From Russia, to Oakland, With Love 

Is the Russian Mafiya running cars out of the Port of Oakland? Maybe. Maybe nyet.

Jim Alexander stood inside an empty warehouse one hot afternoon at the Port of Oakland and watched as a line of stolen cars ramped their way into a cargo container, one at a time. Honda Accords, Toyota Maximas. A Lexus sedan.

Overall, Alexander was impressed. The kids from Sacramento weren't just yappers; they'd actually delivered the goods. They were prompt, too. And they were easy to deal with.

Alexander had been working on the deal for nine months -- along with about 150 other undercover law enforcement agents from Oakland and Sacramento. Alexander and the other investigators believed the car thieves, 31 suspects in all, were low-level scrubs for the Russian Mafiya, and they hoped the investigation would spark a lead into the feared criminal organization.

To sell his role as a crooked longshoreman looking to make a few bucks, Alexander had grown his beard long and wore a knit cap down to his eyebrows. In real life, he is a veteran California Highway Patrol special agent who has worked dozens of undercover deals in cahoots with the US Customs Service at the Port. His blond features and rugged face bear the looks of a guy from Southern California who spends his weekends working on his boat.

Alexander set up the deal with the two leaders of the ring, brothers Vitaliy and Roman Zalutskiy. Prosecutors described Vitaliy, 19, as the brains who did the deal-making, and Roman, 22, as the muscle.

When the brothers and their accomplices met Alexander at the Port to deliver the goods on that summer afternoon, Roman came strapped with more than an intimidating stare and opened his coat to let Alexander know. After the cops dropped their net, though, they hauled Roman away unceremoniously. But Roman swore he wouldn't forget Alexander.

From his jail cell in Oakland, he issued a hit on the undercover agent for the price of $20,000 and a Lexus sedan.

Last month the last of the suspects from the state's largest crackdown on car thieves, including Roman and Vitaliy, were sentenced in Oakland's federal court for attempting to sell stolen cars for export. Of the original suspects rounded up in the summer of 2000, all under the age of 25, only a few will serve time. The rest made deals and will live on probation for the next two years.Though the sting was hailed with much fanfare by CHP and customs officials for gaining a foothold into the Russian Mob, others at the ground level viewed the operation as a glaring disappointment. One US Customs agent, who is still investigating Rus-sian organized crime figures, says the operation never progressed beyond following a band of dime-store car thieves who happened to be Russian.

"We had nothing," says the agent, who asked not to be identified. "After nine months we had zilch. We tailed those kids up and down I-80, checked out every chop shop they went to, and came up with nothing. After nine months, we had to shut it down." All told, officers retrieved 27 stolen cars -- but no Tony Sopranos -- and US Customs officials weren't able to estimate the operation's total cost.

Still, throughout the investigation, puzzling behavior from the Zalutskiy brothers and some of their codefendants suggested that they were, indeed, connected to bigger fish. Vitaliy claimed to have the hookups to sell large amounts of cocaine, which kept the agents keenly interested. Vitaliy also asked if the agents knew where to buy automatic weapons. And, even more enticing, one of Vitaliy's associates expressed interest in purchasing a stolen yacht. Asking price: $100,000.

Then there was Roman's bizarre attempt from his jail cell to have Alexander killed -- after all, setting up a hit on a cop isn't necessarily the stuff of dime-store criminals.

No doubt the Zalutskiy gang's actions left law enforcement officials wondering just what type of scofflaws they had caught. The suspects were Russian, and they did work together -- but did that make them the dreaded and notoriously ruthless Russian Mafiya?

According to FBI reports and California state authorities, the Russian Mafiya is considered the most feared crime organization, not just in the United States and Russia, but in the world. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian criminal organizations have infiltrated the United States, setting up syndicates in port cities such as New York and San Francisco. According to a recent FBI report, "Three hundred known Russian crime figures reside in the San Francisco Bay Area including San Jose." The Russian Mafiya is said to participate in every kind of crime imaginable, from hawking stolen goods on street corners to Wall Street corruption. And the Mafiya is deadly serious. In recent weeks, divers pulled five bodies from New Melones Lake near Sacramento, all of whom authorities believe were killed by Russian mobsters.

Even though the bust at the Port failed to yield the big names as hoped, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer still counted it as a strike against the Russian Mob in his annual report on organized crime to the state legislature last year. The Oakland bust, he said, and particularly Roman's gruesome plan to kill Alexander, is an example of the malevolent nature of even the lowest rungs of the Russian Mafiya.

"Several of the arrested subjects claimed they were 'Russian Mafiya,' 'West Coast Mob,' and 'West Side Mafiya.' Authorities believe this was an organized criminal cell as opposed to the traditional Russian Mafiya," Lockyer explained in his report. "Recently, one of the leaders of the group was charged with attempting to have an undercover police officer involved in the case murdered. This action demonstrates the violence potential of the Eurasian criminal groups and their lack of fear toward our judicial system."

According to recently unsealed files, on August 25, 2000, Roman shared his plans with another defendant in the case to have Alexander killed. The defendant, unbeknownst to Roman, relayed the story to jail guards, who turned it over to investigators. A few days later, an undercover Russian-speaking Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agent was dispatched to the jail. The agent told Roman he was a cousin to one of the codefendants, and that he could make the hit go down.Roman offered up his plan. He wanted it to happen in a public place and didn't mind if it was "messy," according to court records. A machine gun was fine. And Roman wanted the hit man, somehow, to return with selections of Alexander's body parts to show off to his codefendants. Roman said he needed the bloody evidence to inspire his codefendants into silence and to get them to pitch in for payment.

In the following days, Roman arranged for a stolen car to be placed at Oakland Airport. In the trunk, he'd have an associate leave an AK-47. The undercover agent's job was to provide a hit man to pick up the car and take out Alexander.

On September 18, Roman mailed a letter to an associate in Sacramento, which was later retrieved by investigators.

It read: "Watz up Doc, me again. Forgot to ask you something. Listen, I'm here with a guy who wants to do a big thing for me, for $$$. What I need is to ask you if you can find somebody who can get a 'hot' car, no matter what kind. Just get a car and park in airport parking lot and if you can, find some kind of 'toy' [in parentheses, Roman writes the word 'rifle' in Russian]. Our case will get dismissed, witnesses will go down ... Think about it, let me know what's your opinion about this. Should I do it or should I not? I told you about it only because I trust you. Judge will need 'John' to come to the court and testify against us. If for some reason he would not come, cases are getting dismissed, or dropped ... So Doc, let me know what you think about it. If you think about it but don't want to get involved with this shit, let me know. Well, Peace out Doc. Destroy this after you read it!"

If things had gone as planned, Jim Alexander should be dead by now. Instead he's working on new cases and not afraid to talk about the hit that never arrived. "I get those all the time," he says. "In this business, it's not uncommon."But the threat was hard to leave at the office. Alexander eventually wrote a letter to the court, allowing that it had caused stress on him and his family. In the end, Roman had two years tacked on his sentence; he's scheduled for parole in 2007. His brother Vitaliy is serving two years total.

Unlike some of his colleagues, Alexander is hesitant to call the operation a total bust. But he does agree that it didn't lead where they hoped it would go. Alexander says he had suspicions from the start, when Vitaliy agreed to have the cars in Oakland -- no questions asked -- that he was dealing with amateurs. And that's part of the reason he isn't spooked by Roman's letter.

"They weren't very sophisticated," Alexander says. "And we could tell that from the beginning."

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