Toys and tattoos: No bail for Russian mobsters in New York 

Toys and tattoos: No bail for Russian mobsters in New York
Brighton Beach has been a notorious center of Russian Mafia activity since the 1970s

Nine members of a Brooklyn gang have been arrested in the US; they are suspected of maintaining links with the Russian organized crime. The American investigators – who are not well aware of specific features of the Russian criminal world – have nicknamed the syndicate Thieves in Law and provided tattoos on the bodies of the Russian mafia mobsters as a proof. How the detained gangsters are related to the Russian criminal world and what were they doing in the US?

The Brooklyn Federal Court of New York has declined to release on bail a member of the organized criminal group consisting of CIS natives – Leonid Gershman, 33 years old, also known as Lenny. Earlier the American justice refused to accept the bail of $1 million for pretrial release of his alleged accomplice Alexey Pel’men (Ravioli) Tsvetkov. In both cases, the arguments provided by the prosecution were pretty interesting.

For example, the court decided not to release Lenny because the prosecution has insisted that Gershman is prone to violence and talks in code about his guns. Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Jacobs noted a wiretapped conversation in which Gershman, speaking to his girlfriend Lorena, referred to a gun hidden in his apartment as a “toy”. In another conversation with a criminal associate, Gershman said that he needed a “toy by Saturday” to deal with a gambler caught cheating at his underground poker game. In the American slang, “toy” frequently means a firearm. And even claims of Gershman’s lawyer Michael Fineman that his client was actually talking about a sex toy in both cases, have not convinced the court. After the court session, Lorena was reluctant to back up her boyfriend’s sex toy claim and stated that she does not want to talk about it. No guns were seized by the operatives who searched Gershman’s apartment, but a collection of knives and swords were found. Two large crossed guns are tattooed on his chest.

The tattoos prevented Pel’men from being released as well: the court has decided that thievish stars depicted on the shoulders of Tsvetkov indicate his belonging to the thieves in law society, while the Russian eagle on his hand indicates a possibility for his escape to Russia. The judge disagreed with his attorney Joel Cohen who claimed that the tattoos are just a fiction to survive in prison by pretending to be an authoritative inmate or even a crowned thief in law. By the way, an attempt to falsify the closeness to the criminal circles of power in prison is the shortest and most certain way to death.

Пельмень

Alexey (Pel’men) Tsvetkov

In total, 8 members of the organized criminal group consisting of natives of the former USSR have been arrested during the November raid in Brighton Beach: Aleksey Tsvetkov, Leonid Gershman, Renat 'Ronnie' Yusufov, Igor Krugly, Vyacheslav ‘Steve Bart’ Malkeyev, Yusif ‘Yosik’ Pardilov, Librado ‘Macho’ Rivera, and Isok Aronov. All of them are some 30+ years old, except for Pardilov who is 52. Almost all of them are naturalized American citizens; only Rivera was born in the US, while Tsvetkov is a Ukrainian citizen. The New York police are still searching for another alleged member of the gang; he is believed to be its leader and his name hasn’t been disclosed.

According to the press release of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of November 9, 2016, the defendants were members of an Eastern European organized crime syndicate that operated extensively in the Brighton Beach and Coney Island neighborhoods of Brooklyn as well as overseas. Syndicate members in Brooklyn reported directly to members of organized crime — known as thieves in law or Thieves— based in various former states of the Soviet Union.

Unlike Russian criminalists, by referring to thieves in law, American investigators do not mean specific authoritative thieves – but the whole Russian-speaking criminal society, operating either within the former Soviet republics or outside of those.

According to the DEA, the Thieves would, in turn, help the defendants extort money from individuals living abroad and authorize the use of physical force by the defendants in the United States. The syndicate’s reach was international and included threatening victims and their family members living abroad. For example, wiretap recordings reveal that the defendants tracked down the father of an extortion victim in Russia in order to determine where his son was living. After locating the victim — whom defendants claimed owed syndicate members nearly $200,000 — defendant Gershman announced, the “Thieves have found him . . . in Israel,” and “they were at [his] place today.” Another extortion victim who struggled to repay his debt was ominously reminded that, “the person who is going to work with you [to repay the debt] … is a boxer with cauliflower ears.”  The interest rate being charged this particular victim was 100% per year. The investigation believes that the organized criminal group has collected over $1 million of debts in total.

