Throwing Away the Key

Why Gov. Davis' just-say-no parole policy is wrong, Exhibit No. 1: Eddy Zheng has earned a college degree in prison, sings in a church choir, works with at-risk youth, has the support of clergymen, college professors, his prison counselor, and the

"Eddy has a compelling case, but a lot of people do," says Keith Wattley, Zheng's attorney. "He's an example of what is possible, and an example of how the system fails."

It was past 6 p.m. on Jan. 6, 1986, when Eddy Zheng, David Weng, and Dennis Chan parked a borrowed gray Datsun in front of the house they planned to rob.

About a week before, Weng had proposed that the three of them hit up a family who owned two convenience stores in Chinatown that sold expensive herbal remedies. Zheng's family was too poor to give him an allowance, and he was immediately attracted to the idea of easy money.

Zheng has spent 16 years in prison.
Paolo Vescia
Zheng has spent 16 years in prison.
Zheng has spent 16 years in prison.
Paolo Vescia
Zheng has spent 16 years in prison.

Hiding out in the car at dusk, they were minutes from going through with the crime. As they waited for the family to come home, someone handed Zheng a large, black .22-caliber automatic with nine bullets.

At about 6:30 p.m., a taxi pulled up behind the Datsun, and all four family members got out: a couple and their two children, ages 8 and 5. As they walked up the stairs to the front door, three young men with guns rushed up behind them. Weng fixed his gun on the man, and Zheng pointed his gun at the woman. "This is a robbery! We want your money!" they shouted as they forced their way into the house behind the frightened family.

Zheng pushed the man into a chair and tied him up with a necktie and telephone wire. Another teen took the woman to a bedroom, where she was tied up with duct tape; the children were locked in a bathroom.

The teens ransacked the house for hours, dumping gold chains, diamond rings, and other valuables into a briefcase by the door. The robbers assumed the family had a safe in the home full of money, and they kept demanding to know where it was.

Zheng approached the woman to ask her "where the money is," and then, suddenly, ripped off her clothes. She fell backward onto the bed, and one of the teens, using a camera with no film in it, pretended to take pictures of her naked. Zheng later told police that he stripped the woman to intimidate her into telling him where the safe was, to "just scare, scare her, you know." During a court hearing, the woman would tearfully testify about the violation, and add that Weng threatened her with rape.

Zheng returned to the man in the living room and asked for the store keys. At some point, Zheng hit the man with his gun. The ransacking continued until 11 p.m., when Chan brought the woman, now dressed, downstairs. They decided that Zheng and Chan would drive the woman to the family's stores for more money while Weng stayed at the house with the rest of the victims. Back in Chinatown, Zheng and Chan collected more jewelry, merchandise, and cash from the stores. The total take amounted to $34,000.

As Zheng drove the woman home, a police officer stopped the car because Zheng was driving without lights on. The officer noticed the visibly shaken woman in the back seat; she told the officer in Cantonese that there was "danger in my home." Zheng and Chan were quickly arrested; Weng initially escaped.

Zheng says greed drove him to commit the "senseless" crime. "I was amazed by all the materialistic stuff that other kids had that I don't have," Zheng said in his most recent parole hearing. "I don't ever get allowance from my family because they don't have money, and all my clothes were hand-me-downs from Goodwill. I didn't appreciate what my family had to go through so that I could have clothes and a place to live."

Financially, the '80s were a tough time for the Zheng family, who immigrated to the U.S. from mainland China in 1982. The family struggled to make it, cramming into a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland where shootings occurred periodically at their front door.

To pay the $300-a-month rent, Zheng's father took a job at a local Burger King, and his mother moved in with another family to serve as a live-in baby sitter to earn $400 a month. She came home one night a week.

Zheng's older brother and sister also worked several jobs and went to school. No one had time for Zheng, the youngest, who was having a hard time at school because of language difficulties.

Bored with lessons he couldn't understand, Zheng began cutting school. With only rudimentary English skills, he started hanging out with kids he met at a playground in Oakland's Chinatown -- delinquents by most measures.

One of the kids was Dennis Chan, who would later participate in the kidnap-robbery. Chan dared Zheng to steal a jacket from Macy's, and Zheng, unaware of anti-theft devices, tried to wear the coat out of the store. He was arrested and put on probation, which he violated every time he cut school.

Zheng's family tried different tactics to keep him out of trouble. His dad took him to school every day before work, and watched him walk into the classroom before he drove off. Zheng would stay for the first class, then walk the few short blocks home to watch TV. Before long, he started going out again with his friends. Days would go by without his family knowing where he was.

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