Runaway sidekick: How little Tani Kocareli escaped from the New York-Albanian mob, then botched it

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L'aroma Dei Cafe. (via Google Street View)
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The New York-Albanian mob is in a state of law-enforced transition. In the last two months, there was the U.S. attorney’s successful conviction of a handful of New York-based Albanian-American gangsters, and the subsequent bust last month of some 37 alleged criminals in New York (all five boroughs and throughout the state) and elsewhere for their part in a global drug operation. That latest indictment charges the syndicate with having hundreds of associated members, workers and customers trafficking drugs to and from Canada, Mexico, South America, Central America and the Netherlands.

In October, a RICO trial of notorious gang leaders Bruno and Saimir Krasniqi, among others, is scheduled to begin. Kingpin charges against three of the defendants in last month's big indictment may result in yet another RICO trial in the near future.

What follows is the story of a man described to me by an Albanian gang associate as a "nobody," but who turned out to be a big somebody in all of this. He was a pitiable sidekick, dogged by his own crew, kidnapped and beaten by rivals and then arrested and flipped by the government, before the government eventually flipped on him.

Neritan (Tani) Kocareli is 30 years old. He arrived in the United States from Albania when he was 17, after he, his brother and his parents won an immigration lottery. Later, he became a citizen.

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Tani lived in Ridgewood, Queens and went to high school there, but he only lasted about two years before he started cutting classes and hanging out with Albanian tough guys in the nearby L'aroma Dei Café. He dropped out, and would eventually get a G.E.D..

That group Tani fell in with at L'aroma Dei included the late, violent Genitan Kasa, who became a soldier in the employ of the Krasniqi brothers. It also included Plaurent Dervishaj, another former associate of the Krasniqis, who is currently at large and on the most-wanted list of federal law enforcement agencies in America and Albania.

At another Albanian spot nearby, the Rogner Café, the customers were just as rough. It included the Albanian drug kingpin, Kujitim Konci (a.k.a. Kujitim Gonxhe, a.k.a. Shpetim Konci) and a major Albanian-American dealer named Parid Gjoka.

Gjoka was the most popular guy in the neighborhood. He drove nice cars and wore nice clothes and knew everyone.

Gjoka had a rep from back home. When he was still a teenager in Albania he would ride on horseback into Tirana doing his bad deeds, stealing radios from cars and generally making a nuisance of himself. Once, when he was 14, local police beat him into a coma. The beating didn’t discourage him from his ways.

Before long, Gjoka was running a criminal gang that traveled all over Albania, living lavishly. They picked up women, guzzled champagne, ate out at the best restaurants and then skipped out on the tabs.  Once, when confronted by a proprietor he had stiffed, Gjoka said, “You know what you got coming to you if you don’t leave us alone.”

Gjoka wanted to be like Konci. He called himself a “street boy” and a “gangster,” and frequented gentlemen’s clubs.

Tani, in turn, wanted to be like Gjoka. He got his start in the game by accepting a job driving two kilos of coke from Chicago to New York for Konci. Another time, Tani delivered a kilo, by train, from Texas to New York.

He never got paid for these jobs. He did it because he knew Konci, he knew his family and what he was involved with, and because he was afraid to say no.

On the stand, Gjoka described Tani—who is physically short and slight—as having been like a little brother to him. Apparently, Tani was the kind of little brother who gets pushed around a lot.

When Tani took the stand, he said that Gjoka was bossy and disrespectful.  Tani said he did errands for Gjoka, helped Gjoka on roofing jobs and construction jobs, and that, at Gjoka’s suggestion, he helped an Albanian super lug garbage, four or five hours at a stretch, maybe on six different occasions. He never got paid. What Tani earned was the right to hang out with Gjoka.

One time, when they were on a job, Gjoka played a practical joke on Tani. Tani joked back. Gjoka didn’t like it. He hit Tani with a stick and made him run around a fire, saying “I’m sorry” a hundred times while Gjoka counted.

“I wasn’t a nice guy,” Gjoka testified.

Tani made between 10 and 20 trips upstate to transport drug money. Each time, he met with a woman at a highway rest stop (Clifton Springs off Highway 90, two hours from the Canadian border) and gave her the cash so she could in turn take it to a drug connection in Toronto. Typically, the amount he carried was $50,000, but it was once as much as $90,000. Most of the time, again, Tani got nothing from Gjoka for his troubles. Once, he got $300.

Tani also used to pick up drug shipments in the Bronx: 40 pounds, 70 pounds. Tani estimated Gjoka would make a profit of about $300 for every pound he moved.

According to testimony from another witness, a Krasniqi associate named Almir Rrapo, Gjoka at one point had $3-400,000 in cash laying around his apartment. Gjoka, for his part, said he was broke at the end of every week, mostly from buying clothes, jewelry, strippers, and restaurant meals for his boys.

Tani said Gjoka always needed someone to be with him, especially when he got high on cocaine. Gjoka started as a casual user, but after the accidental death of his girlfriend, he started going on regular two- and three-day benders. Tani would be his get-high buddy.

