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January 22nd, 2003 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

SNITCH-SLAPPED

How a Serbian con artist scammed Portland's Russian "godfather" and the FBI.

     
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On Jan. 27, Prisoner #10468--040 is scheduled to walk out of a federal prison in Eloy, Ariz., a free man.

Misko Jovanovic is the star of one of the more bizarre Portland crime stories in recent memory, a plot worthy of Elmore Leonard, with scams and betrayal stretching from Chicago to East Burnside. At its center is the two-year prosecution of a Portland strip-club manager named Ilya Adamidov, a supposed Russian- mafia criminal mastermind, and his pal Misko, a suave Serbian immigrant who was really an undercover federal informant.

It's a cautionary reminder that even in this high-tech age, our government's many "wars"--against drugs, terrorism and organized crime--cannot be fought without the aid of undercover informants. The story of Misko and Ilya illustrates what happens when law-enforcement officials break the cardinal rule of working with snitches: Never trust them.

For more than two years, Misko played a daring game of double-cross, setting Adamidov up for a federal sting while at the same time pulling the wool over the eyes of local FBI agents.

As federal Judge Anna Brown put it, "Misko Jovanovic, an FBI informant, took the government and defendants for a ride."

In December 1998, a slender Serbian immigrant walked into the nondescript FBI offices in the Crown Plaza building on Southwest 1st Avenue downtown. Having entered the country just one year before, the 34-year-old housepainter said he longed to be a full-fledged special agent for the FBI. For now, however, he was willing to be an informant in its war on crime.

His timing was great. The FBI had just made Russian organized crime a priority.

Over the next year, Misko Jovanovic helped paint a disturbing picture for Oregon law enforcement. According to a confidential 10-page memo obtained by WW, on March 10, 2000, the chief of Oregon's organized-crime strike force informed his superiors in Washington, D.C., of "a significant organized-crime problem" in Oregon, adding that years of federal inattention was "allowing Portland to become a safe harbor for both Asian and Russian criminal groups."

The most sinister-sounding group cited by Assistant U.S. Attorney Frederick Petti was called "The Adamidov Organization," which the prosecutor said was "willing to commit virtually any act that will make them money."

"The Adamidov Organization, when taken down, will represent a major indictment," he added, "At least a dozen defendants, more than two dozen counts."

For many, the words "organized crime" conjure the smell of tomato sauce and the countenance of Tony Soprano. But today, if you had to think of a nation other than Italy to associate with the word "Mafia," Russia would probably be it.

Of course, other U.S. immigrant groups, including the Irish, Mexicans and Jews, have formed criminal gangs. But law-enforcement officials say the Russian mobsters who came to this country following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union had advantages their predecessors didn't: technology, education--and plenty of money looted from their old country.

The most serious Russian organized crime is out east, but there have been hints at local activity. Local cops linked the 1997 car-bombing death of a local body-shop owner to Russian auto-theft gangs (see "Who Killed Oleg Babichenko?," WW, Nov. 25, 1997).

While a Portland Police Bureau task force has focused on Russian car-theft rings since 1995, no FBI agent in Oregon specialized in Russian organized crime until October 1998, when the FBI named Special Agent Martin Alevy to head that effort.

Alevy never intended to take on the Russian mob. A microbiologist with a Ph.D., Alevy is best known for his part in the well-publicized 1997 scandal over the FBI's forensic crime lab in Washington, D.C. There, Alevy refused to go along with the frequent use of tainted or faulty evidence against countless defendants. Instead, he took a voluntary demotion to be a street agent in the D.C. field office and helped outside investigators clean up the lab.

"Marty was disgusted with the corruption," says ex-agent Fred Whitehurst, another crime-lab whistleblower. "He raised a lot of hell."

With wire-rimmed glasses and a dark tweed blazer, Alevy seems like he'd be more at home in front of a blackboard than chasing hoods. The slim, short 51-year-old is reluctant to divulge too many personal details, but his passion for the job is evident.

"I grew up in Brooklyn," he says, with more than a hint of his home-borough accent. "I've seen the impact of organized crime." That impact, says Alevy, need not be so graphic as what's served up weekly by HBO. It can be as obvious as when someone steals and strips your car or as subtle as the rising bank fees and insurance premiums due to fraud. "Organized crime can have a day-to-day impact on people, whether they realize it or not," says Alevy.

