Garrett M. Graff | Longreads | June 2018 | 20 minutes (5,086 words)
Razhden Shulaya maintained a diverse business empire, like a Warren Buffet of crime. By age 40, from his base in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, he had a cigarette smuggling operation, a drug ring, a counterfeit credit card scheme, an extortion racket, an illegal gambling establishment, and teams devoted to hacking slot machines. According to prosecutors who have been building a case against him, Shulaya’s associates provided gun-running, kidnap-for-hire, and the fencing of stolen jewelry. Plans were in place for what authorities came to call the “romance scam”: use an attractive woman to lure a target down to Atlantic City, knock him out with chloroform, and steal his money. They’d take his Rolex, too.
Shulaya’s was a complex—and at times, violent—enterprise to run, with operations in at least six states to oversee. Like many successful New York executives, he lived in the suburbs and commuted to his office in the city. He’d set up his domestic life in Edgewater, a tranquil middle class town on the Hudson River. Most days, he drove his black Mercedes out to Brighton Beach, a Russian enclave at the end of the subway line, a couple blocks from Coney Island. Clean-cut, with a penchant for oversized glasses and black clothing, Shulaya, who was from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, looked more tech bro than mafioso.
At work, he collected gambling and extortion proceeds, arranged bribes, and tested a slot machine for its hackablility. When he needed to berate an associate after-hours, he’d have the offending employee driven to the parking lot of the Whole Foods in Edgewater for a verbal lashing. When someone paid an insufficient obshchak, (“tribute”), or worse, Shulaya called in a guy: Avtandil Khurtsidze, a.k.a. “Mini Mike Tyson,” a Georgian middleweight boxer whose career record stood at 33-2-2, with 22 knockouts.
Last March, while two of Shulaya’s lieutenants, Zurab Dzhanashvili and Zurab Buziashvili—the Zurabs—were busy plotting the romance scam, they got their hands on 10,000 pounds of stolen chocolate, snatched from a truck on its way to a retailer. The Zurabs knew exactly what to do with it. Over the course of ten days, they corresponded with one of their preferred buyers, also in Brooklyn, arranging forged invoices and bills of lading to make the haul appear legit. Then they sent out the goods for delivery.
Unbeknownst to the Zurabs, however, the buyer was an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Of all the cases I’ve ever worked, I’ve never seen a case that wild—casinos, cyber, kidnappings, chocolates,” John Penza, an agent who specializes in organized crime, said. “Nothing was off the table.” A couple months later, Shulaya’s enterprise came crashing down. The FBI, joined by the New York City Police Department and customs officials, swept up Shulaya’s crew. Prosecutors unsealed charges against dozens of defendants, the result of a multi-year investigation.
Joon Kim, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District in New York, touted the significance of the arrest: Shuyala represented one of the only vory v zakone ever caught in the United States. The title, vor for short, translates roughly as “thief in law,” a Soviet term that refers to the highest rank in Russian organized crime. Vor essentially means to Russians what “godfather” does to Italians.
Shulaya is a vor of a particular kind—not the biggest or baddest on his own, but a member of a vast, malevolent network that made his operation possible. (This account of his activity is based on more than 300 pages of court documents, transcripts, and government wiretaps.) His case, which goes to trial on June 4th—Zurab Dzhanashvili has already plead guilty of conspiring to commit racketeering offenses—is impressive for its wide-ranging criminality, even if it may seem small-stakes compared to other recent Russian mafia efforts, which have netted eight- and nine-figure sums in elaborate schemes. What’s perhaps most significant is how his rise was enabled by—and reveals the impressive strength of—an organized crime system that has developed over three decades. His was a major midsize firm under a powerful conglomerate that, with the aid of Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy, spans continents and, it would appear, has sought connections in the White House.
The tradition of the vory v zakone emerged in Soviet prison camps of the Twenties and Thirties; a “thief in law” was the thief other criminals relied on to settle disputes. Vory swore an oath to lead a “thieves’ life,” a code of honor requiring them to help other vory, devote their lives to crime, never work legitimately, and always tell the truth to another vor. In exchange, vory were paid obshchak from the criminals under their protection. Many received prominent star tattoos, making it impossible for them to ever deny their identity. An eight-pointed star on the knees symbolized that the wearer would kneel before no one.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, “the containment of elements within Russia are gone,” Tom Fuentes, who used to run the FBI’s organized crime efforts, recalled. From the Nineties on, Russian organized crime (or, as government agencies call it, “Eurasian Organized Crime,” to include former Soviet republics) spread widely, becoming what now might just be the biggest underworld business of the global age—comprising everything from drug smuggling in Asia to casinos in Latin America to blood diamond smuggling in Africa to alleged shakedowns of Russian players in the U.S. National Hockey League. Of course, there is also some alleged dabbling in Eastern European energy markets, sometimes by people in business with Paul Manafort, a onetime campaign chairman for Donald Trump.
