Why you should care

Because the line between acting crazy and being crazy is very thin indeed.

“You should really meet Julian.” My friend Tom had been telling me about Julian. Full name, amusingly, Julian S. Dong. “Just don’t make fun of his name.”

According to Tom, Dong was a heavy. Served with the Chinese army. Knew a bunch about martial arts and, well, we sounded like two guys who should know each other. For no other reason, Tom thought, than Dong had a boatload of great stories. Stories that a writer might be interested in.

In his mid-30s and rangy at about 6 feet and 175 pounds, with a head of black hair sort of spiked on top, like Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame, Dong certainly didn’t look the part of a heavy. He gripped my hand, hard, on our first meeting.

“Hey, brother,” he said, smiling. And then, almost immediately, the stories. He had taken his wife to see some Schwarzenegger action flick. There were only two seats left in the theater. Two seats in a row of four. A couple sat in the middle, making the only available seats the bookends.

“If you and your girl move over, my wife and I can sit together,” Dong said that he told the other guy. The guy demurred, said it wasn’t his fault Dong had showed up late. Dong’s wife said they should leave. Dong told her to sit down, which she did. Dong took his seat next to “Mr. Punctuality” and proceeded to tell him what was going to happen when the movie was over. “I’m going to shoot your eyes out in the parking lot, you piece of shit,” Dong hissed. After 15 minutes of this, the guy got up to complain. Dong told him, “Your complaints won’t help you in the parking lot.”

Dong and his wife ended up sitting together. Mr. Punctuality and his date? Chose the better part of valor and left to live another day. Dong started laughing his ass off, but journalists have a saying: Even if your mother says she loves you, get a second opinion. But it didn’t hurt to listen to the stories, and they came fast and furiously. Like: Dong twice stabbed a man he accidentally crashed his bike into on New Year’s Eve back in China when the guy’s girlfriend egged him on to attack Dong. The guy ran from the alley with two knives sticking from each shoulder before falling. Dong fled.

“Are you being funny?” And just like that, the temperature in the room changed, and while in the movies this tension is a contrivance, in reality it was nothing but death.

“Say,” I asked Tom, “what’s Julian do for a living anyway?”

“He manages an apartment complex.”

Dong had to be the toughest apartment manager ever. But he was entertaining, and so I thought I’d hang with the tough-guy wannabe, being a tough-guy wannabe myself. I still had my Federal Firearms License and was legally involved in buying and selling guns. Dong said he had a line on some Russian-made rifles — SKS rifles, an AK-47 variant — and did I want some? I told him I would take five. He told me to meet him at his warehouse.

The warning signs were certainly there, but I was a certain type of fool and showed up at the appointed hour anyway. Dong and another heavy were standing around inside the warehouse. Like in the movies. They pried open the crate and I grabbed the SKS, checked the action, the general condition. We were bullshitting. Laughing.

I said, “OK,” and reached into my pocket for the cash, which I placed on the crate’s cover for him to count.

“Are you being funny?” And just like that, the temperature in the room dropped. And while in the movies this tension is a contrivance, in reality it was nothing but death. Smelled like death. Felt like death.

“Julian …” I smiled wanly, and looked at the money. “What are you talking about?”

“That’s not enough, man.”

“Yes, it is,” I said. I wanted five rifles; I had brought the money for five rifles.

“You wanted 500, man. I got your 500.” Then I understood. It was a magnitude issue. I meant five, he meant 500. A simple misunderstanding. But Dong and his heavy just looked at me. Meaning: I had to address this. And probably sooner rather than later.

“Five hundred is a number I can’t do. I’ve never sold, in total, 500 of any kind of firearm, man. I don’t have the money for this. And even if I did, I don’t have a way to haul 500 guns and no place to store them.” It was the equivalent of throwing myself on the mercy of good sense. None of which seemed to be in play here.

After way too long a pause, Dong laughed. “OK. Take the five.”

I didn’t see Dong much after that, and then I read about him in the paper. Apparently he had shot a man named Douglas Sahm in the head. Sahm dialed 911, then collapsed and eventually slipped into a coma. When Sahm emerged from the coma much later, he identified his shooter: Julian S. Dong. Dong had addresses all over the Bay Area, five in total. He had an accomplice. Twenty-two cops and five search warrants later, Dong was done.

Figuring to write him in prison, I asked Tom where he was doing his time. Tom said he’d looked and looked but found no records of Dong going to any California penitentiary. “I heard he’s back in China, but who knows? People disappear all the time.”

A fact that made me feel better not at all.

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising -- the human.