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Leader of Chinatown gang gets 20-year federal sentence

“White Devil John” Willis was shown during a court hearing earlier this year.

Jane Collins

“White Devil John” Willis was shown during a court hearing earlier this year.

A former Chinatown gang-leader nicknamed White Devil John was sentenced in federal court Thursday to 20 years in prison for his leadership of what prosecutors called “a vast conspiracy to traffic in oxycodone” and launder money while furnishing a lavish lifestyle for himself.

John Willis, 42, of Dorchester pleaded guilty in March to conspiracy to distribute oxycodone and money laundering conspiracy. The charges resulted from an inquiry that led to the indictment of nearly 30 gang members and associates in spring 2011.

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“Twenty years in federal prison is well deserved for Mr. Willis, a career criminal and the mastermind behind this organization,” US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said. “Not only did this investigation expose a world of illegal gambling, prostitution, and extortion, but also revealed a significant oxycodone distribution operation.”

According to federal prosecutors, Willis ran a drug ring that moved about 260,000 pills of oxycodone and generated more than $4 million between December 2009 and May 2011.

“The details of this case would sound like a Hollywood cliche if they were not true,” prosecutors wrote in the government’s sentencing memorandum. “John Willis was the kingpin, organizer, and leader of a vast conspiracy to traffic in oxycodone . . . and launder the millions of dollars in drug proceeds in Boston and in Florida.”

But Willis said he did not think the 25-year sentence recommended by the government was in line with the punishments of other organized crime figures.

“It is hard for me to accept 25 years when I see guys with 10 or 12 murders making deals and serving less time,” Willis told Judge Joseph L. Tauro Thursday, in an apparent reference to criminals who received shorter sentences in exchange for testifying against others. “I am not the axis of evil I’m being made out to be. I’m not perfect; I’ve made mistakes.”

In addition to the 20 years, Willis was ordered to forefeit $2 million.

As drug ring boss, Willis was closely involved at every level of the operation, officials said.

“He was responsible for both broad policy decisions like whether to travel by plane or by car and whom to include in the conspiracy, and also for nitty-gritty details like how to pack a piece of luggage with drugs to avoid detection,” Assistant US Attorney Timothy Moran said .

More than anyone, Willis benefitted from the vast illegal operation, Moran said.

“His extensive illegal activity allowed him to lead a life of luxury and leisure, replete with parties, nightclubs, strip joints, and women,” Moran wrote in the sentencing memo.

Arguing for leniency, Willis’s defense attorney Jeffrey Denner said Willis was orphaned in his early teens and lived alone in a cold, dark house without much food before a family in Chinatown took him in. That family, Denner said, was involved in organized crime, and Willis followed suit.

“When you take a look at this man and the bad he has done, you should also look at the antecedents of that,” Denner said. “Does this excuse the next 25 years of his life? Absolutely not. But it does put it in some context.”

Willis, a white teenager from Dorchester, had been introduced to the neighborhood’s underworld when he was about 12 years old, learned to speak Cantonese, and was essentially adopted by a Chinese family, say prosecutors. From there, they said, he followed the leaders of the violent and once powerful Ping On gang, launching a career that spanned more than two decades.

“He went from being a kid who didn’t have two dimes to rub together to being a kid in a candy store,” with access to drugs, money, women, fast cars, and luxury homes, Denner said.

Prosecutors described Willis as “a career criminal and a very dangerous, violent man.”

Willis was first arrested at age 18, and at 23 he was sentenced to six to eight years in prison for possession with intent to distribute heroin, officials said. At 29, Willis was convicted of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Five women have taken out a total of nine restraining orders against him, and he has threatened to kill several girlfriends, prosecutors said.

Colin A. Young can be reached at colin.young@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ColinAYoung.
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