DETROIT — The lights remained on as Wednesday night turned into early Thursday morning in the small-but-tidy-house in northeast Detroit, a gang-dominated neighborhood dubbed “The Red Zone” by locals and one of the most dangerous in America by federal prosecutors.
Antoinette Brown had successfully raised her son, Wendell, out of this area, through a star football career at King High School, then Ball State University in Indiana. When Wendell, now 31, headed to China in 2016 to coach football for a professional league there to offer youth instructional camps on the game and teach English as a second language, she and her husband Travon King had few worries about violence or crime or trouble at all.
Yet here they were, staying up all night to await word from a Chinese court (12 hours ahead) about the future for Wendell. They fretted, like so many parents in their neighborhood, about how only one good thing could happen to their son against about a million bad.
In September 2016, Wendell was at a friend’s birthday party held in a bar in Chongqing, China. A fight broke out and local men threw bottles at Wendell, who, along with his attorneys and other witnesses, contend only defended himself by raising his arms and pushing the assailants away.
Wendell, a 6-foot, 225-pound African American was arrested anyway and sent to a Chinese jail. There was a proposed $100,000 settlement offer, but the family didn’t have that much money or any sophistication into the local legal system. Antoinette and Travon own a small hairstyling studio along Detroit’s blue-collar Gratiot Avenue.
Instead, Wendell took his chances in Chinese court, where prosecutors enjoy a 99 percent conviction rate, according to Amnesty International research. A trial was held in July 2017, and nearly a year later, a verdict was finally coming.
Antoinette held out hope, clinging to the idea the judge’s decision to delay the verdict for so long was a sign of a lack of interest in rendering a guilty verdict to an innocent man.
That proved fruitless.
Last Thursday in China, Wendell was sentenced to four years in prison, continuing the nightmare for he and his family, which includes a 10-year-old son in Florida. What was once a temporary gig living and working in China continues on with confusion, frustration and incarceration.
“I still can’t believe this,” Antoinette said.
Whether Wendell has to serve the entire sentence is still unknown to the family. Often the Chinese will simply deport someone convicted of such a crime. Also uncertain is whether time served will count against the sentence. The Chinese government does not respond to media inquiries on such matters and is not obligated to release any evidence or information, which has frustrated the family.
Wendell’s Chinese attorney and local supporters contend video shown at the trial revealed he did nothing more than offer a defensive push during the melee, essentially trying to get away from an attack. Racism is rampant in China and Wendell, large and muscular, stands out in nearly any crowd.
Even if the Chinese government’s account is accurate, Wendell has already served nearly two years in jail for what was, at worst, participating in a fairly minor bar fight. None of the local men suffered even moderate injuries, which Wendell, at his size, certainly could have inflicted had that been his intention.
The family has pled for help since the incident began. Politicians have been unable to make headway, and the Browns have been plagued by bad luck. The U.S. Representative who took the most interest in the case was forced to resign due to harassment issues in his office. A series of planned meetings with officials at the State Department, with family and friends driving through the night to get to Washington, was cancelled without warning.
There was hope last winter that President Donald Trump would get involved after Trump said he personally lobbied the Chinese president to free three UCLA basketball players detained for shoplifting. They were released, although that decision was seemingly made before Trump even got involved. Still, it was on Trump’s radar.
Those players were famous and well-connected, including the younger brother of Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball, whose outspoken father, LaVar, creates media attention wherever he goes. Trump later grew angry at LaVar when Trump said LaVar didn’t properly thank him for intervening. LaVar responded by saying Trump should have flown the kids back from Shanghai on Air Force One.
The petty back and forth among the rich and privileged exasperated Antoinette. She promised to thank and give all credit to Trump if he worked at all for “my innocent son as he did for three guilty UCLA players.”
It didn’t work. Trump hasn’t responded.
“Wendell has been subjected to blatant discrimination, his human rights have been violated,” Antoinette said this week. “Prosecuting an innocent man with no evidence is a grave injustice.”
The verdict has devastated the family and demoralized Wendell’s supporters. A lack of clarity of what comes next hasn’t helped.
All they know is a guy who used football to escape one of the toughest neighborhoods in America only to try to coach and teach the game halfway around the world is still entangled in a web no one saw coming.
Her son still stuck in a Chinese prison, Antoinette is promising to get only stronger and stronger and stronger still.
“We will continue to fight,” she said.
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