Before bailiffs escorted Jonathan Chen into Superior Court Judge John D. Conley’s Santa Ana courtroom on Jan. 4, the 27-year-old’s petite mother sat in the audience as close as permitted to the defense table. Her hands were gripped tightly in her lap, and her heart raced underneath a tan sweater. When her youngest of three sons—a 5-foot, 11-inch-tall, 150-pound fellow with an innocent face and endearing smile you wouldn’t expect on an gun-toting narcotics trafficker—emerged, he wore a bright-orange jail jumpsuit accessorized with silver, behind-the-back handcuffs. The sight of each other caused her to nervously exhale while he closed his eyes and slightly nodded, unable to hide his shame from the woman he considers his “guardian angel.”
The Orange County jail system, home to about 6,000 detainees, is dominated by low-income, poorly educated and violence-prone individuals. That’s not Chen. Born in Fountain Valley to strict Chinese immigrants, he grew up shy in an upper-middle-class Irvine neighborhood bordering a scenic lake. He earned a 4.0 GPA at one of that city’s highly competitive schools. Even now, his penmanship is neat, his crisp sentences contain error-free grammar, and his expressions of lofty ideas as well as agonizing personal critiques are startlingly coherent for someone often lost in substance abuse since the age of 13.
When he sat at the defense table next to veteran attorney Lloyd Freeberg Jr., Chen faced a potential 23 years in prison. After all, he’d run a bizarre, intense crime spree. Police arrested him four times during an eight-month period in 2016. In January of that year, he collected six criminal counts. A month later, after being released on bail, he added 12 more charges. In April, after release on bail again, he piled on two more. The pattern continued in August, as Chen boosted the tally by five to land at a total of 25 felony charges. He’d possessed heroin, cocaine, oxycodone, ecstasy, Xanax and methamphetamine for personal use and sales while carrying a concealed weapon.
It didn’t help Chen’s cause that during that spree, he was already an addict and convicted felon on parole. He’d transformed from a nerdy, superb grade-school student to someone who shoplifted, used marijuana and abundantly consumed Vicodin thanks to a desire to fit in with the popular crowd. The downward spiral grew precipitously at the age of 16, after a college-aged neighbor introduced him to a hardcore Los Angeles-based Asian gang member. He soon began selling narcotics to Orange County’s well-to-do teenagers, who craved less scary suppliers who’d often beat, shortchange or rob them in Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Anaheim.
“I became increasingly good at moving drugs and quickly developed a reputation,” Chen told the judge about his operation that netted the mob as much as $10,000 per week. “The sense of influence and validation was as addictive as the drugs and money. For once in my life, I was somebody.”
But Southern California organized-crime families aren’t sympathetic to excuses if their revenue demands aren’t met. By early 2007, Chen’s rising status attracted the notice of other hoodlums. They robbed him of more than $12,000 worth of marijuana.
“As a [then] 5-foot, 8-inch and 120-pound, 17-year-old from Irvine, who had never been in a fight in his life, there wasn’t much that I could do besides bring the information back to my superiors,” Chen recalled.
He found himself berated, beaten and ordered to reimburse the lost income, plus pay a 10 percent tax. Gang soldiers searched for the residence of the people who’d swiped the dope. Fearful, Chen participated in a retaliatory home-invasion robbery. But fate wasn’t on his side again. The targets had relocated days earlier.
During a follow-up attempt to catch the bandits, Chen fooled the mobsters by carrying a painted airsoft gun. “When a friend asked me why [I’d brought a fake weapon], I remember telling him I would rather be killed than kill someone else,” he said. Though most of the stolen product was recovered, the mafia refused to rescind his 10 percent tax. But the innocent victims of the first home invasion called police, who eventually tracked down Chen. He pleaded guilty, and in 2009, Judge Gregory Jones sentenced an apparently contrite 18-year-old Chen to three years in state prison.
“I vividly recall [entering Wasco State Prison at night, and] all I could hear was people barking and yelling in the darkness,” he told Conley. “No words can describe the feeling when steel doors close you in. I began to hate myself. There was no reason anyone who, like me, had been afforded every possible opportunity to succeed should be in such a situation.”
