By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
On one level, he's a classic American success story: Brought to the U.S. in 1962 as an infant by Albanian parents fleeing Communism, he is two years old when his mother dies, 11 when his father drops dead. Dispatched to an orphanage, he runs away, dropping out of school in the sixth grade. A street urchin, he prowls the Bronx's Arthur Avenue until a generous local family takes him in. Thanks to them, he learns a trade, creating programs in the communications industry. The business prospers. His declared income in the year 2000? $5.9 million. Taxes paid to Uncle Sam? $2.1 million.
That's the other side of the Zef Mustafa story. His alleged prowess with a bat was supposed to be part of the evidence presented against Mustafa and five co-defendants by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn pressing a massive telephone and Internet pornography indictment. Prosecutors claimed that Mustafa made his millions because of his menacing hulk and deadly reputation, not his programming expertise. He was such a regular at John Gotti's old hangout, the Ravenite Social Club on Mulberry Street, that the FBI spotted Mustafa there 115 times over a three-year span in the late 1980s, prosecutors asserted. All told, the high-tech operation allegedly made more than $700 million for Gotti's crime family, cheating thousands of unwary people around the globe, according to the charges.
Defense lawyers, the best of New York's criminal bar among them, scoffed at those claims and spent two years in court trying to limit the introduction of organized-crime evidence. What the feds really had, the lawyers insisted, was just an old-fashioned case of consumer fraud disguised with a thin veneer of Mafia allegations.
But they also weren't so sure how the jury would react once it took a good long look at the likes of Zef Mustafa. The jury was expected to hear from mob cooperators who would tell how Mustafa was "known for breaking heads," as one Gambino informant told the FBI. "There was talk among the guys in Queens that Mustafa was good with a baseball bat," the ex-wiseguy claimed. The feds also intended to tell the tale of the kidnapping and torture of a British publishing executive by unknown men after he ran afoul of the porn schemers (Voice, "Porn Stars," February 9-15).
Defense lawyers blasted Mustafa's "bat man" moniker as the "vague product of multiple levels of hearsay" and underscored the fact that he has never been convicted of a violent crime. His closest call was a 1986 case in which Mustafa was charged with beating a Bronx man to death with a Louisville Slugger. A key witness was a woman of ill repute who didn't hold up well on the stand, and Mustafa walked away a free man. But the reputation clung. "All violence, no brains. A truly bad kid," summed up one Arthur Avenue regular who watched Mustafa's career evolve.
Said one attorney who has worked on cases involving Mustafa: "Even the other wiseguys are scared of him."
Others disagreed. "He is one of the nicer clients I have represented over the years," said David Greenfield, his lawyer in the bat case. "He was always a gentleman to me."
Part of what works against Mustafaor for him, depending on the situationis the Albanian thing. Albanians began arriving in New York in large numbers in the 1960s, settling in the Bronx's Belmont section, then a mostly Italian neighborhood. Like any other ethnic group, there was a bad bunch among them, and those men quickly developed a reputation for especially nasty brutality and an unwillingness to back down from an argument.
"I hate these fuckin' Albanians," a captain in the Genovese crime family was captured saying on tape a few years ago. "If you have a beef with them you have to kill them right away. There's no talking to them."
Last fall, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney charged 24 ethnic Albanians with rack-eteering in a case that showed the new group elbowing the Italian mob aside. To settle one dispute with a top Gambino figure, the leader of the Albanian crew allegedly pointed a gun at a nearby gas pump and threatened to blow everyone to kingdom come.
That rep was part of what Mustafa and his co-defendants in the big porn case were up against, and the decision was finally made not to take any chances. On Valentine's Day, Mustafa and the others pled guilty before Judge Carol Bagley Amon, agreeing to jail terms ranging from two to 10 years, and to forfeit assets collectively worth $26 million.
Mustafa, 43, admitted to money launderingaccepting money he knew to be illegally gained. He has agreed to serve up to five years in prison and to cough up $1.7 million. His best friend from childhood, Salvatore "Tore" LoCascio, who is an alleged Gambino capo and a partner with Mustafa in a company called Creative Program Communications, also took a money laundering rap. LoCascio, 45, agreed to serve seven years and pay back $4.7 million. Richard Martino, also 45 and another childhood buddy, was depicted by prosecutors as the mastermind of the porn schemes. A reputed Gambino soldier, Martino faces the toughest time, up to 10 years in prison, and $15 million in forfeiture, including $6 million to settle criminal charges stemming from his takeover of a rural Missouri telephone company (Voice, "Mob Bell," February 25-March 2, 2004).