According to the DEA, many defendants do not have legitimate employment. Gershman, who was born in Moldavia and raised in Israel, told the feds he earns $600 a month selling sunglasses and sneakers. It is known from various sources that Tsvetkov has a small automotive shop, Krugly runs a catering business, while Aronov owns a jewelry pawnshop on Sheepshead Bay. 

Леонид Гершман

Leonid Gershman

From the other hand, the DEA investigation revealed thousands of dollars flowing into defendants’ bank accounts, and they were observed driving high-end luxury automobiles. For example, Tsvetkov was pulled over in the beginning of 2016 driving his Lexus RX350. Overnight into January 23, the municipal authorities had closed some New York streets due to heavy snowfall. But Pel’men still has got behind the wheel, exceeded the speed limit and drove through two red lights. According to the police, the Ukrainian was drunk, but refused to take the blood alcohol test. In addition, several sachets of marijuana have been found in his car. His attorney Tony Mirvis (an immigrant from Odessa) has failed to convince the judge of Tsvetkov’s good intentions – who had to get into the car only because his wife had allegedly called him in the middle of the night and told about electrical issues in the home of the parents and the risk of fire. Finally, a bail of $2.5 thousand was set for the release of Tsvetkov, and his relatives have provided this amount for him. 

Пельмень

Alexey Pel’men Tsvetkov during the arrest

According to the investigation, expensive cars are a well-known penchant of Russian-speaking gangsters. Two other Russian mafia members, Leonid Kotovnikov and Semen Parnis, were also charged in a separate indictment with masterminding a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, using fancy cars like BMWs and Cadillac Escalades to deliver drugs.

Thieves in Law were also involved in the narcotics business, trafficking large amounts of pot and cocaine totaling approximately 100 kilograms, according to the indictment. To make their case, the DEA strike force used wiretap surveillance, confidential sources, and conducted undercover narcotics purchases.

The syndicate members also ran high-stakes illegal poker games in various locations in Brooklyn, where a single game could involve wagers totaling as much as $150 thousand. By the way, Renat Yusufov is a professional world-class poker player.

According to authorities, the suspects began terrorizing the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn three years ago, stealing tens of thousands of dollars from mailboxes.

By the character of their activities, Thieves in Law are similar to another organized crime group involving natives of the former Soviet Union and operating in Brooklyn in the beginning of the 2000s. In June 2003, so-called “Brighton Beach Team” was detained, including the gang's alleged ringleader, Zinovy Bari, 35 years old. The group of eight people in the age of 20–30 was involved into extortionate debt collection and ecstasy dealing. Pel’men, who had arrived to the US from Ukraine in 1992, was a mediator between the two groups. Tsvetkov has become famous in that period after battering, jointly with an accomplice, the owner of NY Cyber Place Internet Café on Avenue Z in Brooklyn for refusal to accept their protection racket. In April 2002, Tsvetkov arrived to a meeting in a Brighton Beach restaurant with a machete – to convince the debtor to repay the loan. Together with his friends, he has beaten a man suspected of whistleblowing to the FBI. At that time, the detained mobsters were facing up to 80 years behind bars in total, but ultimately many of them managed to have a lucky escape. For instance, Tsvetkov was sentenced only to 78 month thanks to attorney Albert Dayan, also known for his defense of Viktor Bout.

The American investigators note that Brighton Beach has been a notorious center of Russian Mafia activity since the 1970s. The area spawned infamous Russian crime bosses such as Evsei Agron, Vyacheslav Ivankov, and Boris Nayfeld.

If convicted of all counts, Tsvetkov, Yusufov, Krugly, and Aronov face maximum sentences of 20 years, while Gershman, Malkeyev, and Rivera face maximum sentences of 40 years. All the defendants deny any guilt. The next court session is scheduled to November 30, 2016.

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