But now Robin Chee says he's a changed man, and wants to be able to gamble in Atlantic City casinos. Besides, he said, none of his old crimes happened in Atlantic City or in a casino.
The state Casino Control Commission, noting Chee has stayed out of trouble since his 2003 release, removed him Wednesday from a list of people barred from the casinos because of organized crime ties.
Chee, who represented himself at a hearing before the commission last year, said he is grateful for the second chance - something that is rarely granted by the commission.
"I'm very happy," he said after the vote. "I wanted my name off the list so I can come down here with my family."
New Jersey placed Chee on its exclusion list in 1995, after he was arrested on racketeering charges, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The list typically bars mobsters, con men, casino cheats and other unsavory characters from entering Atlantic City casinos.
In his hearing before the commission last year, Chee admitted he was one of the top three leaders of the Ghost Shadows, with the authority to direct criminal activities of the gang's 30 to 35 members.
The gang sold cocaine and heroin, extorted local merchants and ran illegal gambling games, mostly dominoes and cards. The Ghost Shadows also provided security to gamblers to protect them against robbery or other trouble.
Just a handful of drug deals netted him more than $100,000, he admitted.
He described his daily activities as drinking, getting high and gambling.
During his eight years in prison, Chee looked back on his life and proclaimed it "a waste."
"When I was incarcerated, I thought about what I did wrong," Chee said. "I had to make it better and stay away from illegal activities. Now I work 9-to-5 like everybody else."
When he got out, he got a job with a New York computer company, rising to become manager of its shipping department. He is married, has three children and considers himself a good father.
The state Division of Gaming Enforcement says it can find no evidence of gang ties since Chee got out of prison. Chee calls himself "a model citizen" and submitted character reference letters from five people.
"The writers of the character letters suggest that Mr. Chee is now an engaging, dependable, hardworking man who does his best to provide for his family," Commissioner Michael Epps wrote in his initial decision, which was dated Dec. 20 but had not been made public until now.
"I was impressed by his showing at the hearing," Epps continued. "He has provided substantial evidence of rehabilitation. (Chee) has completed his five year post-release probationary term, with the federal officer who supervised his probation noting that he has `changed his life for the better.'
"He has steadily maintained responsible employment practically since his release from prison," Epps wrote. "He presented himself as a man preoccupied with fulfilling his obligations to his immediate family."
Because none of his crimes occurred in Atlantic City or at a casino, Chee still doesn't understand why he was barred from New Jersey's casinos.
"He has been a law-abiding citizen, without arrest or criminal incident since his incarceration, and more meaningfully, during the ... seven years since his release," Epps wrote in his preliminary decision.
Though he has visited a casino in Connecticut just once since his release from prison, Chee "used to love to gamble," and wants to be able to do so again, Epps wrote.
"I used to come here a lot in the '80s and early '90s," gambling $5,000 on a typical trip and visiting most of the city's casinos, Chee said.
Chee said his time behind bars turned his life around. The Ghost Shadows, he said, were smashed by the 1995 arrests and no longer exist.
"If I didn't get arrested, I'd still probably be out there doing the same old thing," he said.