John Willis grew up in the working-class neighbourhood of Dorchester, Massachusetts playing hockey like the rest of the Catholic kids, before transcending race and becoming one of the most notorious gangsters in Boston’s Chinatown. They called the big, crazy, white Irish kid, Bac Guai, which translated to White Devil. From a homeless kid to second-in-command of a Chinese gang, Willis worked himself up through the ranks of “Ping On”, one of the most violent Chinese gangs in Boston. After paying his dues by going to prison for the gang, Willis reinvented himself as an Oxycontin kingpin. Capitalising on the opioid craze that swept the nation in the early 2000s – generating millions of dollars for himself by the late aughts before getting busted by the feds in 2011.
“At seventeen, eighteen, there’s nothing anyone could tell me,” Willis tells Penthouse. “I was angry at the world. I was gonna do what I was gonna do, and that’s it. My mother died when I was a kid, my father left when I was three. The people who raised me were from another world. This was about the struggle of not having parents, the struggle of having to prove yourself on a daily basis, to learn a new culture. I think Boston’s Chinatown is a small Chinatown, but I think it’s a close-knit community. There would be different factions of people that we might have problems with, but it’s not like you’re a Blood or a Crip, it’s an organisation.”
Ping On came to power in Boston’s Chinatown in the 1970s. Founded by Stephen “Sky Dragon” Tse, a Chinese national affiliated with 14K, an influential mainland China Triad where new members drank their own blood mixed with the blood of a beheaded chicken as a part of the initiation ritual. In the 1980s and 90s, Ping On was the fiercest gang in Chinatown, wreaking wanton havoc wherever they went. Sky Dragon ran his illicit gangland empire from the Kung Fu restaurant on Tyler Street, playing the role of “Dai Lo” or big brother of the gang.
“I think he liked me because I was white, I was bigger,” Willis says. “He felt it was a novelty to have a white guy who could speak broken Chinese and have someone who didn’t typically grow up [in Chinatown]. My story is different from others, not saying that I’m better or worse, it’s just the way that I lived [that let me] assimilate into a culture where they didn’t accept [outsiders]. When I was young, you didn’t go to Chinatown – you didn’t belong there if you weren’t Chinese.”
But in Chinatown, they treated Willis like a brother or a son. The gangsters gave him money, clothes, and a place to live. More importantly, they let the troubled young man become a part of something that was bigger than him. The tongs [powerful gangster organisations based in China] and the gangs that supported their criminal activity have been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. Willis embraced his adopted culture and learned to speak the language fluently, opening up doors for him in the gang.
“When I spoke Chinese, I spoke with a Chinese accent,” Willis says. “People respected me, people talked to me and treated me well because of [that]. I advanced through the ranks from being a kid and knowing nothing, to knowing ten words of Chinese, to speaking fluent Chinese, to basically having my own group of people, my group of guys. I wasn’t asking for money anymore, [I was] giving money back.”
The feds said Bac Guai parlayed his Asian mob contacts into a position as an oxycontin kingpin that sold over 260,000 pills in two years, generating over $4 million dollars in profits
During his formative years in the gang, a young John Willis was literarily dodging bullets as he played bodyguard for the gang’s overlords. Chinatown erupted in violence, between 1988 and 1992, resulting in two-dozen gangland slayings. In January 1991, the gangland violence reached a crescendo with the gory Tyler Street Massacre, where gunmen executed five people in an after-hours gambling den run by the Ping On organisation. Within six minutes of arrival, the shooters killed six of the seven men in the Tyler Street basement, execution-style, one by one as they begged for mercy.
“It was a very violent Chinatown,” Willis says. “There were a lot of murders, a lot of stabbings, a lot of gunfights. You had to be aware of your surroundings, because if you weren’t, then you’d end up dead. We had radios just like the police. We had different protocols. You were here from a certain time to a certain time, and then other guys would show up, and it was almost like punching a clock. This is your job today. You stay in the parking lot, park the cars. If you have a problem with the guys from New York, you’re watching for the New York plates.”
Shortly after the Tyler Street killings a crew of gunmen pulled up and shot a Ping On associate standing right next to Willis while they were out collecting money. When the gunman pointed the pistol at Willis and pulled the trigger, the gun jammed.
With the killing spiralling out of control, Sky Dragon took off for Hong Kong, leaving his gang to take care of his business interests. The street warfare intensified and Ping On continued to operate, fighting to gain control of Chinatown.
