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Russian ‘thief-in-law’ arrested in Las Vegas, faces multiple charges

Updated June 8, 2017 - 2:31 pm

Federal prosecutors on Wednesday announced racketeering charges against more than two dozen reputed Russian mobsters and associates, including Razhden Shulaya, the alleged leader of a Soviet mafia syndicate who is accused of running gambling, stolen goods and protection rackets in several states across the country.

Shulaya was arrested in Las Vegas Wednesday morning, and appeared in federal court for a brief hearing later in the day. U.S. Magistrate Judge George Foley ordered his transfer to New York, where the case is being prosecuted.

“I understand what they accused me of, but I just don’t understand why,” the 40-year-old Shulaya, a Russian national, said through a translator after the judge asked him if he understood the charges contained in the seven-count indictment against him and other members of the New York City-based “Shulaya Enterprise.”

Authorities describe Shulaya as a “vor v zakone,” a Russian term for “thief-in-law” that refers to an elite order of Soviet criminals. The indictment provides an image of a powerful crime boss who collected “tribute payments” from loyal subordinates and violently retaliated against lower-ranking criminals who failed to pay up.

The Shulaya Enterprise’s alleged crimes were detailed in three indictments unsealed in New York City. Among the more shocking allegations is a charge that the group used a female member to seduce men, incapacitate them with gas and rob them. The indictments also included accusations of traditional mob crimes such as illegal gambling, cigarette trafficking, bribery, extortion and credit card fraud — along with more unusual charges, such as the theft of a cargo shipment of 10,000 pounds of chocolate. A related criminal complaint, in which Shulaya was not charged, focused on a murder-for-hire conspiracy.

‘Extremely violent history’

The reputed “vor,” who was taken into federal custody after his arrest, displayed little emotion during his afternoon court hearing Wednesday. He sat at the defense table, shrugging occasionally and sliding his feet in and out of sandals while the judge addressed him. Authorities say he used his substantial criminal underworld influence to run illegal operations in several states, including Nevada, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Burns described Shulaya as a “high-level member of Russia’s organized crime mafia” with an “extremely violent history.” Russian authorities, Burns said, had a notice out for his arrest on kidnap-for-ransom charges. Shulaya, however, is expected to remain in this country for the immediate future as the United States does not have an extradition treaty with Russia.

In a statement released Wednesday, acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim, who is overseeing prosecution, accused the Shulaya Enterprise of engaging in a “panoply of crimes around the country.” Kim said the case represented “one of the first federal racketeering charges ever brought against a Russian ‘vor.’”

‘Dizzying array’ of criminal schemes

The prosecutor accused Shulaya and his associates of a “dizzying array” of criminal schemes, which included an illegal poker business the group ran in Brooklyn. Shulaya and one of the other defendants also are accused of investing in an after-hours club in New York, and then bribing local law enforcement officers so they could use the business to sell drugs to customers.

The indictment provides few details about the extent of criminal activity in Las Vegas, but it suggests that it involved the use of counterfeit credit cards and identity theft.

Those indicted Wednesday also were accused of trying to defraud casinos in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. According to the indictment, federal investigators intercepted a telephone call between Shulaya and one of his co-defendants this year in which the two men discussed the operability of devices that could predict the behavior of electronic slot machines at casinos.

Authorities say Shulaya and others charged in the case sent portions of their mob profits back to mafia members and associates in Russia, Georgia and Ukraine.

The reputed gangsters’ efforts to avoid prosecution also were detailed in the indictment, which says members of the criminal enterprise spoke in coded language and used encrypted communication to thwart law enforcement. Meanwhile, federal investigators wiretapped phone conversations and gathered information from confidential informants, who negotiated the sale of stolen jewelry and other goods from members of the conspiracy.

“The Thief-in-Law allegedly established an extensive cross-country criminal enterprise from Brighton Beach to Las Vegas that engaged in bribes, gambling, and murder for hire,” New York Police Department Commissioner James P. O’Neill said in a statement released Wednesday.

Thirty-three defendants were charged in the indictments, 27 of whom are said to be associated with the racketeering enterprise led by Shulaya. Twenty-three of the defendants are in federal custody.

Contact Jenny Wilson at jenwilson@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710. Follow @jennydwilson on Twitter.

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