Jan. 28—Upon hearing of several armed robberies at local massage businesses, Rod Honstein and Sihui Fang sat down and strategized what to do if her shop was targeted.
First, Fang — at 5 feet, 5 inches and 105 pounds — would try to run. If that didn't work, she would give the robbers cash, electronics, whatever they wanted.
"And if that didn't work, we had a gun in the shop and she would only use that gun if she was 100% sure they would kill her," Honstein, Fang's closest friend, told the Journal.
In the end, it appears the 45-year-old fought like hell.
Fang, who grew up in an impoverished Chinese village and became a successful entrepreneur in Albuquerque, died Monday night in a shootout with an 18-year-old armed robber inside her Northeast Albuquerque massage spa, police say. The alleged shooter, Jorge Rivera-Ramirez, is recovering in the hospital from multiple gunshot wounds. His accomplice is still on the loose.
Surveillance video showed Rivera-Ramirez paid Fang for a massage to get inside before forcing her, at gunpoint, to open the door for an accomplice, according to police. Fang tried to run but Rivera-Ramirez is seen dragging her by the hair to the back office.
The video cut out, but detectives believe Fang gave the men $500 before she retrieved a gun and fired at Rivera-Ramirez. They say evidence showed Rivera-Ramirez ran into another room before shooting back at Fang, killing her.
Honstein said he was the first one in the Wonderful Massage spa after police left.
"You can't believe what you would have seen inside this shop. I mean, it was total devastation," he said. "And this lady fought with every ounce of her strength to survive."
Honstein said Fang had a recent close call of an attempted rape and, soon after, videos of armed robberies at other spas made the rounds among Asian business owners. He said Police Chief Harold Medina spoke with him at length and "was very supportive" as Honstein explained the current danger posed to the Asian-run businesses and their reluctance to speak with police.
The Albuquerque Police Department says the homicide may be tied to a string of two-man robberies at Asian massage businesses around the city due to similarities in the case, particularly the disabling of security cameras.
APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos declined to answer questions about that investigation.
The owner of another Asian-owned massage spa told the Journal she knew of more than 20 robberies of such businesses in Albuquerque and Santa Fe in recent months, although it's unclear whether they're all connected. The woman, who spoke broken English, said she hears of the incidents through other business owners and she tells them to call police.
A woman who worked at Asian Spa Massage on East Central said she had been robbed four times, twice since July. She said in July she was robbed by two men with a gun. They took her phone, license, bank cards and what little money she had. The second time, a few months ago, she said it was one man with a gun and she was able to run away.
"Too much, massage shops, a robber comes inside to rob them two times, three times," the woman said. "It's very, very dangerous right now."
Honstein said Fang, whose name is pronounced Sue-Way Fong, had a remarkable life with "the toughest beginning one person could have."
He said she was raised by subsistence farmers in a small village in China's Hubei province. The home had a dirt floor with no electricity or running water. Honstein said Fang moved to Shanghai after eighth grade and then to the United States by her early 30s, becoming "perfectly conversational" in English with no formal teaching.
Honstein, who is almost 30 years older, said he met Fang in 2017 when she offered to help him learn Mandarin for a planned trip to Asia. By that time she owned her own home, car and a thriving business, one that boasts numerous Yelp reviews of people thanking her for curing their sciatica and sports injuries.
Honstein said the pair found a bond he wouldn't expect "in a million years."
"We were just on the same page," Honstein said. "... I mean, our cultures are so different, our backgrounds are so different. But it was really an amazing, amazing friendship."
He said Fang had a beautiful, if untrained, singing voice, was an excellent photographer and one of the smartest people he ever met "with a thirst for knowledge." When the pandemic closed down her business, she took up hiking, to Honstein's detriment.
"She wasn't about to sit around. So she said, 'We're gonna hike.' And it was almost the death of me, but I somehow managed to sort of keep up," the 72-year-old said. The pair racked up hundreds of miles in trips to the Grand Canyon, Mount Elbert and around New Mexico.
Honstein said there aren't enough good adjectives to describe his friend.
"She was exceptional in every way. And I think the reason she was so beautiful on the outside was because she was so beautiful on the inside," he said.
More recently, Honstein said Fang talked about getting out of the massage business. He said he was helping her sharpen her English reading skills and financial savvy. He was excited to watch her blossom.
"We talked about strategies for aging, gracefully and healthily. This lady was just getting started," Honstein said. "I was excited just to see, in the short time I've got left, where she went."