“At that time, different things were going on [in Chinatown],” Willis says. “Power struggles, fights, murders – the building of an organisation. It went full battle mode. You’re scared, but you’re not scared.” Under Willis’ direction, gang members would track down rivals and brutally beat them down. When asked about participating in any murders or gangland hits, Willis says, “I’ve never been convicted of killing anybody.”
As Willis proved his loyalty and advanced in the organisation, he’d be farmed out to affiliated Chinese gangs in different cities. This tactic worked both ways. When the drama got thick, his boss would call in guys from California or New York to handle things. If there was a situation in New York, higher-ups might send him down there to take care of it. A lot of the gangs were connected through the tongs back in China, and the American-based organisations used their soldiers interchangeably.
“When I went to New York City or San Francisco, or somewhere, and I got there, these people didn’t look at me like ‘Hey, he’s a white guy’, they looked at me like ‘Hey that’s John. He’s from Boston. He’s our people,’” Willis says. “They looked out for me. So I always kinda keep that in mind. I’m white, but I look after the Asian guys. Let’s face it: they’re not big people, it’s not like they’re running [things] – especially if they’re not gangsters.” Even though John was white, he felt safe within the confines of his new adopted culture, despite the violence and dangers that surrounded him.
“You learn through the culture you grow up in, and whatever comes out of that, you take care of your people, your brothers, your family,” Willis tells Penthouse. “That’s how I came up. At that time in my life, it was more about learning the culture and dealing with my people. I’m the type of guy that if you’re my brother, you’re my brother.”
But with all the heat the feds were doing a lot of surveillance in Chinatown.
“The feds would just sit there all day. They’d switch, different guys would come in, they weren’t fooling anybody. We knew. One kid’s job would be to keep an eye on them, where are they, or who are they, what are they doing? They’d follow us back to Chinatown. They’d park on the edge of Chinatown, over near the gate. We went about our daily business. We knew they were there. They knew we were here.” Eventually, things started to change in Chinatown, and after several short bids in state prison, Willis decided to branch out from the gang.
“Times change, people start telling. And the culture was not what it used to be, because they got away from the way things were supposed to be,” Willis says. “From China, there was a pecking order. People started complaining so much about gangsters being on the streets that they lost sight of the jobs the protection gangsters provided. [People] walking around with all their money to the gambling houses, the old ladies with their food and their purses.
“As far as the drug side of things, I didn’t do that in Chinatown. My boss never wanted to sell drugs. He’d tell you straight up, ‘Don’t sell drugs, brings too many problems,’ and that’s the way it was when I was a kid. I just followed what he said, but then I got older, I stepped outside, and did what I needed to make money.”
Willis was involved in Chinese culture for so long that he considers himself Chinese.
US Attorney Timothy Moran called John Willis “the kingpin, organiser and leader of a vast conspiracy.” The feds said Bac Guai parlayed his Asian mob contacts into a position as an oxycontin kingpin that sold over 260,000 pills in two years, generating over $4 million dollars in profits, trafficking pills from Florida to the Northeast. Willis used the cash he made to buy a fleet of sports cars, oceanfront property in South Florida, speedboats and strip clubs.
“The money was really good and I was young. I started selling drugs when I was 22-years-old,” Willis says. “Twenty-two years old buying houses, cars and boats. The money influenced my decisions. I never did it in Chinatown. Never did it around any of my people. You invest money – you do different things. Do you want to get involved with importing thousands of pounds from Canada? Or do you wanna get in hundreds of pounds from California? Or do you wanna do pills? Is it drugs or prostitution? [I had] different investments.”
Willis kept his ear to the streets as a drug dealer. “What’s going on in the streets? What does the street want?” He says. “The street wants pills, you go and get the pills. At one point, it was commercial marijuana. Then it went to British Columbia and then it went to the high-end stuff out of California. So you change it with the times, you roll with it. We all work to make money, we all work to survive, we all look for a better life. We all become slaves to our money. Even multi-multi-millionaires, they live a certain way and then if they don’t keep that income up, they go bankrupt and fail – they lose.
“I made all the decisions. I just dictated and got people to do what they were supposed to do. My whole feeling is, because of the way I was raised, if you take care of somebody and you treat them the right way, then they’re going to be honourable and do the right thing. And that’s what I got out of the Chinese culture. But people don’t see it that way. As far as American people, I’d say.”
