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But there is still one way for an inmate to secure a deportation waiver: by marrying a US citizen. So, two days before his hearing, Zheng exchanged vows with massage therapist Shelly Smith, who began a romance with him six years earlier. The ceremony was short, sweet, and not a moment too soon. The next morning, Smith filed a spousal petition for Zheng's residency. It was a last-minute change in a legal battle already full of last-minute changes.
Love might literally set Eddy Zheng free.
Zheng has had a lot of time to think about the circumstances that drew him to crime. Before the Zhengs immigrated to Oakland from China when he was twelve, the family had been relatively well-off. His mother had been a government accountant; his father had been in the military, then managed a basketball team. Eddy, their youngest child, was a spoiled kid who didn't have to do chores and didn't go to kindergarten until he was seven because the aunt who babysat him couldn't bear to part with him. Zheng was miserable about moving to America.
Circumstances were bleak in the family's new home -- seven people shared a two-bedroom apartment over a sewing shop on Telegraph Avenue. Because of American sci-fi movies, Zheng's sister Lili recalls, the kids expected to find a land of ease where robots did your chores. Instead, all the family did was work. Zheng's father and older brother took long shifts at Burger King, Lili worked three part-time jobs and eventually put herself through UC Berkeley, and his mom became a live-in babysitter who came home only one day a week. For most meals, the family ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or Burger King hamburgers that had been tossed after they sat on the grill too long.
Because everyone was trying to get ahead, nobody was watching Eddy. He hardly spoke English, and was one of the few Chinese kids in a mostly African-American junior high. He felt isolated and bullied, taunted about not having lunch money and for wearing clothes from Goodwill. He would escape by taking the bus to Chinatown's Lincoln Park to hang with kids who spoke his language.
He befriended two a couple of years his senior, Dennis Chan and David Weng. Together, the three were trouble. Zheng's grades fell and he skipped school regularly. During their high school years, the three young men were busted for petty theft in Daly City and car theft in Concord; Zheng served probation and was ordered to provide restitution. It wasn't much of a deterrent. When Zheng was sixteen, the two older boys came up with their biggest scheme yet -- an armed home invasion. He agreed to it. Their target was another immigrant Chinese family that owned gift and herbal medicine shops in San Francisco's Chinatown. The teens were convinced the family owned a safe that surely would yield instant wealth.
At Zheng's sentencing, the prosecutor explained how carefully the teens planned the crime. Chan saved his allowance money to buy a gun, they borrowed a getaway car, and they tailed the father, Kwong Sang Tam, home from work to learn his address. On January 6, 1986, the teens followed the family upstairs to their apartment and forced themselves inside at gunpoint. What they'd envisioned as a quick holdup then devolved into a six-hour Tarantino-esque debacle that only got grislier and more complicated as it went on.
They began by dividing the Tam family, hoping to scare one of them into revealing where the safe was. They bound the father's hands with wire. They made the six- and nine-year-old children, Jenny and David, get into the bathtub so they wouldn't see what was going on, but the kids escaped and tried to untie their dad. Jenny recalls the teens returning her and her brother to the bathroom, this time duct-taping their mouths and tying their legs and hands together. David remembers one of the teens pointing a gun at him and warning, "I could shoot you and there could be a lot of blood, so you should be quiet." Jenny says one robber pointed his fingers like a gun at her head and made a shooting noise, then demanded where the money was. She told him to look in her mom's purse.
But of course, the three young men were after much more than a purse. They spent hours ransacking the house in frustration. To intimidate the mother, Mary, Zheng ripped her shirt and one of the boys grabbed an empty camera and pretended to take pictures with it.
And yet Zheng was also still so young that he remembers stopping to play with his victims' remote-controlled robot. "I knew I was committing a crime, but I didn't know what the consequences of the crime were," he says. "I was feeling this adrenaline; I wasn't feeling fear or anything like that."
By 11 p.m., the teens gave up on finding a safe. They hatched a new plan when they spotted a shop key lying around. While Weng kept watch on the house, Zheng and Chan drove Mary to the family's stores, where they helped themselves to $34,000 worth of cash and merchandise. While they were gone, the others untied themselves and threw books out the window until they finally got a neighbor to call the cops.