Alevy had only been on the job in Portland a few months when Misko walked into his office. Documents show he'd be Alevy's only informant for the next two years.

Alevy checked with the INS, and just as the slender, canny-looking chain-smoker said, Misko had gained entry into the U.S. as a political refugee. Misko's story was a tearjerker: He'd been thrown in prison because he was a pacifist and refused to participate in a plot to assassinate the Serbian prime minister. In prison, he added, he was tortured and forced to "kiss a cow's ass."

In reality, Misko was no pacifist. Serving in the Serbian military before the U.S intervened to halt its genocidal slaughter of Muslims, documents show, he requested a transfer so he could see more action. In Portland, his girlfriend later testified, he slept with the lights on and a gun under his pillow, and his nightmares were filled with ghosts of people he'd killed.

His 1996 imprisonment came not because he refused to cooperate with a corrupt army, but because he stole a car.

Alevy, however, wouldn't learn this until much later. Aside from contacting the INS, he did no background check--not wanting to tip off any Eastern European bureaucrats with mafia ties.

Unleashed by Alevy, the smooth-talking Serb reported back on places patronized by Russians: the Greek Cusina in downtown Portland, as well as Northwest 23rd Avenue's Santa Fe Cafe and Torrefazione Italia. Soon, however, Misko homed in on a world of neon lights, booze, music and writhing naked flesh: the East Burnside strip club called Union Jacks.

The manager was Ilya Adamidov, a 6-foot, 220-pound native of Leningrad who had achieved a 10th-grade education before coming to this country at the age of 17, in 1977. His mother worked as a hairdresser at Meier & Frank, while his dad was an engineer. His younger sister, Renata, was a star swimmer at Wilson High and a 1990 Rose Festival Princess.

Whereas his sister was the family success story, Ilya, his family would later testify, was easily manipulated, unsuccessful in love and so desperate to impress that he often tried to seem more important than he was. In interviews with WW, other of Ilya's acquaintances described him using words like "poser," "loser" and "weak."

In court, his mother said she bought Union Jacks in 1995 to provide Ilya an income and something to do. In a thick Russian accent, his mother said, "Ilya a person who don't know how to manage money right, and I decided I provide for him free living."

The Russians hanging out there soon gave the club a mobster reputation, according to Rob Schatz, the current manager. Ilya, a lover of Godfather movies, liked to play up that image, he says, though he thinks it was all talk. "If he's the godfather," snorts Schatz, "then I'm Peter Pan."

The menacing Misko, who carried a pistol at all times, soon won the trust and admiration of the wannabe mafioso. "Misko drew his gun on me twice--he's a lunatic," Christopher Lloyd-Baron, publisher of SFX magazine, a strip-club guide, told WW. According to Misko's then-girlfriend, at restaurants the informant used to flash his pistol at neighboring couples just for laughs.

She asked what would happen if the police came. Misko reportedly replied, "What can police do? Police are stupid. They can do nothing to me."

In May 1999, Misko cemented his friendship with Ilya by attending his 40th birthday party, held at Ilya's three-story, six-bedroom home in the West Hills neighborhood of Council Crest.

There and elsewhere, Misko reported, Ilya boasted of crimes he'd done in the past and planned to do in the future. Some were pretty typical: food-stamp fraud, check fraud at casinos, and smuggling of bootleg cigarettes from Portland to California.

Others tales were bizarre: a plot to bring a young woman from Russia to be impregnated by a local gay judge; plans to build a fake World War II-era German Stuka bomber for an ex-spy who had transported drugs for the CIA; and a scheme to buy an abandoned logging town near Multnomah Falls, then build a DMV office, bank and casino to run scams. Misko reported that Ilya wanted to buy a stolen Rembrandt and planned to meet the Dalai Lama for lunch when he came to Portland.

Alevy won't discuss his relationship with Misko, but he says it's not surprising that snitches come back with tall tales.

