parking lot on Beach Street in Chinatown, when a young woman nicknamed Baby ran up to him. "Someone wants to talk with you," she said.
"Who?" he replied.
He went to a nearby restaurant where Ming wanted to introduce him to someone who had just come in from China. "Do you know who I am?" the distinguished, large man in his sixties, who was surrounded by several hangers-on, asked Willis in Chinese.
"Yes," Willis replied, bowing. "I know you who are."
It was Sky Dragon, the legendary gangster who had started the Ping On gang. He had been living overseas, but recently returned to Boston, where he had heard much about this white man they called Bac Guai John. "Well," he told Willis, "I know who you are. Have a drink with me. I'll buy you this one, Bac Guai." As they shared tea and shots of Hennessy, Willis was in awe. Sky Dragon didn't talk business or much at all, he just wanted to acknowledge Willis, which was meaningful enough for him. "I felt honored that the guy had any kind of respect for me just being a kid," Willis says.
But the 39-year-old Willis was far from a kid anymore. After working his way up through the gangs for the past two decades, he had found everything he'd lost as a child in this other world: a family, brothers, a girlfriend, a daughter. Though he still had love for Ming, John Joe and the others who raised him, he felt like he'd earned the right to make his own moves and build his own business. He found the opportunity in oxycodone.
Oxycodone hidden in an A-Z vitamin bottle. USDOJ
A distributer in Cape Cod he knew had told him of the rising demand for the pills, which now represented a $3 billion industry – nearly a third of the total prescription painkiller sales in the U.S. The hub was Florida, which boasted 90 of the top 100 pharmacies selling the drug. Loose regulations had spawned legions of pill mills, doling out the drug in mobile MRIs and strip clubs, and earning the nexus of South Florida the nickname, Oxy Alley.
Though Ming had always warned Willis to stay away from dealing drugs because of the heat they'd bring, Willis was willing to take on the risk – even if that meant keeping it from Ming and his brothers. So to build his empire, he decided to go outside his community for help. "I didn't want people that looked like gangsters," he recalls. "I didn't want people that would be associated with me, you understand? So I don't want nobody in Chinatown. I don't want nobody Asian."
Despite his estrangement from many in Dorchester, he still kept up with old friends, some of whom had long wanted to get in on his business. One of them was Brant Welty, his childhood friend. But Willis wanted him to know what he was getting into. "You're gonna make a lot of money, or you're gonna go away," he warned him. "One of two is gonna happen, if not both. You decide what you want do and do it."
"I hesitated at first," Welty tells me, but he was envious by Willis' riches over the past few decades. "I saw that things were working out," Welty says, "and decided to jump in." Before long, so were about a dozen others. And with them onboard, Willis found himself in a role reversal, teaching the other Southies the Asian culture and values that had made him a success. They met in their Dorchester apartments to hash out their plan. As a sign of brotherhood, they got the same tattoo as Willis, the Chinese letters for respect and loyalty. "If you put that on your arm, understand what it means," Willis told them. "You got to respect and be loyal to your family. If I treat you as a family member, then you got to treat me as a family member."
Working with contacts in South Florida, Willis and his crew would buy and package the pills in a mansion they rented on the Pompano Beach waterfront. Using multivitamin bottles they bought at drugstores, they carefully replaced the vitamins with tabs of Oxy – then sealed them back up like new.
John's Pompano Beach house in Florida. USDOJ
By plane and by car, they'd deliver the drugs to dealers in Cape Cod, marking up the pills they bought for $9 to sell for $15 a piece. Before long, they were making as many as five trips a week, with as many as 8,000 pills in tow each time, and Willis was cashing in. In Chinatown, the Asian gangsters drove nice cars, but refrained from being too flashy for fear of drawing attention from the cops. But with that world far away, Willis got caught up in the lavish South Florida lifestyle. He blew his money on motorcycles, speed boats, a Porsche, a Hummer, a Bentley, a nightclub, another mansion near the ocean. But he still felt the same old emptiness inside. "Money, nice cars, big houses are nothing without the ones you love," he says.
In November 2010, the FBI was monitoring Wei Chen, a brothel owner in Cambridge, when surveillance picked up Willis' red Hummer out front of his place. Willis then emerged carrying a large bag of what agents later discovered to be pot. "We weren't targeting him," FBI special agent Russ Chisholm tells me, "he came to us." And, soon, they were able to get a wire on him. "That's when the case spun off onto Willis," Chisholm says.
Though Willis had been on the radar before, the Feds realized he was running a serious game. "John was savvy," Chisholm says. "He'd been in the criminal world for a while. He knew about surveillance tracking. He was always looking for cars, and switching phones." One day that fall, Willis was arrested driving his Bentley in South Carolina without a license. But despite having $100,000 cash on him, Willis wasn't arrested – tipping him off that that the Feds were possibly building a case against him. "They let me drive away," he recalls, "I knew right there I was fucked."
Back home, the tension was wearing on Nguyen, who tired of his burgeoning paranoia and long trips to Florida. "We'd get into arguments a lot over that," she says, "just the fact that he was away." At one point, she threatened to leave. "John, don't you want to have a normal life?" she told him, "Don't you want to have a simple life where you don't have to worry about watching over your back?"
But while Willis assured her that he wanted to change, he didn't know a way out anymore. One night, when his cousin Debbie was in town for a high school reunion, she too urged him to give up his dangerous ways. "You're going to wind up in a coffin," she said. "You got to go clean, honey, because your time's running out. You made enough money, how much is enough?"
As Willis lamented what a poor role model he'd become for his daughter, his eyes filled with tears. "It was the first time I'd ever really seen him cry, other than when he was a little boy," she recalls. Maybe this was all karma, but Willis felt there was nothing he could do. "I'm a monster," he told her. "I don't know any other life."
After several months of their investigation, the FBI finally had enough to arrest Willis. The final break had come in March 2011, when they arrested one of Willis' couriers delivering oxy pills in Fort Lauderdale. Later that month, the Feds stormed Willis' home on the morning of Mai Lin's ninth birthday, and carted him away once and for all.
Last August, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute oxycodone and money-laundering conspiracy, Willis received his sentence. "Twenty years in federal prison is well-deserved for Mr. Willis, a career criminal and the mastermind behind this organization," said U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz. Twelve others have since been sentenced for taking part in Willis's oxycodone scheme. Nguyen accepted a plea for tampering with a witness and is now working at a nail salon she owns near her Dorchester home as she awaits Willis' eventual return. "Since the day I've been with John," she tells me one afternoon over noodles in Boston's Chinatown, "the foundation we've always had is our love for each other." She still hopes they can eventually lead "a simple life," she says.
John and Mai Linn Courtesy of Anh Nguyen
The two hadn't yet found a way to tell Mai Lin that Willis has been arrested. "She thinks I'm in Florida at the house," Willis tells me, as he wrings his hands in the prison meeting room. And when I ask him what he would tell her if she saw him here, he tears up. "Oh God, I don't know. I don't think I could talk. I'd probably cry for an hour," he says. "I'd tell her all the time I'm sorry that I can't be home."
"So are you done with this life?" I ask.
"What life is it?" he says. "This is who I am. Can you go in the jungle and take the stripes off a tiger? You can't do that. Drug dealing? Yeah, I'm done. Am I gonna change who I am? No." Aside from being separated from his family, it's not so bad in prison, he adds. He reads books on Buddhism, and has taken up yoga. And he still gets to speak Chinese, he says. "There are other Asians here, too."