With the publication of my new Ethan Benson thriller, Live to the Network, I thought I’d write about the villain in my new novel, and explain why I chose the notorious Chinese gang, the Tong. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these thugs, the Tong is an underworld crime syndicate that rules the streets of New York City’s Chinatown, and like all the bad guys in my books, their ruthless disregard for human life is drawn from my own personal experience producing stories for ABC News 20/20. In the spring of 1984, I was assigned to a project about gang warfare in Los Angeles, focusing on the Crips and Bloods—the two major gangs in South Central LA—who were rumored to be getting ready to rip off tourists attending the Summer Olympic Games. So I headed off to the West Coast to do some down and dirty field research and took a beautiful, blond associate producer along for the ride. As soon as we got there, we linked up with a grass roots organization that was patrolling the streets of South Central—their mission to keep the peace between the two rival gangs, who were constantly at each other’s throats. Our tour guide, so to speak, was a giant of a man named Treetop—a former gang member, himself, who’d recently been released from prison.
The first night we were out on the streets started out pretty uneventful. Treetop, who was at least six feet five, three hundred pounds, and downright intimidating, kept pointing out small groups of gang members, wearing red (Bloods) and blue (Crips) bandannas, as they stared menacingly at me and my AP—two white intruders invading their turf. As the evening wore on, we grew more and more anxious as we passed bigger and bigger clusters of gang members whose hostility toward us became more and more obvious.
Then, as it got close to midnight, Treetop got a call on his car radio, alerting him to a group of shooters who were getting ready to avenge the death of one of their members who’d been murdered the night before by the rival gang. We took off in his car, peeling through the streets of South Central, until we pulled to a stop in front of a dilapidated, single family home on a dark and deserted side street. Then Treetop said to me and my AP in no uncertain terms, “come with me and don’t say a word.” So we followed him down a crumbling, cement pathway and around to the back of the house, where he rapped three times on a screened door. A moment later, the door swung open and a kid, no older than twelve or thirteen and covered in tattoos, peered from me to my AP and then up at Treetop, who grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and asked him what the hell was going on. The kid didn’t flinch, the scowl on his face deepening, as he led us through the ruins of a living room, down a creaky set of steps, and into the basement of the house, where we were confronted by a group of about a dozen kids—all in their early teens—who were wearing red bandannas and brandishing handguns, shotguns, and automatic weapons. Needless to say, my AP and I were scared shitless, beads of sweat dripping down our faces, fear seeping out of every pore of our bodies. And there we stood for what seemed an eternity as Treetop calmly confronted these little gangsters, until he finally managed to talk them off the ledge and diffuse the situation.
Well, I never found out if this gang of kid hoodlums ever carried out their vendetta, and I never produced the story for 20/20. I was too damn scared, and it was too damn dangerous. But as I was writing my new Ethan Benson thriller, the memories of this harrowing experience with the Crips and the Bloods in South Central LA, provided me with all the material I needed to create my fictional Chinese gang of killers, the villains in my new Ethan Benson thriller.