"Criminals tend to boast and sit around and blow smoke about crimes," he says. "Sometimes informants tell you what they heard and it's true that they heard it, but the information is not true. That doesn't mean they didn't hear it."

In Misko's case, his pay depended on how much gossip, observation and rumor he relayed. His monthly stipends ranged from $400 to $2,500, and over the course of almost two years undercover, Misko received more than $54,000 in pay and expense reimbursement by the FBI. It was a far higher rate of pay than the average FBI snitch receives, and Misko told Alevy the extra money was necessary to maintain appearances. The informant dutifully spent his federal dollars at Union Jacks on drinks and slipped them into the G-strings of grateful strippers.

None of the outlandish plots ever materialized, but there was enough real information to convince Alevy that Ilya was more than a mere pretender.

In March 1999, Misko reported back to Alevy that Ilya had years before been involved with a guy named "Misha" in an insurance-fraud ring in Los Angeles. When Alevy checked with the FBI in L.A., he found a report of such a scheme featuring "Misha" and describing Ilya as a major "capper"--someone who recruits supposed victims for staged auto accidents.

Misko's body wire also caught Ilya discussing his cigarette-smuggling past and offering to help Misko run a staged-accident scam in Portland.

Yet all these were relatively small-time scams. Alevy still lacked evidence that Misko had stumbled onto a dangerous criminal organization. In May 1999, he found it, in a pair of Ilya's friends who were referred to by many involved as "the two Alexes."

The owners of 21st Century Towing on North Columbia Boulevard, Alex Berkovich and Aleksandr Shlaen held Portland's municipal contract, towing cars for city agencies.

Misko reported that the two Alexes were heavies in the stolen-car trade. Sure enough, Portland police records showed that, in 1998, three witnesses said Shlaen used his company's tow truck to steal a car, and that when confronted by the car's owner, Shlaen "pointed a gun one inch from his temple" and threatened to shoot him if he didn't leave.

In July 1999, Misko's body wire caught Ilya discussing a "murder for hire" scheme allegedly proposed by the two Alexes. According to Alevy's report, the target was an unnamed lawyer.

Later that month, Ilya was taped discussing an arson scheme in which he said the two Alexes wanted to collect on a hefty insurance policy and would pay Misko $15,000 to torch a semi-trailer parked on their tow company's land.

The next day, according to a transcript of the wiretap, Ilya told Misko that the owners did it themselves, using a delayed fuse that let them establish an alibi by having dinner at a restaurant; then they told police they suspected their landlord, whom they did not like.

Police records show that indeed, at 10:19 pm on the night in question, a trailer on the tow company's land went up in smoke, and investigators labeled it an intentional arson using a delayed fuse. The two Alexes said they were dining at Cucina! Cucina! at the time, and they said they suspected their landlord. They subsequently filed a claim with their insurance company, which is pending. Unaware of the FBI's probe, city arson investigators closed the case, citing a "lack of tangible leads."

The arson scheme was a good break, but as 1999 drew to a close, Alevy still had little to prosecute as far as Ilya was concerned. That's when he sprang a trap called "Golden Schemes."

Alevy had Misko tell Ilya he knew of a way to illegally obtain bona fide green cards through a friend in Chicago. In reality, this was an undercover sting operation set up by the FBI, using a supposed corrupt immigration official named "Clarence."

Joining Ilya and Misko in this scheme was an unlikely crew: Dale Barron, a double-chinned, barely employed couch-surfer who in 2001 started a nonprofit called "Families for Gang Prevention"; Roman Muklanovich, a former Portland School District employee; and Ilya's ex-wife, Leticia Nunez, a software-company executive who Misko claimed had connections to the infamous Arellano drug family in Mexico.

Over the next year, this quintet brokered green-card purchases for 35 people in Chicago. Ilya and his pals paid Clarence $5,000 per green card while collecting up to $40,000 from each customer. Hidden cameras and microphones caught everything. Clients, most of them from Portland, included students, cooks, doctors and business owners, mostly Russian and Chinese nationals.

Things got hairy in December 2000 when two customers suspected to be serious, heavy-duty mafiosi flew in from Russia. Each paid $50,000 in cash. Misko would later testify that he considered them "very dangerous."