Inventive health insurance fraud schemes—run from the Russian mob’s North American hubs, in Brighton Beach and Glendale, California—have proved particularly popular. One such case, which involved upwards of a thousand staged car accidents around New York, was known to investigators as Operation BORIS (the “Big Organized Russian Insurance Scam”). According to reporting by The New York Times and Seth Hettena—whose book, “Trump / Russia: A Definitive History,” was published in May—in similar plots, Michael Cohen, who was a personal injury attorney before becoming Trump’s lawyer, represented “victims” in accidents and a clinic where a doctor plead guilty of scheming to fraud. (Cohen has not been implicated in any criminal wrongdoing.)
If we can make money, let’s do it as long as we can.
Cohen’s family goes back to the early days of the Russian mafia’s American presence. Starting in the Seventies, after the Soviet Union loosened its immigration restrictions, Brighton Beach became a destination; by the mid-Eighties, thousands of Russians lived in the area. Evsei Borisovich Agron, the all-but-undisputed crime boss of Brighton Beach, kept an office nearby, at the El Caribe Country Club—then owned by Dr. Morton Levine, Cohen’s uncle. Among other criminal schemes, Agron ran a profitable gas tax fraud ring and an extortion racket. In January 1984, he survived an assassination attempt when he was shot in the neck outside his apartment building, but he was killed the following year when he was shot in the head as he waited for an elevator. Soon, the man who would inherit his empire, Marat Balagula, moved into El Caribe. (Levine has never been charged with a crime. Cohen and his siblings were part owners of El Caribe; when Trump was elected president, he is said to have given up his stake.)
At the time, Russian organized crime in the U.S. was almost entirely focused on its own émigré community, but its activities exacted a brutal toll around Brighton Beach. During the Eighties and early Nineties, authorities linked 65 homicides and attempted homicides to Russian criminal activities. Other mobsters were impressed. New York Magazine quoted a warning from a member of the Italian mafia: “We Italians will kill you, but the Russians are crazy—they’ll kill your whole family.”
The first known vor arrived on U.S. shores in the early Nineties. Vyacheslav Kirillovich Ivankov, who claimed to be working in the film industry, was sent to impose order over the violent, chaotic—and mostly small time—world of Russian gangsters in Brooklyn. Chosen vor are given nicknames, called klichki, and Ivankov was known as Yaponchik, (“Little Japanese”), in reference to his Asian features. “Ivankov was the real deal—he was all about making money and ‘I’m taking over,’” Penza told me. As Robert Friedman reported in his book Red Mafiya (2000), he moved into a luxury condo in Trump Tower.
Ivankov began building an empire that would spread across the country. On a regular basis, he made trips to Trump Taj Mahal, in Atlantic City, where he gambled in high-stakes games that were likely part of money-laundering schemes. (The Taj would later be fined $10 million, the largest civil fine that had ever been taken against a casino, for “willful and repeated” violations of the law.)
In 1994, after Ivankov came to town, the FBI in New York set up its first Russian organized crime squad, which came to be known as C-24. C-24 kept a close eye on the new boss. “Ivankov was able to exercise a kind of informal power in the émigré business community tantamount to decisions made by formal, official courts of law,” Robert Levinson, an agent, wrote in an affidavit. “Those who went against the decisions made by Ivankov and his associates were usually met with violence, including beatings and–or murder.”
At 7 a.m. on June 8, 1995, officers pounded on the door of a Brighton Beach apartment where Ivankov had spent with the night with, as investigators said, “a female friend.” He spat and kicked at news photographers as he was escorted to the FBI’s base, where he was eventually found guilty of running an $3.5 million extortion ring that involved two Manhattan kidnappings and a murder in Moscow. “This is the most important arrest we have made in connection with expanding Russian organized-crime activities in the U.S.,” James Kallstrom, the head of the FBI New York Field Office, told reporters.
From prison, Ivankov said, “Russia is one uninterrupted criminal swamp.” After serving his sentence, he was extradited back, and later was killed by a sniper in a mob dispute.
During the Ivankov days, American investigators were just waking up to the new threat. Few agents spoke Russian, so they often bungled what information they did collect. They had yet to become fluent in a culture that, for the most part, was unknown to them.
