4:00 pm Jul. 6, 2011
I spent about ten months reporting on Albanian organized crime, all leading up to three weeks in a New York federal court house for the first trial of a group Albanian-Americans with ties to the organized international drug trade.
The jury decided the case in one day.
I was called in by the clerk for the verdict on June 23. Six of the defendants in the case had pled out. The two defendants who didn’t plead out—Plaurent Cela and Skender Cakoni—were convicted on both the counts they were charged with: Narcotics conspiracy, for possession with intent to distribute 100 kilos or more of marijuana; and the possession and use of a firearm in relation to a narcotic trafficking conspiracy. They’ll be sentenced on Sept. 23.
The trial, the first of two involving a large group of Albanian-American organized-crime figures, was the culmination of years of investigation and case-building by the feds. (The crimes Cela and Cakoni were being tried for were committed between 2003 and 2007.) But when the verdict was read, most of the crowd in the courtroom wasn't even paying particularly close attention.
The room was packed with attorneys for the judge’s next case, and for a sentencing in yet another case. Just like that, it was over; everyone moved on, like nothing happened.
Almost everyone. When I left the courthouse, the mother of one of the defendants approached me. I'd been talking to her throughout the trial, trying to explain to her what was going on in the courtroom. She was devastated and could barely speak, and she begged me not to write about her child.
The second trial will take place in October, when two brothers named Bruno and Saimir Krasniqi, the alleged ringleaders of a particularly brutal crew (which warred over turf with Cela and Cakoni's gang), will be tried along with two or three of their associates. They'll be facing a RICO trial, for more severe crimes: murder, racketeering, narcotics conspiracy, kidnapping, interstate robbery and extortion. Theirs is a death-penalty-eligible case, but an F.B.I. agent I spoke to who's involved in the case said it’s unlikely to be prosecuted that way.
The trial of Cela and Cakoni was a riveting spectacle, for whoever cared to watch. (Media coverage, other than me, amounted to a Daily News reporter who showed up for half of the first day and never came back.)
There was an old-school defense attorney who talked about the Fourth of July and the American flag, and has a book full of courthouse war stories, and who on cross-examination called a cooperating witness a “piece of ... ” before stopping himself.
Another defense attorney, Phyllis Malgieri, had a starkly different style. She periodically hugged her client, and basically played the role of courtroom mother. (I asked; she's one in real life, too.)
There was a young assistant U.S. attorney, Chi T. Steve Kwok, who I knew was Ivy League before I Googled him. (Yale Law.) He built his case surgically, getting passionate and a little streety when he had to. The other young prosecutor, Arianna Berg, was a total natural, coming off as competent and pleasant and demonstrating it's possible to work effectively in this arena without being a shark or coming off like a guest expert on a cable show.
And there was an F.B.I. intelligence analyst with a Master's degree who has spent five years, on and off, charting cell-phone frequency patterns on spreadsheets, studying subscriber sheets and pen registries of guys who used to make pizza or fix roofs but had drifted into drink and drugs and clubbing and, eventually, organized crime.
Elsewhere, the cat-and-mouse game between Albanian-American organized-crime figures and federal law enforcement continues. I was told by the F.B.I. that the kingpin who started all these young men off, Kujitim (Timi) Konci, was arrested in Dallas and is currently in federal custody under the name Kujitim Gonxhe, awaiting trial. (I did some research and found out he's actually being held as Shpetim Konci.)
Franc Shestani, a bag man arrested by the F.B.I. for the 2005 kidnapping of Bruno Krasniqi (snatched from the Bronx, brought to Detroit), made bail and, according to a New York agent, “has disappeared.”
Meanwhile, sources with connections to the New York-based Albanian-American criminal underworld continue to feed me names (19 of them, at last count) of people they say are still at large and mixed up in serious criminal activity. I met with the New York F.B.I. Balkan Task Force for about two hours and tried to run all this information by them. They were respectful and complimentary about the level of reporting I’d done—the supervisor of the Task Force said he'd forwarded my article to the F.B.I.’s entire Organized Crime division—and asked if I was being threatened or in any danger. I’m not, but somebody else is, and I asked for their help on that.
They didn’t recognize many of the names I had but they said that doesn’t mean another office isn’t looking into them. They also said some of the cases would be in the jurisdiction of F.B.I. field offices in other cities (Dallas and Chicago in particular came up).
An agent very straightforwardly told me that there’s no magic database that’s necessarily any better or more useful than some guy at a club or a bar or on the street telling me, yeah, I know that guy.
Databases do show some things, though.
Plaurent Dervishaj, Albania’s most wanted criminal and a prominent figure on the F.B.I.’s Most Wanted list, shared the same exact address in Ridgewood, Queens with a man named Gentian Kasa. Kasa was a major figure in the Krasniqi crew, and his name came up repeatedly during the trial. Kasa shared the same exact address with Saimir Krasniqi when they lived in Michigan. Kasa was shot dead in 2007 when he and Plaurent's brother, Redinel Dervishaj, showed up with guns at the Ridgewood house of a man named Lulzim Kupi, threatened his family and demanded extortion money. Kupi had his own gun and there was a firefight in the streets.
The F.B.I. says Kupi owned the Rogner Café in Ridgewood, an Albanian hangout spot that also came up repeatedly at the trial. Kupi was arrested and charged at the time of the shooting, but was not prosecuted. The F.B.I. says Kupi is now free and is under no investigation for anything. (I wrote to him, he never answered.)
Redinel Dervishaj, who was shot during the incident, and who was, according to media reports at the time, under federal investigation, is also, according to the F.B.I., free and not under any investigation for anything.
Across the ocean in Albania, in March of this year, the Albanian press reported that “two hundred kilograms of cocaine has ‘disappeared,’ together with evidence against all the people implicated in issuing the orders, and seizing and later dealing with the largest cocaine haul ever seized in our country.” Law enforcement agencies in seven countries were in the loop tracking this cocaine as it made its way from Colombia.
And just recently, on June 27 at Tirana International Airport, Alltin Kore, 32, an Albanian financial consultant from Dallas with ties to an ex-stockbroker being investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in connection with an alleged pump-and-dump stock scam, was arrested. Kore was indicted in 2008 on charges that he had conspired to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine. He had more than $150,000 in a Chase bank and owed over $200,000.
An Albanian newspaper translated my articles for Capital New York and did a separate interview with me. The reporters for that paper and I agreed to share information and reporting about that case and on ongoing developments.
The next installment in this series will reconstruct the events of a running skirmish between two New York-Albanian gangs that culminated in the murder of one of the members.
This is the third installment in a series by Kevin Heldman on Albanian organized crime in New York. Read the series here.
More by this author:
- The streets of Tirana and the roots of Albanian-American organized crime
- Takeout story: Behind bulletproof glass and out on a bike for a Chinese restaurant in Mott Haven