Serial Chinatown Burglar Found Guilty

German Woods was recently found guilty of terrorizing Chinatown and Japantown in 2014 – but it's not the only case in which Asian seniors have been targeted.

Michiko Fujisaka moved slowly. At age 70, she’d recently had heart surgery, and used a cane to get around Japantown. On May 24, 2014, she returned to her building on Sutter Street, unlocked the metal gate, and went inside — not noticing that a slim man in his late 50s had slipped in behind her. He followed her upstairs to her apartment, and when she unlocked her door, he pulled her inside and stole a heavy gold chain from her neck.

“I was quite scared,” Fujisaka said in her testimony in court. “When he came in, I wanted to go outside, but he started pulling me inside.”

Later that week, German Woods was caught on pawn-shop security cameras selling a similar necklace to the one Fujisaka claims was stolen. The footage was the clincher in a case that the San Francisco Police Department had been chasing for weeks.

Three years later, on a Thursday morning in June, Woods sat in a small courtroom in San Francisco’s Hall of Justice. The hard wooden seats for the public were mostly vacant: No one attended his verdict reading except for a few Hall staff and a couple reporters from Asian news organizations. After a trial that spanned nearly a month, 11 jurors found Woods guilty of 17 counts of burglary and elder abuse.

The pattern of his behavior was consistent: Woods repeatedly targeted the elderly in Chinatown and Japantown during the spring and summer months of 2014. More than 150 pieces of evidence, including security camera footage and witness testimony, proved that Brown would enter a multi-unit housing complex pretending to be management, trying apartment doors until he found one that was unlocked. On April 19, 2014, Brown opened the door to an apartment at 777 Broadway, where Bad Llan Yu lived with her elderly mother. When she tried to prevent him from taking a purse that was lying on the bed, Woods violently pushed her against the wall, and she sustained a lump “the size of an egg” on her head. Eleven days later, on April 30, he burgled 1490 Post St. and held resident Sugako Berne down on the floor with his knee while he went through her purse on the kitchen counter. He broke into 11 Belden Place on June 13 of the same year, and rifled through 86-year-old De Qang Huang’s pockets as he sat on the bottom of a bunk bed, frail and physically unable to fight back. 

German Woods (Courtesy SFPD)

All told, seven victims came forward — five Chinese, two Japanese. The effects of Woods’ crimes were devastating: One woman in her 90s, Mei Liu, described how she was fearful for three months after he entered her home and was unable to sleep or eat.

“The victims were all in their 80s and 90s, frail, and of Asian descent. English was not their first language. He targeted these individuals because they’re the most vulnerable victims in San Francisco,” prosecuting attorney Charles Bisesto told the jury during his closing arguments last month. “He knew he could use force and fear. He knew many didn’t speak English. He knew many wouldn’t report him. He knew even if he was caught, that the victims were elderly, with poor memories and eyesight.”

While the prosecution used these details to garner jurors’ sympathy, the defense used arguments of a weakened physical and mental state to strengthen the case. Defense attorney Garey Preneta pointed out that the age of the victims could mean the facts they provided to authorities were flawed, and implied that their senior age made them less attentive to seeing the case brought to justice.

“Maybe you get to a point where things like this don’t matter. Where you’re just happy to be alive,” Preneta said.

Crimes against Asian seniors are a not a new phenomenon in San Francisco, but they don’t always get covered by English-language media. The same year that Woods was terrorizing the seniors of Chinatown and Japantown, an even sneakier crime was taking place.

Capitalizing on a cultural tradition of charms, scammer Xue Fang Zhou abused the trust of two women in 2014 and stole more than $100,000 through a “blessing scam.” Zhou claimed her victims were possessed by evil spirits, but she could purify their valuables to fix the problem. When the victims handed over cash and jewelry, an old bait-and-switch trick would be conducted, and they’d receive bags filled with water bottles or other value-less objects in return. In 2015, the District Attorney’s Office stated that in addition to Zhou’s victims, more than 50 local residents had been robbed of approximately $1.5 million in goods in the scam. Zhou received a four-year prison sentence.

“The fact that elderly Chinese women are being targeted in light of their commonly held beliefs pains me greatly,” District Attorney George Gascón said after Zhou’s sentencing was announced. “My office has worked to reduce these scams by conducting extensive outreach, collaborating with other agencies around the country, and aggressively prosecuting these cases.” 

While both the Woods burglaries and the blessing scams took place in 2014, the criminal targeting of Asian elders is still an everyday occurrence in the city. Just last week, in separate incidents, juvenile offenders robbed two Asian women in their 60s. On July 5 shortly after 1:30 p.m., one 63-year-old Asian victim was thrown to the ground by a group of people at O’Farrell and Hyde streets. They stole her jewelry and fled the scene. Two hours later, another Asian victim, age 65, had her purse and jewelry forcefully taken off her by two men in their 30s on Leavenworth Street.

The recent cases are reminiscent of a similar chain of robberies that took place in 2016, when three people were arrested after serially attacking and robbing Asian elders of their jewelry in Chinatown, before fleeing the scene in an SUV.

Preserving the safety of Chinatown’s aging residents is an ongoing concern held by a number of city agencies. District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin and San Francisco Police Department Chief Bill Scott both attended a community meeting in the neighborhood on Monday, hosted by the Asian Pacific Islander Council. Needs raised included the presence of culturally competent police who speak Cantonese, as well as regular safety patrols in and around senior housing and on Muni. Meetings of this sort will be held quarterly to address future safety concerns.

As for Woods, things are not looking good. After being found guilty of 17 counts of burglary and elder abuse, he’s currently being held on $3.27 million bail. He will be sentenced on Aug. 4 by Judge Samuel K. Feng, whose very courtroom reflected the city’s vast Asian population. At least three of the jurors were of Asian descent, as was one of the members of security and the court reporter, and Feng often communicated with Cantonese-speaking members of the audience in their native language. On the day the closing arguments were scheduled, Feng brought dim sum for the jurors. With a clean track record, Feng’s choice of breakfast was no doubt an unbiased move, but it may have been a gentle nod to the diversity of San Francisco, and the roles that Asian immigrants have played in shaping the city’s culture.

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