Not that spending all this time hanging out with Gjoka earned him any more respect from the other members of the crew. When Gjoka’s crew was plotting an ambush of an associate of the rival Krasniqi gang, one of Gjoka’s associates, Plaurent Cela, asked Tani whether he thought he was going to be able to pull the trigger when the time came, or if he’d wimp out as usual, and hide behind cars.

(It all trickles down: On cross-examination during Gjoka’s trial, the defense attorney asked Gjoka whether he had ever referred to Cela as a “faggot” or “soft” behind his back. Cela’s head shot upright. There was a sidebar called and that line of questioning was stopped.)

One lawyer asked Gjoka at one point why Tani hadn’t been asked to come along when his gang went to war.

“Tani wasn’t that kind of person,” Gjoka responded. “We were going to shoot people. That wasn’t what Tani was about.”

So while Gjoka’s crew was moving from motel to motel, Tani was running errands, picking up Gjoka’s clothes and chauffeuring Gjoka’s girlfriend.

On one of those errands Tani got kidnapped.

Saimir Krasniqi pulled up beside him, then Rrapo jumped out with a gun and told Tani to get into the car. There were two other Krasniqi associates in the vehicle. Tani did as he was told.

As they were driving, Tani realized he was carrying a key-card to a motel room where the Gjoka crew was staying. He managed to slip it between the seats, in case he was strip-searched.

Eventually, the car pulled up near a park in Staten Island. Bruno Krasniqi showed up, along with his loyal soldier, Kasa. They all wanted Gjoka’s location. Tani said he didn’t know.

They put him back in the car. Bruno held Tani’s head down on his lap and covered it with a jacket. They drove for about 30 minutes and until they got to an apartment building in Brooklyn. They took him upstairs, into an apartment where Kasa lived.

Kasa pulled out his 9 millimeter and asked Tani if he thought it was a nice gun, then hit Tani, then pulled the trigger on the gun, which misfired.

Rrapo punched Tani hard (“We had been friends before, I had to prove I was serious,” he would later explain).  Then Kasa hit Tani with the gun. Then Bruno hit him.

Bruno had what looked like a machine gun, a box of ammo, and plastic gloves. Bruno put the gun in Tani’s face. Somebody else was holding a pillow, as if to muffle the sound of an imminent kill-shot.

They interrogated him. Tani said later, at the trial, that they were really good at it; they knew when he was lying and when he told the truth, and they had talked to others beforehand.

At one point Tani “started laughing hysterically, illogically,” according to Rrapo’s trial testimony. It was some kind of reaction to the trauma.

“That made the situation awkward,” Rrapo said.

Tani didn’t give up his crew. His story was that Gjoka had fled to Canada, and he stuck to it.

Finally, his interrogators turned to kindness. They told Tani that Gjoka “treats you like crap,” and asked Tani why he was protecting Gjoka. They told him he should give Gjoka up and come work with them, because they’d treat him right.

Tani said he’d rather not. He just wanted to leave, go back to his family and live in Pennsylvania. He was done hanging out with tough guys. He  wanted to give up the life.

The Krasniqi gang's response, at that one point, was that he didn’t have a choice but to help them. Saimir gave Tani $100 so he could buy minutes on his phone to call them as soon as he had any information on Gjoka's whereabouts. They kept him for about five hours and dropped him off someplace at 6 a.m.

Tani checked into some motel under a fake name, washed up and called Gjoka from a landline. Gjoka and Tani’s brother (an Iraq war veteran) came to pick him up. Gjoka thought Tani had given them up and had cut a deal with the Krasniqis, especially when he found out that Tani didn’t have the motel key card. They changed motels that night.

Gjoka did coke that night. He asked Tani to join him. Tani said he was so rattled, he had such a horrible night, he just wanted to go to bed. For once, he declined.

Gjoka overdosed that night. Tani and his brother drove Gjoka to the emergency room and then Tani, “done with all this craziness,” took Gjoka’s car, without having packed a thing, and started driving to Pennsylvania.

Law enforcement eventually found him and arrested him. In 2007, Tani flipped: He quietly pled guilty to the crimes he was accused of and agreed to wear a wire and tape recorded calls of other defendants and of the father of a mob member he knew.

In the meantime, he got a full-time job in a factory. He went to school and got a certificate for medical billing. He got top-performer awards and perfect-attendance awards in his job. He stayed at that job for four years.

But for some reason Tani hadn’t told the prosecutors the whole truth. He didn’t tell them about his involvement in the cocaine trade back in the day. This turned out to be a big mistake.

When the prosecutors found out, they tore up his cooperation agreement and in April of this year, the feds rearrested Tani, charging him for the cocaine involvement and tagging on an additional charge for lying to the government.

After his testimony at the trial, Tani was escorted out of the courtroom and down a hallway by two plainclothes agents. He tried to make conversation with the agents as they arrived at an elevator, asking whether it was a special one for defendants.

The agents ignored him, typing on their Blackberrys as they waited for the doors to open.

This is the fifth installment in a series by Kevin Heldman on Albanian organized crime in New York. He's currently running down leads relating to about 30 alleged criminals who haven't been targeted by law enforcement, and will continue to cover the build-up to the Krasniqi trial in October. Read the other articles in this series here.

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