Awaking on his first day in a prison with “a striking resemblance to an old castle/dungeon” jolted him. “It was only after seeing all of my surroundings in the light that reality really hit me,” he recalled. “From [the cell’s tiny] back window, all you see was two fences topped with razor wire. Through the cell’s door, all you could see was steel and concrete.”
That first day also woke him to what would be a reoccurring theme in prison: three inmates committed a brutal ambush, shanking another unsuspecting convict and leaving a large pool of blood on the floor, with Chen believing he’d entered the “gates of Hell.”
Because he says he had to focus on survival inside the penitentiary, Chen wasn’t able to confront his personal “defects.” Though he’d grown up with largely Caucasian friends, he bid his time assimilating into the prison’s forced race-based politics. Murderers were among those who protected him and gained his necessary admiration.
In November 2011, prison officials paroled Chen. He moved back in with his parents—who’d lost much of their inherited fortune in the wake of the 2001 stock market crash. He took lousy odd jobs available to an ex-con and enrolled in community college, where he earned a 3.8 GPA. Determined to stay clean, his plan included transferring to California’s university system and obtaining a degree in economics.
But never-ending feelings of inadequacy drove him to anxiety and depression, which led him to seek relief with marijuana before what he called a “terrible” escalation. One day, he reached out to a man he’d met in prison who had meth available. “I couldn’t go a day without it,” he said.
Then a friend from high school asked him for heroin. He used his prison connections, and within a couple of months, Chen was selling a wide variety of narcotics that brought him loads of cash and placed him back in favor with Asian gangsters. He moved out of his family’s house, regularly lost huge sums of cash at a Southern California casino and began carrying a real gun—not for aggressive purposes, but because he feared for his safety, he says. The next few years were a drug-induced “haze” that ended with the four arrests in 2016.
In court this month, Deputy District Attorney Sarah Rahman wanted to send Chen to prison for two decades. She noted that cops repeatedly found him in dangerous situations while incoherently intoxicated in vehicles with the motor running. “This defendant had multiple priors as a juvenile,” Rahman said. “He didn’t reform. He went to prison. He didn’t reform. . . . He has a disregard for the law and the safety of others.”
But Freedberg—who told the Weekly he considers Chen one of his heroes for turning his life around—claimed a return to prison would derail his client’s impressive recovery during the past two years, a period when he completed numerous drug-addiction programs and won praise from administrators. For example, Jeremy Campbell at the Monte Cristo Recovery Center in Santa Ana wants him to counsel other recovering addicts. Therapy has helped “him a great deal,” Campbell advised the judge.
Freeberg reiterated the point, saying Chen “found the off-ramp before the dead end. . . . I’ve never seen a client work so tirelessly and diligently. . . . He’s committed to change his life. . . . If he goes to prison, it’s predator or prey.”
Conley praised Freeberg’s presentation and considered all arguments before addressing the defendant, who wore a white jail band on his left wrist—indicting he’s one of the least dangerous inmates inside the Orange County jail system. “There are many pluses,” the judge said. “There are also many minuses. You’ve accomplished a lot, Mr. Chen, but [the last batch of crimes] can’t be erased.”
A former prosecutor, Conley acknowledged the defendant’s progress by setting aside what could have been six strikes carrying enormous prison consequences. He also stayed numerous potential punishments, citing “all the good things” Chen had done since his arrests. At the end of the hearing, and with Rahman objecting to a “low” punishment, the judge ordered a prison term of 11 years and four months.
But this incarceration trip will be less severe. Chen accumulated 3.5 years of in-custody credits, and Conley tossed him another bone. He recommended housing not in one of the state’s penitentiary hellholes, but rather at a less terrifying work or fire camp.
The defendant softly replied, “Thank you.” Before bailiffs escorted him away, he turned back to his mother and silently mouthed words that resembled “I’m sorry.” She wiped away tears.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; earned six dozen other reporting awards; and been hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.