On the very next trip, on Jan. 25, 2001, Misko disappeared. The FBI last saw him in Chicago bearing $100,000 in three money belts, the income from that trip.

When Misko did not check in, Alevy figured Ilya or his cronies must have had him whacked. Back in Portland, Alevy toured Misko's old haunts, his mind abuzz with concern that his snitch was dead.

On the afternoon of Jan. 28, he saw Misko's red SUV pull up, and Barron and another man stepped out. They let themselves into Misko's apartment and, after some time, emerged carrying bulging garbage bags, which they placed in the SUV.

Alevy called for backup, and Portland police officers and two other FBI agents made the stop, arresting Barron at gunpoint. Inside the bags, they found Misko's belongings--but no body parts.

The FBI quickly obtained warrants to search Union Jacks and Ilya's place. Agents found no evidence of a rub-out, but they did find more than 30 credit cards, two Uzis and several pistols--three of them with bullets in their chambers.

Alevy also obtained warrants to arrest Ilya, Barron, Muklanovich and Nunez. The cops also brought Ilya's 60-year-old mother to jail, where she was strip-searched, and took into custody Ilya's 94-year-old grandmother, who was in his car when he was nabbed. With no evidence of murder, Ilya, Nunez, Barron and Muklanovich were charged with bribery of a public official, in connection with the green-card scam.

Within a week, satellite technology revealed that calls were being made from Misko's cell-phone, originating in Canada.

Four months later, Misko was pulled over in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, for speeding. He wore a money belt bearing more than $25,000 in hundred-dollar bills that the feds had given him during the green-card sting. Brought to the U.S. and debriefed by the FBI, Misko claimed he had run only because he'd lost some of the money--and feared nobody would believe him.

In court, in various pre-trial motions and hearings, a different picture emerged.

Testimony showed that without the FBI's knowledge or permission, Misko had been collecting a share of the profits all along: at least $3,000 per customer. At the time of his disappearance, he is believed to have used his snitch role to scam at least a quarter of a million dollars.

Misko's ex-girlfriend testified that a month before his last trip to Chicago, the informant showed her a bag full of money and passports in different names, saying "his plan was, from day one, to reach this amount of money that he had in his hand"--then disappear. She also said half of everything he made went to a secret account in the Cayman Islands.

It also became clear that the "Adamidov Organization" wasn't quite as sophisticated as Alevy had been led to believe. The picture of Ilya that emerged was not of the "criminal godfather" portrayed by Misko, but of a low-achieving hood with delusions of grandeur. Some of the other characters used to fill up Misko's reports turned out to be Misko's girlfriend, roommate and weekly tennis partner.

Attorneys for the defense said the case should be thrown out based on Misko's lies and theft, as well as the government's failure to oversee what they said was a case of entrapment. "This was a 'criminal enterprise' completely manufactured by the government," said Ilya's attorney, Jack Ransom.

Steve Wax, a former prosecutor who heads the Federal Defender's Office for Oregon, represented Barron. "Collectively, the four defense attorneys in this case had more than 100 years of experience," he says. "I don't think any of us had ever seen anything like it."

Ilya and Misko, it seems, were made for each other: the insecure big-talker wannabe, and his menacing, seemingly loyal follower, who was paid on the basis of how much of Ilya's big talk he could report back.

Though Alevy would not discuss details of the case, he did defend himself and Misko in general terms.

"Informants can get you into trouble," he says. "You can't trust informants totally 100 percent, but on the other hand, you can't not trust them at all. Then you'll get nothing done."

In this case, however, it's clear the FBI relied excessively on Misko's tales. Under cross-examination, Alevy admitted he had done little to corroborate Misko's claims and therefore had little evidence that any organized crime actually took place. Still, until Misko was arrested in Canada, the FBI continued to view the "Adamidov Organization" as a far-reaching threat, with connections to mobsters around the country and in Russia and Israel.

"In this case, the government relied on an unsavory informant to its considerable detriment," Judge Brown wrote in one pre-trial opinion.

Alevy bristled at the suggestion that he got scammed by Misko. "I think that you should reserve judgment on that until the whole story comes out," he said last week.

That could take a while.

