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The Russian mob: Gangsters for the new millennium.

Authorities say these 'hoods' specialize in fraud, extortion, car theft and prostitution.

September 5, 2000

By FRANK DONNELLY, Staten Island Advance

Their crimes don't dominate headlines. Their rising stars don't have sexy nicknames.

But the so-called Russian mob is a smart and tough organized-crime network with an appetite for money and a reputation for ruthlessness. And their tentacles, some law-enforcement experts say, reach out across the five boroughs, including Staten Island.

"This is the most dangerous and threatening group as we enter the new millennium," said Robert J. Castelli, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and a former New York State Police organized-crime investigator. "They're an international phenomenon. Of the emerging crime groups in the U.S., these guys, while maybe smaller in number, are more powerful, better organized and better funded."

Primarily operating out of a Russian-immigrant enclave in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, the Russian mob operates to varying degrees in each borough, according to Castelli. Though small by some organized-crime standards, the 500-member mob has bilked billions of dollars in insurance scams and specializes in fraud, extortion, car thefts and prostitution, he said.

The hoods work familiar turf, typically shaking down newly arrived immigrants from the former Soviet Union -- a group with a historic distrust of government that is unlikely to notify authorities if they are robbed, experts say.

"They started the way the La Cosa Nostra [the Italian Mafia] did, and the Asians did," said Joseph Valiquette, a spokesman for the FBI's New York City office. "They start to prey on their own ethnic communities."

Though spawned largely by the breakup of the former Soviet Union nearly a decade ago, Russian gangsters had their hooks in New York as far back as the late 1970s. Over roughly a 10-year period, the group siphoned off about $1 billion in a fuel-oil scam, said Castelli.

Capitalizing on the influx of Russian and Eastern European immigrants earlier this decade, the mob immediately swooped down on its new prey, working prostitution, gambling, extortion and loan-sharking rings.

They even linked, on occasion, with the Italian Mafia, disposing of stolen cars in the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries in Eastern Europe -- an area closed to La Cosa Nostra -- and running stock and insurance scams.

"They are solely driven by the motive of profit and power," said Castelli. "As they see emerging opportunities in capitalism, they use their resources toward where they can make the most money."

The mob's influence has been felt on the Island and in the Bronx, but is strongest in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, the three most populous and commercially thriving boroughs, said Castelli.

Alarmed by the spike in Russian-related crime, the FBI formed a Russian Organized Crime Squad in 1994 to crack down on the newly established mobsters and gather intelligence. The city Police Department joined forces with the unit about two years ago, creating the FBI/NYPD Joint East European Organized Crime Task Force.

But others with knowledge of Russian-related crime in the New York metro area said talk of a Russian mob is overstated.

"You have people jumping on this bandwagon of organized crime, but I don't see any organized crime or structure," said Peter Grinenko, supervisor of detectives in the Brooklyn district attorney's office.

"There's this history of people saying there's a Russian mafia, but it's not organized crime the way we mean it classically," said Elin Waring, an associate sociology professor at Lehman College in the Bronx and author of the book, "Russian Mafia in America: Immigration, Culture and Crime." "I'd call it a criminal network," she said.

Ms. Waring, who examined records of the Organized Crime Task Force in New York state and the State Commission of Investigation in New Jersey and Pennsylvania for roughly a five-year period corresponding to the early and mid-1990s, said the relationship among Russian gangsters is situation-specific, as opposed to the Italian Mafia's hierarchical structure.

Operating from a core group of a few hundred, and with hundreds of additional peripheral players, the hoods join forces for a crime -- for example, an insurance scam -- and disband once the job is finished, she said. Crime gangs can number from a handful to several dozen.

"It's very task-oriented," Ms. Waring said. "When the project's over, they break up."

The Russian setup is "more fluid" than that of the Italian Mafia, added a federal law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Headed by a capo and filled out by right-hand lieutenants and soldiers, traditional organized crime groups operate in single units, the official said. Russian gangsters "work with this group and that group and this group," he said.

"It's groups of hard-core criminals, [but] they have no one 'don,' " said Alexandre Grant, who covers Russian organized crime for the Russian language newspaper New Russian Word.

The Russian underworld's continually morphing nature, abetted by the language barrier -- many gangsters don't speak English -- makes infiltration especially difficult, experts say. Complicating matters, the victims -- emigrants from a highly corrupt bureaucratic society who also speak limited or no English -- are loath to seek help from police.

For those reasons, crimes often go unsolved, said Ms. Waring.

"No one will talk," she said. "They do not want to deal with the authorities in any way."

Despite a crackdown several years ago on prostitution rings involving Russian women, Staten Island's top cop believes there is little current evidence of Russian organized-crime activity here.

"We don't see any mob presence, and we're looking at that," said Assistant Chief Eugene Devlin, borough commander.

The arrests in 1997 and 1998 of about a dozen Russian nationals occurred in tidy homes and storefronts posing as massage parlors or tanning salons in more than a half-dozen neighborhoods around the Island.

Those businesses have been shut down, Devlin said, adding that nearly all the suspects resided off the Island.

"It wasn't indicative of organized crime," said the chief. Staten Island is "just where they chose to do business."

Devlin would not elaborate on why the prostitution rings had set up shop here.

Though several law enforcement officials and experts say Russian mob activity on the Island is minimal at best, the borough's thriving Russian community could be ripe for plucking. Many emigres arrive flush with cash from successful businesses back home.

"Money attracts criminals," Grant said.

As of 1990, 14,000 Russians and Ukrainians were living on the Island, said Jennifer Chait, a spokeswoman for the Department of City Planning. That number spiked by nearly 1,000 through 1996 (the latest date for which figures are available) thanks to the arrival of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The numbers could be even higher, Ms. Chait noted, because they do not account for Russians who moved to the Island after originally immigrating to one of the other boroughs.

"It's probably hard to find a single street on Staten Island where Russian families don't live," said Lena Krichevsky, a real estate agent for Century 21 Calabrese.

Ms. Krichevsky said there are sizable Russian enclaves in townhouse developments in Bay Terrace, Annadale, Grasmere and Prince's Bay. Emigres are professionals, business owners and working people, and like most other new residents, cite the Island's schools, accessibility to Brooklyn, Manhattan and New Jersey, and affordability as reasons for moving here, she said.

"Staten Island is very popular," said Ms. Krichevsky.

As more Russians find a better way of life on the western side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the Island's desirability will only expand. While some speculate that migration could open the door for opportunistic criminals, Ms. Krichevsky said you would be hard-pressed to find a newcomer who had encountered gangsters here.

"People talk about it, but I never met one," she said. "Most people I know don't know those people."

Mindful of how other ethnic mobs' operations quickly expanded, authorities hope they are seeing the body and not the tip of the Russian crime iceberg. The Italian mob, after establishing itself, branched out to "more sophisticated" crimes, such as infiltrating various segments of the economy, to include the construction and garment industries.

"The Russians are not there yet," said Valiquette. "That's what we want to prevent them from doing."

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