The streets of Tirana and the roots of Albanian-American organized crime

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Casino on a Tirana street. (Kevin Heldman)
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In June 2010, 17 men were arrested and charged by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan with a long list of federal RICO mob charges that included robbery, kidnapping, murder, drug dealing, weapons possession, conspiracy, extortion, arson, and obstruction of justice. They all came from Albania.

Authorities called it the Krasniqi Organization, a criminal enterprise run from 2003-2010 by two twenty-something Albanian brothers, Bruno and Saimir Krasniqi, who led a crew of hustlers, first in Michigan then in New York City.

In the lead-up to their trial last year, I wrote a series of articles for Capital about the New York-Albanian mob, for which I conducted more than a hundred interviews with criminals, criminal associates, law-enforcement agents and civilians in and around New York and Michigan. Following the series, I received a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to continue my reporting in Albania.

TIRANA—The members of the Krasniqi crew in New York loved Scarface, Donnie Brasco, Goodfellas, John Gotti and the Iceman. One nicknamed himself "Tony Montana."

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They hustled hard and all-in, with seemingly no regard for consequences, taking equally reckless approaches to their dealings with other dangerous gangsters and the police. For them, it wasn't about business—they seemed committed to the life, at all costs.

They practiced shooting at gun ranges, and then shot off their weapons in a coffee shop and, another time, from a car going down the highway in celebration after a drug deal.

They bought gun after gun, with accessories—Glocks, silencers, shotguns, 9 mms, semi-automatics, hollow-point bullets, bulletproof vests. They picked up a gun from a fellow restaurant worker for 50 dollars and bought a machine gun from a former soldier. They’d refer to the weapons in code, saying to each other in Albanian, “Make sure you bring that thing (sende) with you.”

They stashed the guns at the house of an associate, Elton Sejdaris, who at one point was the only one of the gang who didn't live with his parents.

They kidnapped an Albanian they had a dispute with, taking him from his apartment in his boxer shorts. They roughed him up and then let him go, spraying semi-automatic weapon fire past his head as he ran down the street at night.

One night Saimir was at the wheel of a Michigan rental car while Bruno and crew member Gentian Kasa were leaning out a car window for a drive-by, unloading entire clips into another Albanian street hustler, a member of a different crew named Lonka Shehu.

(They had reason to believe Lonka was planning to murder them; he was to have been strapped onto the back of a motorcycle driven by rival crew member Parid Gjoka so he'd have both hands free to shoot the Krasniqis during the drive-by.)

The Krasniqis made friends on the periphery of the Italian-American mob. They went on collection rounds with a Genovese family associate, and hung out with a Gambino family associate who carried around pipe bombs.

The Krasniqis were sitting in a Bay Ridge club one night when the bouncer, ex-NYPD, was rushed by a customer with a large kitchen knife. Bruno and Saimir sprang up and knocked the knife out of the man’s hands, sending him fleeing and saving the ex-cop, who was the head of security at the club. The former officer later testified at the Krasniqis' trial, to their good character.

The crew members would all pile into a room at a Red Roof Inn with strippers and escorts. Once they pulled a gun on one, leading to a visit from the police.

They showed up for support at each others' trials and helped set up legal representation for fellow hustlers. They would drop $20,000 at Atlantic City tables, and call Toronto on pre-paid and walkie-talkie phones, saying “Send me 100 of those blancas, blonde girls, brunette girls,” referring in code to different types of weed.

One of the Krasniqis' hustles was to supplement their drug dealing and crime by stealing marijuana they got on consignment or from other suppliers or dealers, a practice called “ripping weed.”

They once had a supplier riding in the car with them, accompanying his product (40 pounds in the trunk) from Michigan to New York. In Ohio they pulled into a rest stop, and while the supplier was in the bathroom they took off. They switched cars down the road in case he called the police on them. They sold the shipment for around $80,000, pure profit, and Saimir went out and bought a BMW. Bruno bought a Cadillac.

The ripping is what prompted the war with Gjoka’s crew, leading to Lonka’s death.

IN 2005, THE KRASNIQIS RIPPED A 100-POUND PACKAGE of weed that they got on consignment from a Toronto-based Albanian weed dealer. A guy they ran with, Erenick Grezda, had connected them with the supplier.

The Canadian dealer responded to the theft by paying $50,000 to men who were described at the trial as hard, northern Albanians from the Bronx to kidnap Grezda in New York.

They grabbed Grezda and transported him to Michigan, where they beat him until he agreed to participate in a plan to set up Bruno to be kidnapped.

Grezda called and told Bruno to go to some spot in New York to pick him up. Bruno agreed. When he got to the spot he was jumped by the kidnappers. He was bound, tossed in a van, beaten, stabbed, had his head covered with a pillow case and had guns put in his mouth.

The kidnappers moved Bruno to Ohio, where, I was told, he was held “by an Arab,” then they took him to the house of an Albanian named Franc Shestani in the area of Waterford, Michigan.

Saimir got a ransom call in New York. The kidnappers wanted $350,000: $250,000 for the weed and $100,000 more. Saimir called his lawyer Henry Scharg, who later testified that Saimir sounded petrified.

Saimir told Scharg that his girlfriend was in law school and clerking (and working as a nanny) for a federal judge. They decided to enlist the judge to help. Scharg called the judge. The judge suggested contacing the U.S. attorney’s office and the F.B.I., and Scharg called both.

Saimir had been deeply involved in a serious life of crime for at least five years. Just four months earlier he and Bruno had killed the rival in that drive-by. Yet he met with Michigan-based F.B.I. to get their help with his brother Bruno’s kidnapping, which only happened in the first place because they'd stolen a consignment of marijuana.

Saimir told the F.B.I. agents that the kidnapper was a man with a northern Albanian accent from Canada who identified himself as Klaudio Prendi. (The F.B.I. was going with the name "Klaudio Pendi," a mistake in the telling or the understanding.)