Federal prosecutors declined to comment, but the U.S. Attorney's office in Portland was clearly persuaded that Ilya was a minor crook, not a mob kingpin. It agreed to a settlement that would let Ilya plead guilty to a felony but serve no jail time.

But federal prosecutors in Chicago, who oversaw the green-card scam, objected, saying the punishment was too lenient. In September 2002, Portland prosecutors dropped their case so Ilya and friends could be reindicted in Chicago.

Today, Ilya and his friends have not been reindicted, and Ilya himself is reportedly living in Russia. He and his family declined requests for interviews.

As for Misko, he was charged with stealing government funds and last September in Chicago was sentenced to two years in a federal prison--most of which he had already completed.

"Mr. Jovanovic, your case is one of the most complex cases I've seen in the sense of really knowing what is going on," said Judge Ruben Castillo disapprovingly. "I don't quite understand who you're all about other than to say that you are an operator, and you are someone who has apparently talked your way through a lot of different things."

But despite Misko's flight, fictions and filching, the U.S. government still plans to throw a few more dollars his way.

"Mr. Jovanovic has cooperated with the government, and is continuing to do so," Chicago federal prosecutor Terry Kinney told the judge. "I anticipate that we will use Mr. Jovanovic in the future on a number of matters."

THE RUSSIANS ARE HERE!
The frayed storefronts along Southeast Foster Road say it all: The Russians aren't coming, they're already here.

EuroClassic Furniture hawks statues of the Blues Brothers behind windows stenciled with Cyrillic letters. Euro-Royal Foods sells fatty ropes of Kiev and Odessa sausages, while Moscow TV drones above the cash register.

Outside the S&M Delicatessen, next door to Restaurant Russia, you can pick up the 48-page January issue of Dlya Vsekh ("For All"). The free monthly Portland paper features news and culture articles alongside ads for lawyers, realtors and laser surgeons. Down the street, Russia House Video stocks schlocky action flicks in Tolstoy's tongue.

Last fall, Portland's Slavic Coalition estimated that as many as 70,000 Russian-speakers live in the metro area--a population roughly as large as Beaverton's. They can be found from Pearl District loft galleries to suburban retirement homes. But the small pocket of vitality on otherwise-faded Foster is the most visible result of the huge influx of Russian-speakers that followed the 1991 Soviet implosion.

According to some, in the '90s the Northwest attracted more Russians and Ukrainians (oft-confused nationalities which, as any Ukrainian will happily tell you, are not interchangeable) than any other U.S. region.

But behind the numbers and the bustle of Russian commerce along Foster, some say, deep cultural, religious and class fractures keep Portland's post-Soviets from coming together to form a true community.

Immigration laws, dating back to the Cold War, grant preferential status to members of religious groups historically subjected to persecution in former Soviet states. That means that a large proportion of Portland's Russian-speakers are Evangelical Christians from highly traditional, insular and agricultural communities. Some say Evangelicals have been reluctant to participate in cultural and social events aimed at highlighting Portland's new Russian citizens.

"There's a clear division," says Tracy Grotta, who works for the Foster Target Area Project, a city-funded effort to pump life into the Foster commercial corridor. "For a lot of people, if it happens outside their church, they're just not interested." --Zach Dundas


Portland has a disproportionately high number of Russian immigrants: It's said to be the fastest-growing immigrant population in Oregon (see "The Russians Are Here!," below).



Special Agent Martin Alevy says the Russian Mob is less organized than La Cosa Nostra: "They are like a spider web. They're people who know each other, who may come together to do a few deals.... It's much more diffuse, much more spread out."



Misko Jovanovic reported that Ilya Adamidov's pal Dale Barron planned for his cousin to sell Misko his car, then report it stolen for insurance. Misko bought the car and Barron's cousin filed the claim, court records show.



The 21st Century Towing fire hit as the city was questioning numerous paperwork irregularities. The owners sold the company and left town four months later. They did not respond to WW's requests for an interview.



Misko got a job with Thomason Mazda and reportedly told a Union Jacks security guard he could get him into a new Mazda for $400 cash. After payment, the guard testified, Misko never delivered the car.



Alevy declined to be photographed for this article, citing security reasons.
 
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