In time, they learned: Unlike the Italian mafia, with its strict family lines and clear hierarchies, Russian organized crime is characterized primarily by its opportunism. “The vory, they were like an anti-government cult,” George Ennis, who was posted to Moscow by the FBI during the Nineties, explained. “They eschewed all dealings with authority. If there was money involved, they’d put it in their pocket and not give a shit.” Unlike the Italian mafia’s tradition of “crime families,” Russians make few permanent alliances—today’s sworn enemies can be tomorrow’s happy business partners. Many relationships are formed in prison; Penza recalled a murder-for-hire case he worked in which Russian gangsters hired members of the Bloods street gang to provide security after they’d gotten to know each other behind bars. Anyone savvy, brutal, and politically connected enough could achieve extraordinary wealth.
Operations are organized into small “brigades,” sometimes with as few as 10 to 20 individuals, focused on a specific scheme. Penza described the approach: “‘If we can make money, let’s do it as long as we can.’ They don’t think about the long-term—they’re only thinking about today. When the scheme ends or we go to jail, we’ll go our separate ways.”
In October 1998, months of investigation netted the FBI its first case against the Russia mafia using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which was originally used to help prosecute Italian bosses who had long escaped justice. Andrew McCabe, years before he became a central figure in Trump’s showdown with the FBI, was a junior agent on C-24. “I really got to learn every aspect of how we build complex cases,” he told his law school alumni magazine, at Washington University in St. Louis. “We ended up putting this crew of six guys away for a long, long time for a host of racketeering activity—kidnapping, medical insurance fraud, and extortion.” Key to their investigation was that one of their first targets agreed to cooperate, resulting in a string of arrests.
The experience taught the FBI a critical lesson about the difference between the La Cosa Nostra (LCN) and Russian organized crime: Russians are willing to cut a deal. “In LCN, cooperators were shunned—there is no reentry to the LCN,” Penza said. But Russians happily flip—and then go back to work with the same partners. There appear to be few permanent grudges. “It’s like, ‘You had to do the thing you did,’” he added.
That sensibility was evident in the FBI’s recent case against Razhden Shulaya. According to prosecutors, the key sources (whose names remain confidential) were Russian organized crime figures. One, who had been arrested in 2005 during another Russian mafia investigation, pleaded guilty to firearms and fraud offenses and has since worked with law enforcement to avoid being deported. Another had been convicted in 2000 of racketeering, and approached the FBI to provide information on Shulaya’s enterprise in exchange for money.
Russians happily flip—and then go back to work with the same partners.
There was, according to European authorities and U.S. court papers, plenty to talk about. Shulaya’s criminal career is believed to have begun as part of the Kutaisi Clan, one of the two major Georgian mafia groups. A long-running war between the Kutaisi and its rival, the Tbilisi-Rustavi Clan (each named after its home city), is purportedly what led to the murder of Ivankov, in 2009, when he is said to have tried to mediate. In January 2013, the conflict arose again—fueled, according to news reports, by a battle for lucrative construction contracts ahead of the Sochi Olympics. The Tbilisi-Rustavi Clan’s leader was gunned down in central Moscow by a shooter wielding an AS Val, a Soviet-era rifle. In the months afterward, Europol observed “a new power vacuum leading to several, violent attempts by key players to strengthen their criminal positions.” The result was “an increased presence of thieves in law in the EU.” That June, alarmed by the Georgian mafia’s spread into the West, European authorities in six countries arrested 18 mafia suspects, including 13 vory—the most ever arrested simultaneously—as well as a leader of the Kutaisi clan. Shulaya was nabbed in Lithuania.
The FBI would not comment about Shulaya’s case because of the upcoming trial, and Shulaya’s lawyer declined to speak on the record. Yet it’s evident that, not long after his arrest, Shulaya somehow arrived in America. According to court documents, by late 2014 he had set up business in Brighton Beach. Since about that time, informants have been operating against him.
One of these informants worked at what investigators took to calling the poker house, established in late 2015 or early 2016 above a restaurant in Brighton Beach as the base of Shulaya’s gambling outfit. Shulaya and his associates “threatened the owners of a restaurant located on the same premises in order to secure catering services for the poker house and, at one point, in an effort to obtain an approximately $100,000 payment from those victims,” prosecutors said in court papers. “The meals also offered an opportunity for Shulaya to display his generosity and wealth to others, as he would invite associates and business partners to dine with him for free.” The food and drink distracted guests from the fact that the games were rigged—prosecutors believe that there was “a crime within a crime at the poker house,” an elaborate system of card counting used to cheat customers.
