The Chicago Syndicate: Russian Organized Crime Enterprise Expanding to Cleveland?
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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Russian Organized Crime Enterprise Expanding to Cleveland?

They looted computer buyers, insurance companies and their own countrymen in a series of scams and extortions that caused police in Northeast Ohio to scramble for years.

But were the crimes, committed by Russian immigrants, part of a sinister, organized mob or were they unconnected acts linked only by the ancestry of the criminals?

Authorities say the disjointed Russian criminal network in Cleveland is hardly the structured version of the Italian Mafia during the city's mob wars, but its links offer a shadowy threat that often sprouts into the public's consciousness through white-collar crimes.

This week, a district attorney in upstate New York said an investigation into what he called organized Russian crime in suburban Cleveland plugged a $27 million marijuana pipeline that flowed from an Indian reservation to Northeast Ohio. Three people from Greater Cleveland, including Konstantin Sorin, were among several charged.

Authorities seized $1.3 million in cash, 14 vehicles and two utility trailers. One man, Daniel Simonds, who made drug runs from upstate New York to Cleveland, was found shot to death in his home in May 2008.

Jeffrey Buck, Reminderville police chief, said the marijuana pipeline was organized crime, with Russians involved. He declined to discuss whether the network could be deemed the Russian mob.

Richard Blake, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted dozens of Russian crime cases in Cleveland, acknowledged what he called "criminal elements" in Northeast Ohio, but he stopped short of saying that they were part of a broader, organized mob.

Blake agreed with the work of James Finckenauer, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University who studied the Russian mob for the U.S. Justice Department. Finckenauer said in an interview Thursday that unlike the better known Italian Mafia, what people call the Russian mob is more of a loosely linked network of criminals with no central leadership.

In his research, Finckenauer found that about 15 organized Russian groups operate in the United States, with a handful maintaining their links overseas. The networks are built of individuals cooperating with each other, rather than orderly ranks following orders from above, according to Finckenauer.

"Generally, there's no capo [or leader] as there was in the traditional La Cosa Nostra," Blake said.

The FBI has investigated Russian crime in Cleveland for years. A spokesman for the FBI declined to say whether Northeast Ohio is a hub of the Russian mob.

About 24,000 people with Russian ancestry live in Cuyahoga County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The hub is Mayfield Heights and other eastern suburbs. The local Russian community grew dramatically in the 1990s, when many Jews fled religious persecution in the former Soviet Union. Cleveland's Jewish community helped to resettle more than 6,000 Russian Jews.

Some Russian leaders say little about crime. Olga Sonis, a Beachwood-based refugee counselor who has helped to resettle hundreds of Russian immigrants, said she has never heard about mob troubles here. Grigoriy Topolynskiy, the president of the American Association of Jews from the former Soviet Union, told a reporter he wouldn't discuss it Thursday, saying, "I'll give you a call in a few days."

Others say the Russian mob is an easy stereotype to make, so those Russians accused of crimes are automatically linked to the "mob," similar to Italians and the Mafia.

"There are multitudes of Russian people here who are warm, good people," said Kenneth Kovach, the executive director of the International Community Council in Cleveland. "They are the vast majority."

The council is a networking group representing most of the international cultures of Northeast Ohio. Kovach also the choir director at St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Tremont.

But Kovach said he believes he sees evidence of what Blake and other authorities say exists in Cleveland, threads of a loosely linked group of criminals. He said he attended an FBI citizens academy class a few years ago. During a break, he and some agents talked about organized crime. Kovach, who has made 19 trips to Russia in the past 15 years, said an agent told him that outside of New York, Cleveland is a key place for the Russian mob.

"I believe it is here, but I'm not sure of the extent of it," he said. "I believe it is in the white-collar crime, not in crimes of violence."

Some major crimes committed by Russians in Cuyahoga County have followed that pattern. In 2001, Blake, the federal prosecutor, helped convict about 25 Russian immigrants in an insurance scam involving high-priced cars. The case stemmed from an undercover FBI investigation.

That same year, police found two Russian men stopped along Interstate 271, near Fairmount Boulevard, with machine guns, silencers, duct tape, bulletproof vests and ammunition. They were prepared to rob a computer store owner.

In 1999, Igor Abramovsky, a Twinsburg computer store manager, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for bilking customers and threatening to kill people who complained about his bad business. A few years earlier, two Russian men approached a half-dozen Cleveland business owners and demanded a total of about $25,000 to $50,000 in loans from their fellow countrymen, which were never paid back.

Thanks to John Caniglia

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