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Brazen as the Mafia, Ethnic Albanian Thugs Specialize in Mayhem

Active in the Heroin Trade, The Faction Is So Violent Prosecutors Need Guards

Dujo Saljanin's Comeuppance

The Wall Street Journal,
Monday, September 9,
1985, pp.1,18
By Anthony M. DeStefano

NEW YORK - The informant who visited the office of U.S. Attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani [current Mayor of New York City] last December had a chilling story to tell:

A defendant in a drug racketeering case that Mr. Giuliani was prosecuting was offering $400.000 to anyone who would kill a certain assistant U.S. attorney and a federal drug enforcement agent.

For 45 minutes Mr. Giuliani and his chief assistant, William Tendy, listened to and evaluated the tale. Five other informants later corroborated it. The threatened lawmen-assistant prosecutor Alan M. Cohen and narcotics agent Jack Delmore-were given 24-hour-a-day protection by federal marshals.

For years police and court officials in Italy have had to deal with Maffia attempts on their lives, some of which have succeeded. American gangsters have rarely dared such crimes. But certain criminal groups in the U.S. now seem less restrained. Mr. Giuliani says he has recently heard of more threats against law-enforcement officers and judges around the country than at any other time in his 15 years as a prosecutor. A number of his colleagues share that perception. Mr. Giuliani says that he himself has heen threatened.

The "Balkan Connection"

The drug case that brought forth the threats Mr. Giuliani is concerned about involved the disruption of the so-called "Balkan connectlon" heroin trade conducted by among others a loosely orginised group of ethnic Albanians, centered in New York. A federal probe into this drug traffic and other posslble crimes, including the alleged plot to kill officials, is in progress. The drug investigation and the criminal activities of a group of Albanian-Americans have attracted little publicity.

Many Albanians came to the U.S. after World War II via Yugoslavia. Others before the war, came directly from Albania. A small, mountainous Balkan country, communist Albania is bordered on the west by the Adriatic Sea and on its other boundries by Yugoslavia and Greece...

Albanians who take to crime have created new and unique problems for some law-enforcement officers around the country. Language and a code of silence have protected the Albanian-American crime factions from outside penetration. "They are real secretive" says a detective in Hamtramck, Mich., a Detroit suburb where many Albanians live. He says police have tried but failed to infiltrate Albanian gangs here.

Various Crimes

Albanian-Americans criminals, police say, are involved in everything from gun-running to counterfeiting. In New York City, a police intelligence analyst says, some ethnic Albanians living in the Bronx are involved in extortion and robbery. Federal officials believe that Albanians run gambling in certain New York ethnic clubs.

Violence within the Albanian community can be particularly brutal, whether related to orginized crime or not. In Hamtramck, an Albanian, reportedly enraged by the belief that his wife had contracted a veneral diseace, shot three people at a clinic and then killed himself. In some attacks, women have been slashed with knives: crowded restaurants and bars have been raked with gunfire. "They're a wild bunch of people," says Capt. Glen McAlpine of the Shelby Township, Mich., police. During an investigation of Albanian crime in Shelby, a bomb exploded next to the police station. A police officer also was threatened, Capt. McAlpine says.

But it is drug trafficking that has gained Albanian organized crime the most notoriety. Some Albanians, according to federal Drug Enforcement Agency officials, are key traders in the "Balkan connection," the Istanbul-to-Belgrade heroin route. While less well known than the so-called Sicilian and French connections, the Balkan route in some years may move 25% to 40% of the U.S. heroin supply, official say.

Ties to Turks

Once serving only as couriers, some ethnic Albanians and Yugoslavs now are taking over more command of the traffic, says Andrew Fenrich, a DEA spokesman in New York. Federal agents say that Balkan crime groups are well suited for trafficking because of close historical and religious ties with the Turks, some of whom are sources of heroin.

DEA agents say the heroin flows from Turkey through Bulgaria and Greece into Yugoslavia. From there it can wind up in Rome, Brussels, The Haggue and the U.S.. Once in America, the Balkan heroin is believed by officials to be distributted by some ethnic Albanians and Turks. (Albania itself, long cut off from the most of the world by its recently deceased leader Enver Hoxha, isn't believed by the U.S. to be involved in the drug trade - [which leaves Kosovo as the only source].)

On the surface, at least, Skender Fici seemed to be a law-abiding businessman. He ran a Staten Island travel agency, Theresa Worldwide, which made a specialty of booking trips to Yugoslavia, where many Albanlans live.

He became a speciailst in handling immigration paper work, and he sponsored a local ethnic Albanian soccer team.

According to federal prosecutors and a sentencing memorandum they filed in Manhattan's Federal District Cortt, Mr. Fici's travel agency made a perfect vehicle for arranging quick trips for drug dealers and couriers working the Balkan connection. One of Mr. Fici's first shipments arrived in New York in February 1979, according to the prosecutors' memo. A kilogram of heroin was distributed in New York partly through the efforts of Xhevedet Lika [an Albanian], known as Joey Lik, who made his base on New York City's polyglot Lower East Side.

There, according to the sentencing memorandum, Mr. Lika sold the drug to other dealers from a social club located in the midst of Judaica shops and Chinese clothing stores.

