DETROIT — A little over six weeks ago, UCLA basketball players LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were arrested in China for shoplifting, setting off an international incident.
With considerable politicking, they were quickly released from detention to their luxury hotel and soon after that, following President Donald Trump speaking directly to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, were allowed to return to the United States.
Since then, the world of celebrity culture and controversy has moved on.
Trump and LaVar Ball, LiAngelo’s father, scraped on social media and CNN over whether a thank you was in order. LaVar pulled LiAngelo out of UCLA and then signed both LiAngelo and younger brother LaMelo to a Lithuanian pro team. Trump meanwhile has remained busy with a little bit of everything – signing a tax bill, campaigning for Roy Moore, trashing the FBI.
The entire kerfuffle feels like ancient history.
Except to Wendell Brown, and other Americans like him, who still sit in Chinese jails awaiting even a verdict or resolution of their cases.
And that means it’s the same for Antoinette Brown, Wendell’s mother, not to mention Wendell Jr., his 10-year-old son, who are staring at a second consecutive Christmas without him.
Wendell Brown, 31, played football at Detroit King High School, Ball State and in the CFL. In 2015, he moved to Chongqing, China, to coach in an American football league, teach English and operate his own fitness company.
On September 24, 2016, he attended a friend’s birthday party at a bar. As Brown’s side tells it, a group of locals asked Brown to have a drink with them. African-Americans, especially muscular, 6-foot, 225-pound African-Americans, stand out in Chongqing. Brown declined. They took it as a sign of disrespect and began hurling bottles at him. Brown was arrested for hitting a man. He asserts he never threw a punch and merely raised his arms to block the bottles being thrown at him.
Brown was detained with no American-style bail and no discovery process. Now in the grips of a legal system that bears little resemblance to the United States, he’s remained there nearly 15 months. Brown, who had never been arrested before, hired a Chinese lawyer, but at one point was told his best option was to plead guilty and pay $100,000 in restitution, an amount he didn’t have.
A trial was held in July 2017 with the courtroom packed with Chinese supporters of Brown. Additionally, letters of support were presented. The Chinese government doesn’t release court documents and there is no free media to chronicle the case, but according to Wendell’s Chinese friends (his family couldn’t afford to attend), his innocence was proven.
The judge, however, has yet to render a verdict, meaning Wendell Brown has spent five months just awaiting word on his guilt or innocence.
Juxtaposed with the UCLA players, his case became a rallying cry last month. If Trump – let alone any American pressure – could get three admittedly guilty college basketball players released so quickly, what about a former college football player who is either innocent or, at worst, someone who has served a lot of time for essentially getting caught in the middle of a bar fight?
Antoinette Brown is still wondering.
“It’s just devastating,” she said Thursday. “I’m just so tired. I’m just so tired. But I keep praying.”
Her faith is emboldened by progress. Wendell’s story received considerable attention, which has led to a roller coaster of developments, some good, some not.
Trump has not gotten involved the way he did for LaVar Ball’s kid. This, despite Antoinette and her husband, Travon King, who together own a small salon in Detroit, promising they would thank the president profusely if he would. A social-media campaign to tweet the story at him drew no response. Neither did a flurry of media. Antoinette even appeared on Trump’s favorite show, “Fox and Friends,” but perhaps he wasn’t watching that segment.
She worries that LaVar Ball’s reaction to his help may have turned him off on the idea of aiding athletes jailed in China.
There have been other disappointments. The Washington politician who took the most interest in the case was Rep. John Conyers of Detroit. Only soon after his office began working seriously on it, Conyers was removed from office due to a sexual harassment scandal. Conyers had been in office since 1965 … and now he gets booted?
“At that point I was like, ‘What else could possibly happen in this case?’ ” Antoinette said, with a bit of gallows humor.
Thus far, she hasn’t seen heard from any other Washington politician. She remains hopeful someone, from Michigan or elsewhere, or any political party, might get interested.
There’s been some good, though. A GoFundMe page to help with legal costs and other items took off, and now sits at over $16,000. The Ball State Alumni Association has pushed to use its resources to lobby officials in China. One man contacted her and used his connections to get Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to write a letter to political and business leaders in Chongqing, where the Governor often travels seeking trade deals.
A businessman from out-of-state who often does business in Chongqing and wishes to remain anonymous hired a second Chinese lawyer to help with the case. It just feels like progress, even if Wendell is still incarcerated.
As for Wendell, his friends in China say he’s aware that his case has received some attention back home, is proud of his relentless mother and was heartened when the guards in the detention center brought him a cake earlier this month for his birthday. He then shared it with other inmates.
“It shows he is respected by everyone, a model prisoner,” Antoinette said.
She’s humbled and thankful for every bit of help for her son and encourages anyone who still wants to help to please do. Pray. Share the story. Encourage a politician or business entity. Find Donald Trump.
“We’re still waiting but I believe in the system,” Antoinette said. “I still do. We just need to keep making our case.”
With that she had to get back to work, styling hair on Detroit’s humble East Side. The Ball family has moved on, jet-setting to the next big thing. She has no such luxury. Reality is still reality.
Christmas is coming, after all. Another Christmas is coming.