Chinese immigrants in Philly still recovering from home-invasion terror

Zhiming Chen (left) waits on a customer standing behind the bulletproof glass window of his West Philadelphia takeout while his cook, Er Tai Lan, looks on. Both men were victimized last year.

More than a year after masked gunmen burst into their homes and robbed them, the terror remains vivid for Chinese business owners and their families.

One married couple and their daughter have trouble sleeping and are seeing a mental health counselor. They’ve put an alarm system in the takeout store below their West Philadelphia residence. Another West Philly takeout owner bought a gun. At his store Friday, he showed his 9mm black semiautomatic pistol and his permit to carry it. His cook, who like him was robbed in their upper-floor rooms, suffers from chest pain.

The victims remain so afraid that they don’t want their faces photographed or their addresses published for fear of retaliation.

These two home-invasion robberies were among 13 in the city from May to August 2016 in which Chinese business owners were targeted because of a belief that they keep cash in their homes and are afraid to report crimes. The robberies terrified the city’s Chinese community, spurred a decade-old regional task force to renew safety meetings with residents, and prompted City Council to hold a hearing.

Norman Bowen, 30, and Anthony Campbell, 34, both of West Philadelphia, were charged in nine of the cases, all of which occurred in West and North Philly when most of the victims were asleep.

Camera icon Philadelphia Police
Norman Bowen (left) and Anthony Campbell got lengthy prison sentences Monday.

As the victims struggle to recover, some relief came Monday, when Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara McDermott sentenced Bowen to 35 to 70 years in state prison after he pleaded guilty in July to six home-invasion robberies and one attempt. She sentenced Campbell to 30 to 60 years in state prison after he pleaded guilty or no contest in seven home-invasion robberies and one attempt.

“This case in many ways is worse than a homicide, because there was more than one victim and it’s not just one night,” the judge told the defendants. “You had to have felt the terror of those families.”

‘I will kill your husband!’

Philadelphia has about 400 Chinese takeouts, some in crime-ridden neighborhoods, said Steven Zhu, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chinese Restaurant Association. Employees frequently work seven days a week behind bulletproof plastic windows.

Many of the immigrants came to the city from Fujian province in China seeking better lives, including Jenny Huang, 40, and her husband. Owen Lin, 47.

About 4 a.m. July 28, 2016, the couple were asleep when Bowen and Campbell, both masked and armed, broke through their store’s back door, rushed upstairs into the couple’s bedroom, yelling, “‘Get up! Get up!'” Grabbing the couple from their bed, the men ordered them to stand with their hands against the wall.

Huang said she was slammed with a gun on top of her head three times. Her husband also was pistol-whipped. The gunmen ransacked the bedroom but found no money.

“‘If you don’t give me money, I will kill your husband!'” one of the men shouted, Huang recalled. One robber, pointing a gun at her husband’s head, forced him to go downstairs, and stole cash from the store. Before they left, also taking jewelry and the store’s video surveillance system, they ransacked the 9-year-old daughter’s room, tied up the couple’s hands and legs, and stuffed clothing into their mouths.

Huang, in an interview inside her takeout, said in Mandarin that the couple used a bank before the robbery and still do. They had wanted to sell the takeout because business has not been good. Now they feel more urgency to do so, but they signed a 15-year lease in 2008 and no one wants to buy the business, she said.

Zhiming Chen, 37, the owner of another takeout, and his cook, Er Tai Lan, 54, said in interviews that Bowen, Campbell, and a third masked gunman broke through the back door of their takeout about 3 a.m. June 29, 2016. Two rushed into Lan’s second-floor bedroom, placed a gun to his chest, demanded money, tied his hands with a belt, and forced him onto the ground face down. One man went to Chen’s third-floor bedroom and placed a gun to his chest as his two children, ages 6 and 8, slept in the next room.

The gunman ordered Chen to wait 20 minutes before leaving his room. “‘If not, I will kill you,'” Chen recalled him saying. The robbers fled after stealing cash, a computer, an iPhone, and cigarettes.

Camera icon ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Zhiming Chen holds his 9mm Ruger pistol on Friday.

After last year’s series of home-invasion robberies, many members of the Chinese takeout community would wait until daylight to go to bed, Chen said. Others besides himself have obtained guns, he said.

Speaking in Mandarin, he also said he’d like to sell his business but has found no buyers. “We are good people,” he said. “We help people in the neighborhood.”

A community unified

City Councilman David Oh, who held a hearing a year ago to address the spate of robberies, said Wednesday that although people of Asian origin make up only 6 percent of the city’s population, they represented 16 percent of the home-invasion robbery victims in the city in 2015 and 2016.

As a result of the hearing, Oh said, Council members learned that Chinese takeout owners in some of the poorer neighborhoods at times have difficulty getting police to respond to harassment and disturbance issues in their stores. For instance, he said, store owners might call police about people inside their takeouts banging on their windows or throwing trash at them, but officers may not respond.

Oh, who himself was stabbed during a robbery attempt outside his Southwest Philadelphia home May 31, said discrimination against people of Asian descent has contributed to their being targets of crime.

At Monday’s hearing at the Criminal Justice Center, 85 people from the Chinese community signed a petition asking McDermott to sentence the two men to stiff sentences. Only about 40 of them could be seated in the packed courtroom. About a dozen supporters of the defendants also attended.

“The victims that were selected by these defendants were targeted for who they are. … These defendants targeted Chinese business owners,” Assistant District Attorney Jill Fertel told the judge, noting that Campbell admitted to authorities that he targeted Chinese business owners.

Bowen and Campbell apologized to the victims in court. The judge also ordered the pair to pay restitution of $10,000 each.

Lt. John Walker of the Southwest Detective Division, a key member of the regional task force, said afterward that trust has grown between Asian business owners and police since the task force was created a decade ago. He urged business owners to use banks and install surveillance cameras.

Fertel said that although victims were targeted because of their ethnicity, the defendants were not charged with hate crimes because they were not motivated by racial hatred, but by cultural stereotypes.

Still, she said, “these biases are just as harmful. … They caused extraordinary harm.”