By 198O, according to federal court testimony and the sentencing report, Mr. Lika was importing heroin as well as distrtbuting it, traveling to Turkey and Yugoslavia to arrange shipments. He also allegedly dealt in cocaine with Xhevedet Mustafa [an Albanbanian], who disappeared in 1982. Mr. Mustafa had been a supporter, of the late, deposed Albanian monarch King Zog, who died in 1961.

Mr. Mustafa skipped out before his own federal trial on drug charges could take place in 1982. In September 1982, be reportedly led an unsuccesslul invasion of Albania aimed at restoring the monarchy. Mr. Hoxha said the invaders all were "liquidated" but Mr. Mustafa still is listed as a fugitive in federal court records.

Mr. Lika, meanwhile, was expanding his heroin business In New York with other associates, according to federal prosecutors. He had fallen out with one of his old partners, Dujo Saljanin, who in 1991 had agreed to import several kilos of heroin for Mr. Llka and others but short-weighted the delivery by a kilo. To resolve the descrepancy, a January 1981 meeting was held at a Park Avenue South restaurant Mr. Saljanin operated. Joey Lika and two other men, Mehmet Bici and Vuksan Vulaj, were present. Mr. Bici later testified in federal court that Mr. Vulaj pulled a gun and shot Mr. Saljanin.

"Mr. Lika had a gun, and he shot him, too," Mr. Bici testified. "I was there, too, and I shot him too. And then we just left, crossed the street," he testified.

Even with 13 bullet wounds, Mr. Saljanin lived a short while, long enough to talk. Mr. Vulaj was later shotgunned to death. Hampered by lack of cooperation in the Albanian community, as well as by difficultles with the Albanlan language that made electronic surveillance useless, police and federal agents worked about three years belore they broke the case in 1984.

Federal officials estimate that the group had imported more than 110 pounds of heroin with a retall or "street" value of $125 million through the Balkan connection before the ring was broken up. Federal agents believe the drugs had been sold in New York, California, Texas and Illinois.

The trail that Mr. Delmore, the DEA agent, followed led to Mr. Bici, who was then serving a sentence in a New York state prison for attempted manslaughter of his wife. Questioned by Mr. Delmore, Mr. Bici at first denied having any knowledge of drug dealing or the Saljanin murder but ultimately decided to cooperate. He was indicted along wlth Joey Llka, Mr. Llka's brother Luan, Mr. Fici and others on federal charges of drug dealing and racketeering. Luan Lika was never arrested and remains a fugitive. Mr. Bici pleaded guilty to transporting heroin and to racketeering. He was sentenced to eight years and is serving time under guard in the "prisoner witness" protection program. The atmosphere at the trial, which began late last year, was highly charged. Early in the proceeding, Mr, Cohen, the prosecutor, mentioned that a witness claimed to have been threatened with death by Mr. Lika's father.

(Judge Vincent Broderick kept Lika family spectators seated near the back of the courtroom.)

Another witness reported that a man outside the Manhattan courthouse had threatened her. Gjon Barisha, a prospective witness, fled before the trial, after claiming that he had been fired at. He evaded federal agents for months before being arrested on a material witness warrant last month. Others who were to be called as witnesses hid out or refused to testify, prosecutor Cohen says, because they feared, as one of them put it, "a bullet in the head." Prosecutors allege that some witnesses perjured themselves at the trial.

Judge Broderick remarked during the trial that the case involved the most reckless disregard for human life that he had ever seen. The message wasn't lost on federal officials, who took the threats against them seriously.

Since World War II, there have been more than 800 revenge killings by Albanians in Yugoslavia and several in New York, according to Dushan Kosovich, a scholar who has studied Albanlan mores. Mr. Giuliani says of the threat against Mr. Cohen: "This was the most serious threat I have seen yet to an assistant U.S. attorney."

For three months from late 1984 into early 1985, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Delmore and their wives shared their homes with federal marshals acting as bodyguards. "You can't believe what it is like" says Mr. Cohen, who was guarded in court-even when he went to the men's room.

A Jury this year convicted Joey Lika and Mr. Fici on charges of racketeering conspiracy. Mr. Lika was also convicted of the more serious charge of running a criminal enterprise. To emphasize to the defendants that their opponent was the government, and not just Mr. Cohen, U S. Attorney Giuliani himself appeared in court for the sentencing in March. Mr, Lika denied in court as sentence was about to be rendered that he wanted anyone killed... Mr. Lika was sentenced to life in prison, Mr. Fici to 80 years. They are appealing their convictions.

Mr. Giuliani refuses to discuss detalls, but he says he has learned recently that there had been an effort to fulflll an assassination contract against him and Messrs. Cohen and Delmore. "After you have been convicted," he says, "there is no rational reason to klll a prosecutor, except revenge."

While Mr. Giuliani says he now considers the threat against himself "minor," DEA agent Delmore and his famlly have moved-away from New York. Prosecutor Cohen is still investigating other drug dealers in New York but he, too, has a new residence.

Federal officials aren't sure how much lasting damage they have done to the Balkan connection. Mr. Cohen says the Lika case and others, prosecuted by local authorities, have resulted in the conviction of more than 10 Albanian-American drug traffickers, and that has got to have some impact.

Mr. Fenrich, the DEA spokesman, says that the Lika case made it clear that vendettas against law enforcers won's be tolerated.

As for Joey Llka, prison may be the safest place for him. Because he testified about his part in the Saljanin killing, federal agents say he now is "in the blood" - that is, the object of a vendetta - with relatives of Mr. Saljanin.

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Last revised: June 24, 1998