Shulaya’s organization hosted multiple poker games a week, some involving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Through their inside source, investigators obtained surveillance video and ledgers tracking customer debts and house profits. “Based on certain poker house ledgers, Shulaya berated and assaulted [the confidential source] based on missing funds and, on separate occasions, dispatched [associates] to extort debtors to the poker house,” prosecutors have alleged.
But on November 9, 2016, when agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration swept up another group of Eastern European criminals in Brighton Beach, who allegedly reported to vory overseas, the poker house came to an abrupt end. Because Shulaya had occasionally let members of the arrested syndicate use the space, he panicked and ordered that it close. To be safe, he also asked an associate to destroy all ledgers. He couldn’t have known that this person was the FBI’s informant, who instead simply turned the books over to investigators.
As U.S. law enforcement agencies have traced the reach and structure of traditional Russian organized crime, they’ve confronted increasingly elaborate schemes, brought by corporate-minded characters with oligarch friends. In October 2010, a vor named Armen Kazarian, an Armenian-American known as “Pzo,” was charged for coordinating the largest single Medicare fraud ever uncovered—a network of 118 clinics across 25 states that netted more than $100 million in bogus claims. Forensic pathologists billed for office visits; eye doctors said they conducted bladder tests; staged auto accidents had fake patients undergo expensive tests. Announcing the charges, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara described the “profitability, geographic scope, and sheer ambition” of the scam. Kazarian pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 37 months in prison.
Soon after, an investigation of another vor launched, in a case that would focus directly on Trump Tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. From Moscow, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, a.k.a. Taiwanchik, (“Little Taiwanese”), oversaw what an indictment would later describe as “an international sportsbook that catered primarily to Russian oligarchs living in Russia and Ukraine and throughout the world,” run out of Unit 63A. Taiwanchik has never faced a U.S. courtroom and, just months after the indictment, he appeared at Trump’s Miss Universe pageant in Moscow; from afar, he has continued to assert his innocence.
When a government cannot rule effectively, the country is ruled by ‘the laws of the streets.’
The most prominent among the ascendant class of Russian criminals isn’t a vor per se—he made his name and fortune serving as the banker to other criminals. Beginning in the Nineties, Semion Mogilevich, a.k.a. “Uncle Seva,” a five-foot-six, chain-smoking, 300-pound native of Kiev, built a criminal enterprise in Eastern Europe that included a private airline for drug smuggling and, it has been alleged, a black market vodka business. According to classified FBI documents obtained by Robert Friedman, he sold $20 million in missiles from Soviet Union satellites to Iran. Mogilevich is also suspected of having been involved in one of the largest money laundering operations in U.S. history, helping “wash” more than $7 billion dollars through the Bank of New York.
Mogilevich provided a window into another key difference between the Italian mafia and the Russians—Russian organized crime had reached a level of ambition far beyond that of other groups. “They were in much more sophisticated schemes, much more thought-out, more complicated schemes, certainly at that time—and I’d say even still,” George Ennis said.
Mogilevich stood out among the pack. “The two faces of Russian organized crime are the extremely brilliant international fraudsters like Mogilevich and the knuckle-draggers like the vor,” Fuentes explained. “The vors are much easier to combat because they’re like Cosa Nostra.” Mogilevich, he went on, “had in his gangster DNA to do smuggling and prostitution—all that traditional racketeering—but he was very much into international frauds and stock schemes. These guys were going millions of dollars in stock fraud, but they can’t help but smuggle vodka because that’s who they are.”
An embezzlement scheme centered on YBM Magnex, a magnet company in Pennsylvania, brought Mogilevich more than $150 million in profit. That fraud, in which manipulated stock rose 2000 percent, resulted in the only charges Mogilevich has faced in the U.S. “The FBI doesn’t have the jurisdiction to charge him with other crimes taking place solely in other countries,” Peter Kowenhoven, an FBI agent on the case, told reporters. “But open-source reporting shows him to be involved in weapons trafficking, contract murders, extortion, drug trafficking, and prostitution on an international scale.” The charges were enough for Robert Mueller, as FBI director, to add Mogilevich to the most wanted list in 2009. (In 2015, however, amid deteriorating relations with Russia, he was removed.) Mogilevich was last spotted publicly in October, according to online reports, when he attended the funeral of a crime boss in Moscow.