FBI agent Scott O’Donnell said he’d “never seen” a white guy in the Chinese Mafia before Willis. The federal investigation into Willis’ drug dealing affairs resulted in the seizure of a 38-foot speed boat, 13 firearms, over $480,000 in cash, approximately 12,000 oxycodone pills, and numerous luxury vehicles. Willis was also into illegal gambling and prostitution operations, as well loan sharking and extortion activities. The feds were doing stings on Asian whorehouses in Boston when Willis showed up on surveillance. The feds abandoned their stings and Willis became their focus.
“Mr Willis and his associates are an example of the opportunistic nature of organised crime groups, whose members share a common bond of victimising their communities through drug dealing, illegal gambling, extortion and exploitation of women in their quest for illegal profits,” said Vincent Lisi, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Boston Division. “The methodical nature and duration of this investigation reflect the focus of the Boston Organised Crime Task Force to secure justice for the victims and to make the community safer.”
Bac Guai’s journey started in Dorchester and ended in federal prison, but he makes no excuses. “They see an American that is involved in this culture that nobody’s involved in,” Willis explains to Penthouse. “There’s unanswered murders, different things. Nobody wants to talk to them. They hear about these guns. My name comes up. They come see me and I tell them I don’t know what they’re talking about. They feel that’s a slap in the face. That’s how this all started. From the amounts of money they seize from people, there should be no budget, no deficit, no nothing.
He’s been in situations where people were murdered. Situations where rival gangsters pointed guns at him, ready to kill him, only to have them jam.
“Whatever the feds write about me, that’s their interpretation. I’m a person who’s about his people, about the culture he grew into and that’s why I feel that my story is not just a gangster story, it’s a story of survival, it’s a story of camaraderie. It’s not a drug dealer story – it’s the story of a way of life, an organisation. I don’t think white people anywhere in the Asian culture are accepted the way I was or am. I’m grateful for that.”
In 2013, the court convicted Willis on federal drug and money laundering charges. He pleaded guilty out of love and loyalty to his girlfriend, so that the feds wouldn’t make her life any harder. He also agreed to forfeit two million dollars and several vehicles, boats and pieces of real estate as part of his plea deal. He was sentenced to 20 years and is now serving his time at Federal Correctional Institution Danbury, a low-security prison in Connecticut.
“Twenty years in federal prison is well-deserved for Mr Willis, a career criminal and the mastermind behind this organisation,” said U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz. “Not only did this investigation expose a world of illegal gambling, prostitution and extortion, but also revealed a significant oxycodone distribution operation. This case significantly disrupted the flow of this highly addictive, dangerous heroin substitute which has been responsible for numerous deaths in Massachusetts.”
Bac Guai takes his incarceration in stride. He’s been in situations where people were murdered. Situations where rival gangsters pointed guns at him, ready to kill him, only to have them jam. Willis was involved in Chinese culture for so long that he considers himself Chinese. “All these things are part of the story, the struggle, the acceptance, the way of life,” he says. “Do I look at myself as white? Yeah, I’m white, my DNA says I’m Caucasian. But, at the end of the day, my wife’s Vietnamese, my daughter’s mixed.
"I feel that my story is not just a gangster story, it’s a story of survival, it’s a story of camaraderie"
“I’m never going to walk away from my people. They took care of me. That’s a vow you make: you never walk away from the people that took care of you and care about you. Always honour your people. Honour your friends, your family. Respect and give loyalty to your brothers that haven’t written you off. I’m not gonna change, not in that aspect.” As he sits in his prison cell, doing hard-time in the federal penitentiary, Willis reflects on his life, who he is and what he’s done, and surprisingly, he’s ok with it.
“This part of my life is more about the pain, the struggle that we all go through,” he tells Penthouse. “People think it’s fun and games, and this is what you learnt, and this is what you did, and this is who you are. Survival is what we do every day. They’ve taken my freedom already. The things that scare me are the time away from my family. ‘Cause time doesn’t stop. Sure, I’m an American, but now I just say to people, inside I’m white, but outside, I’m Chinese.”
Boston-based entertainment lawyer and literary manager, Matthew Valentinas, who represents John Willis, tells Penthouse that Sony Pictures International Television and 3 Arts Entertainment by KV Media Inc. optioned White Devil, a book by Bob Halloran, based on Willis’ life, for a potential television series. Robert Kamen (Taken, The Karate Kid) is writing the script.
Valentinas states, “John’s story is perfect for the screen. His personal character combined with his amazing life experience is something that’s never been seen before in the gangster genre. His story is very relatable and has wide international appeal. We’ve received a lot of interest from Canada, China, Italy, Germany and India. It’s only a matter of time before the entire world is very familiar with the story of the White Devil.”