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We drove further and further from the city, up into mountains and through forest. He finally decided we weren't being followed, and that it was just him and me.
We arrived at a completely isolated mountaintop villa that looked a little like a miniature castle, and rolled up the driveway. Another hard-looking guy in the driveway greeted him.
It was now nighttime. We sat at a table outside, overlooking the whole city—me, him, and my backpack full of files containing information about criminals, trying not to shiver in my shirtsleeves. Then he got into it, started telling me about his world and naming names that matched up with the ones in my notes.
He said he'd chosen to live outside a city in America with a lot of Albanians because he wanted to keep a low profile. He worked primarily as muscle and as a driver for some big-time pot dealers. One of them was like a father to him, he said. He said he had been moving 600 pounds a week. He said he’s not scared of the police, but he’s scared of beef with other gangsters. I told him I'd be careful not to identify him.
He said he got paid $15,000 to drive 30 minutes a week, and asked me if I could even imagine how much they must have been moving. The crew bought weed from Vancouver into the U.S. He himself said he had about 20 kids working for him. He said kind of apologetically that if he worked in construction he would make only $400 or $500 a week. You want a job you can be proud of, he said; you don't want work as a busboy or waiter.
He talked about some ultraviolent guys he was with on muscle jobs who pounded away on people longer and harder than they needed to, who threatened to rape a man they were beating, who actually had to be talked down and told to chill.
He said he himself used to hurt people with baseball bats, and that it’s easier than you think to kill a man.
“I’ve beaten up people pretty bad, up to where they shit themselves, to the point where they should have died,” he said.
He said he'd lost count of the number of fights he'd been in since he was 13 that involved bats or knives.
He said with white dealers in America it was about muscle, and that he needed a body to match his heart, and so he had to get big.
With Albanians it wasn’t about being big, he said. With Albanians you had to use guns. He said black dealers were better at the street-level violence than at running big, organized operations: “They might shoot and kill but they can’t make money.”
He said he “wanted big money with a quiet life,” and that that quiet life was impossible as long as he was in the game. The money wasn't an issue—he didn’t have a place to hide all the money he was making.
He said he was in court one time to support a friend and a F.B.I. agent patted him on the back and greeted him by name. "I was like, 'What the fuck,'" he said.
At one point he was robbed of a substantial amount of money by someone who betrayed him and then put out a hit on him, he said: “We’re all screwing each other, ripping off each other.”
He talked about wanting a normal life and going to school, and told me some of the things he’s been going through. He’s dealing with some difficult issues.
He knew about the Krasniqis—he had been in the room with an associate named Erenick Grezda during his kidnapping. He told me it was a business decision, and that Grezda was beaten so badly he had to call and set up Bruno Krasniqi.
Krasniqi, of course, ended up killing Grezda by shooting him in the head. My source said it shouldn’t have gone that far. He said it should have been just business, not murder. Bruno was beaten, Grezda was beaten, it was over and it should have ended there.
He said the Krasniqis showed their greed in the first place by ripping off the weed, and said, “There’s enough money to be made.”
He said the Krasniqis thought they would never be found, but that the people who went after them were particularly hard-core.
He told me the Krasniqis bragged afterward about the killing, that they put it on the grapevine like “they made their bones.”
He gave me a lift back to town, on winding, wooded backroads. I kept glancing at the door handle.
When he dropped me off, he said that now I'd seen him, and seen his life.
“I’m not a monster," he said. "I’m not evil.”
KLAUDIO PRENDI, 30, IS A BIG, TATTED-UP MAN FROM the city of Shkoder in northern Albania. In 2003, when he was 23, he was arrested in America with 50 pounds of weed.
He said he was busted because of a mistake by a business associate, a black man, who didn’t know he was dealing with undercovers. He posted $50,000 in bail and jumped it. He was later picked up in Toronto on a traffic stop where he spent nine months waiting to be extradited to the U.S.
At one point he was in jail in Oakland County, Michigan—one of the centers of Albanian organized crime in America—along with his father. His father was on trial in Michigan along with four others on charges of distributing 12 kilos of cocaine. (His father wasn’t convicted, but the others were.)
After his sentence in 2008 he was deported, he's not allowed back in the U.S. for 25 years. He said he loved the United States.
I met him at a bar. He said he owned one himself, and might open another, though he's had legal issues.
He said he doesn’t know the Krasniqis and wasn’t involved in the kidnapping.
When I pressed him on this, he would only say that he’s clean now, that he did his time and he didn’t want to talk about the past.
He asked me if I would write about some of the negative information I found out about him. I told him I hadn't figured out what was going to be in the piece yet, so I didn’t know.
I went through all my files with him. He asked me who the hell was telling me these things about him, who was saying things about his family’s, including his mother’s, criminal involvement.
After we had talked for a while, I told him that if he was saying the stories weren't true he should just forget about what I told him. I said I didn't want him trying to figure out who'd told me what, and hurting people in the process. He said it was already forgotten.
I smoked a cigarette with him before I wandered out of the club to try to find my way back home.
(This is the first article in a series. It was reported with generous financial support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Research, reporting, and translation assistance was provided by Thimi Samarxhiu, crime reporter for the Albanian newspaper Gazeta Shqiptare. Logistical support, reporting and translation assistance in Albania was provided by Drita Mezini.)
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