U.S. authorities believe that Mogilevich possesses an almost unique authority to move between both street-level vory and Kremlin oligarchs. According to a December 2008 diplomatic cable made public by Wikileaks, Dmitry Firtash, an oligarch and onetime business partner of Paul Manafort’s, told William Taylor, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, that he’d gotten his start in the energy market thanks to Mogilevich. In a memo, Taylor wrote of Firtash, “He acknowledged ties to Russian organized crime figure Seymon Mogilevich, stating he needed Mogilevich’s approval to get into business in the first place.” (Later, he denied any connection to Mogilevich.)
According to the memo, Firtash, who had sought a meeting with Taylor as a “visible effort to improve his image” with the U.S. government, explained that there was simply no other way to do business in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. “Many Westerners do not understand what Ukraine was like after the break up of the Soviet Union,” Taylor described being told. “When a government cannot rule effectively, the country is ruled by ‘the laws of the streets.’”
The FBI has fought hard to ensure that “the laws of the streets” don’t take hold in the U.S., but this has been trying as the bureau investigates vory while continuing to learn about their code. In December 2014, early in the FBI’s investigation, agents heard a key conversation: “Do you know who you are talking to?” he asked, in a call described in court papers. “No? Have they told you who I am? I am actually a little different. I am just the one who will make sure you are safe and everything goes smoothly.” And, he went on, “there will be no betrayal.” This was, authorities say, Shulaya asserting his status as a vor—and the role that a “thief in law” plays in the Russian criminal underworld as protector and guarantor of good behavior, the defender of honor among thieves.
Over the months and years that investigators listened to Shulaya’s conversations, using wiretaps on three of his phones, as well as on recordings made by informants who were wearing recording devices, the FBI caught numerous references to Shulaya’s role as a vor and the rules by which he was supposed to live. As prosecutors wrote in court documents, Shulaya indicated that “he had organized lower-level criminals to respect his status.” In one instance, he complained that an “insubordinate underling had ‘no idea how to speak to a thief.’”
Shulaya, as a vor, was to want for nothing and pay for nothing. Investigators watched carefully as obshchak flowed to fund his lifestyle, with everything from cash and cigarettes to bottles of Grey Goose vodka and Johnnie Walker Black Scotch to a high-end crossbow. His Mercedes was also a “gift.” In a conversation recorded by the FBI, Shulaya railed about being paid inadequate obshchak by his organization. “First of all, money should fucking go to the thief,” he said. “One has to happily run to deliver and fucking say: today we found, we stole, we snatched it, we fucking tricked a dummy.” Those who failed to pay obshchak faced consequences: In one encounter, Shulaya confronted an associate who had been dealing narcotics on his own; Shulaya slapped him and, according to prosecutors, “berated [the associate], while [an enforcer], holding a knife, guarded Shulaya and prevented [the associate’s] escape. [The associate] eventually admitted his drug dealing and promised that he would respect Shulaya’s status in the future.”
While he maintained a plain public image, Shulaya was unafraid to trumpet his status in private. In February 2016, at his birthday party, where he collected obshchak from his associates, he wore what prosecutors have described as “a custom-made shirt embroidered or printed with designs typical of the traditional tattoos worn by vors (e.g., various stars and elaborate rosate designs reflecting defiance of authority or status as a vor).”
His pride sometimes led to violence; he liked to use the phrase, “Bullets will find them” as a vague threat. In early 2015, one of the FBI’s confidential sources was summoned to a Brooklyn apartment. There, he found Shulaya and his enforcers—including Khurtsidze, the boxer—surrounding an older man from the Republic of Georgia. According to prosecutors, “Shulaya physically assaulted the older male and verbally berated him. [The confidential source] later learned from Shulaya and other members of the Shulaya Enterprise that the victim of this attack had disrespected Shulaya in public, thereby challenging Shulaya’s power and status as a vor…. [The source] understood that he was summoned to this assault by Shulaya so that [he] could witness Shulaya’s power firsthand.”
Much of the organization’s brutality came out during debt collection. Once, Khurtsidze and two others from Shulaya’s organization confronted a debtor outside a sidewalk café in Brooklyn and threatened him unless he paid down his debt; the debtor promptly handed over $1,000 in cash. Another time, in Atlantic City, Shulaya himself confronted a debtor, who then provided a $3,000 necklace as partial repayment. At the poker house, the FBI informant saw Shulaya, Khurtsidze, and others escort an associate into a back office; the man later emerged, bloodied. Shulaya ordered the informant to fetch ice for the man’s face, but all they could find was a cold can of beer or soda. Shulaya then asked Khurtsidze, “Why did you hit him so hard?”
One has to happily run to deliver and fucking say: today we found, we stole, we snatched it, we fucking tricked a dummy.
Having been under the FBI’s eye almost since he arrived in the U.S., Shulaya never saw the chance to grow his empire at the scale of other vory—but it certainly appears that he hoped to. In 2016, having watched the development of a hacking scheme aimed at defrauding casinos, he acquired a test slot machine and loaded its underlying code onto two laptops. The scheme, now well known to casino authorities (another version of it was reported in Wired), enabled someone with access to the code of an identical machine to gauge how close it was to paying out a large prize.
At the same time, he made sure to have his fun. That October, when Shulaya and a couple associates took a trip down to Atlantic City to pressure debtors to pay up, they went out for an elaborate meal at a fancy restaurant. Afterward, according to investigators, the associates “discussed paying for a prostitute on Shulaya’s behalf.” In another instance, Shulaya agreed to take under his protection an associate’s brothel in exchange for his own free use of it.
At around midnight on April 12, 2017, Shulaya’s phone rang. It was an acquaintance calling from California on behalf of Armen Kazarian, who had been back in prison. He’d been released nine days earlier, and was now camped out in Los Angeles. Kazarian’s associate was surprised when Shulaya picked up quickly.
“I thought at this time, you would be asleep,” the caller said.
“Brother, vors do not sleep, don’t you know?” Shulaya replied breezily.
Kazarian took the phone. “Hello, my brother,” Shulaya told him. “Congratulations on your release.”
“Thank you,” Kazarian said. “We will definitely see each other.”
Following their phone conversation, according to video surveillance that prosecutors said they intend to introduce in court, Shulaya and other associates traveled cross-country to meet with Kazarian in person. According to wiretaps, when Shulaya returned home, he realized that, from jail, Kazarian had been operating right under his nose, offering protection to a group of Armenians running a credit card fraud in New York. One of Shulaya’s men had been cooperating with the Armenian gangsters in a scheme that had earned them as much as a million dollars. Investigators tracked Shulaya as he summoned the unfaithful associate to a meeting at the Edgewater Whole Foods parking lot. You, Shulaya said, are my guy. He demanded answers.
According to prosecutors, the associate explained that the Armenians had been paying their obshchak to Kazarian in Los Angeles, and that Kazarian hadn’t wanted the deal to be known to Shulaya. That worried Shulaya: Was Kazarian now working against him?
Weeks later, on June 7, 2017, before the inter-vor drama had a chance to play out further, the FBI moved in. Shulaya’s crew was indicted on 7 counts, including RICO conspiracy. (No new charges have been brought against Kazarian or the unfaithful associate, whose name remains confidential; the FBI declined to comment on their status.) Shulaya—who, to the growing frustration of the judge overseeing the case, has rotated through five defense lawyers over the past year—continues to say that he’s done nothing wrong. In court, his lawyers have testified that he’s not a gangster, merely a manager at a company that leases tow trucks. “He is simply the coordinator, the manager of who it’s leased to, where the trucks go, and where they come back,” a lawyer said at a bail hearing. At the same hearing, Shulaya submitted paperwork showing a net worth of just $75,000.
A webpage defending Shulaya shows him smiling with his arm innocently wrapped around a child’s shoulder and blames his arrest on geopolitics. Invoking Trump-style phrasing about the FBI’s anti-Russia bias, the site claims that Shulaya “has been unfairly detained by US government, due to, as many people believe, fake media as well as tense conditions between Russian Federation and United States of America in general.”
The timing of the Shulaya enterprise arrests came as a particular affront to Khurtsidze, the boxing enforcer. Khurtsidze, who also went by the names Chakucha and Tornado, was interim world champion of the World Boxing Organization. Last April, just before being nabbed by the feds, he faced Tommy Langford, a Brit, knocking him out in the fifth round. That July, Khurtsidze was scheduled to fight Billy Joe Saunders in London, to compete for the title. But the bout was postponed a day after his arrest; two weeks later, his interim title was stripped away.
From prison, Khurtsidze wrote to a friend about inspiring his fellow inmates to take up boxing. He also sent word to thank his fans in America and Eastern Europe for their support. “I would not wish jail to anyone, including myself, but I think it was worth it since now I feel all this love and warmth,” he wrote. “I might be the happiest inmate here.”
Garrett M. Graff is a Longreads contributing writer covering border security, immigration, federal law enforcement, and the mechanics of how government works.
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