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.
Meet immigrant millionaire Zef Mustafa: good businessman, good family man, and a good man with a baseball bat, according to the wags in the Gambino crime family.
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 Mustafa—or for him, depending on the situation—is 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 laundering—accepting 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).
Just before the defendants went into court to enter their guilty pleas, they stood in their dark overcoats on the steps of the Plaza Diner in downtown Brooklyn looking dejectedly across Cadman Park toward federal court. Mustafa, his face flushed red, pounded his fist into his hand. “It ain’t fucking fair!” he shouted.
It’s not the first time in recent years that Mustafa has been made to feel that way. On March 19, 2000, he was returning from a Caribbean cruise with his family when immigration authorities challenged his right to remain as a permanent resident in the U.S. The reason, officials explained, was his 1993 conviction on charges that he had tried to use a phony birth certificate to obtain a passport. He had pled guilty to the charge, and served a year on probation. His explanation for the fraud was that he needed the passport in order to make a trip to London. He wanted to “open a business out there,” he said. Had he consulted an immigration lawyer, Mustafa easily could have obtained the proper travel documents. But that’s not how he was raised.
Instead, for $50 he bought a fake blank birth certificate “from some guy downtown in the 40s. They were selling it on the corner,” he later testified. He never had his own birth certificate, he said, and he had always believed he was an American citizen. It was only later, he insisted, that he found out that he’d actually been born in a refugee camp in Trieste, Italy.
The whereabouts of his birth was a sore subject, one that always confused the grade school dropout. “You know where you were born, right?” a government lawyer asked him at one point. “How would I know that?” Mustafa snapped back.
To immigration authorities, the con-viction represented a “crime of moral turpitude” worthy of deportation. Several hearings were held on his status while he remained free. But that changed suddenly in December 2002, when 10 federal agents swooped down on his $1.2 million mansion with a glassed-in pool in Pelham Manor, just over the Bronx border in Westchester County. He was bustled off to an immigration detention center in upstate Batavia, where he was held for more than a year.
What had gotten the new Department of Homeland Security so excited, he later learned, was a lurid four-page letter from the FBI detailing his background. Mustafa, FBI supervisor Kevin Donovan wrote in classic bureau understatement, had long been a “person of interest.”
Citing informants and witnesses, the FBI sketched out a brutal history: Mustafa, the agency claimed, was a “high level associate” of the Gambino crime family who had long been close to the mob’s top echelons because of his ties to Frank LoCascio, father of Tore, and the man who had befriended Mustafa when he was a homeless orphan. Mustafa had been Frank LoCascio’s driver, the FBI stated, and had regularly driven him to the Ravenite while Gotti held court. The elder LoCascio, convicted at Gotti’s side in 1992, is now serving life in prison.
A mob defector who had known Mustafa since he was a youth said that he always carried a gun and helped shake down the strip club Scores on behalf of Tore LoCascio. Another said Zef, along with his older brother Peter Mustafa, “handled the Albanians in the Bronx for the Gambinos.” The informants said Zef Mustafa had allegedly murdered a man named Frank Politti in the early ’80s, and then dismembered his body. He’d allegedly killed another man named Gino Masha, as well as the two sons of Anthony Porcelli. Despite his acquittal at trial, the bureau claimed he had in fact killed Joseph Mincione, the man Mustafa had been accused of beating to death with a bat in 1986. Other alleged murders were listed, as well as allegations that he trafficked in heroin and conducted loan-sharking.
One former Gambino mobster related an incident in which Tore LoCascio had responded to a request to have a rival Albanian given a beating. “Zef does all my dirty work,” the informant quoted LoCascio as saying.
If all of that wasn’t bad enough, the FBI also described Mustafa as a chronic alcoholic who started drinking every morning at 11 at Amici’s Restaurant at East 187th Street and Arthur Avenue.
Gangsters rarely allow themselves to be asked about such matters under oath. But because Mustafa wanted to defeat his deportation order, he took the stand and was grilled during a series of immigration hearings. He denied the murders, the gun-packing, and the chronic drinking. One of those he was accused of killing, his attorneys noted, was in fact alive and in state prison. “I heard he passed away,” Mustafa said of another alleged victim. The bat case, he said, had been “a bad nightmare.”
As for the LoCascios, Mustafa said Frank was “like a father to me,” and Tore had been the best man at his wedding and was godfather to his children. But he’d never been Frank LoCascio’s driver, he insisted, and he had heard about the mob ties only through the newspapers. He had visited the Ravenite on occasion. He “just took a ride downtown” with the LoCascios to the club. There he played cards, drank coffee, and yes, “shook [Gotti’s] hand every time I went down there.”
He didn’t deny some early run-ins with the law. He had worked in a numbers bank and had taken a couple of gambling collars as a result. There was a 1980 arrest when he was picked up in a gambling den on East 209th Street with 220 policy slips in his pocket, another when he was busted as a blackjack dealer. But he didn’t remember several other arrests on his rap sheet. “I don’t recall that far back,” he said. He forgot a 1979 incident in which he had hit a woman in the head with a glass; he later pled guilty to harassment, paying a $25 fine. A weapons possession of which he was acquitted by “mental defect” also slipped his mind, along with a 1982 assault rap in New Rochelle, case dismissed. “I was picked up a lot of times,” he testified, “but I was innocent . . . just for walking the streets in my neighborhood.”
But as tough as it was for Mustafa to talk about past crimes, he had a far tougher time talking about his job. Records submitted to the immigration court showed he did astonishingly well, earning more than $20 million between 1990 and 2001. He and his wife had put away $6 million in cash and stocks. What exactly was the nature of his work? the government’s lawyer asked him.
It was “900 numbers,” Mustafa explained. “I create programs for business. I get a salary and commission,” he answered. “I come up with an idea, and if it makes money, I get a commission.”
Did he have an example?
“OK, like umm—”
“The nature of the work you do,” the judge prodded Mustafa.
“You put up a Santa Claus line, you put up a love line. A gag line, talk lines. Santa Claus, Grandpa Munster.”
What was a love line?
“People talk to each other.”
Pressed for further details, Mustafa elaborated: “Generally, you call up, and ya talk to, a lonely person calls up and talks to somebody.”
Most of the time, he explained, the callers reached taped recordings that he helped create. What did the recordings say?
“It could say a million and one things. ‘Hello, how ya feel? Ah, how’s everything? How’s ah, you’re a lonely person, have ya had a date lately?’ Goes on and on. What would you talk about on a date? Will you go out with somebody?” Such programs, he said, were given to a “young lady and she reads it out.”
It wasn’t phone sex, Mustafa said, but he had a hard time explaining just how he knew that. But yes, he had become a millionaire this way. “It happened to be a multi, multimillion-dollar business,” he said. “I came up with an idea, the American way,” he told the court. “I put it out and I made money.”
The riches came without much heavy lifting, he acknowledged. The original business had been started with a small investment, Mustafa said. He initially balked at naming his partners, but later relented, admitting that Tore LoCascio and Tore’s uncle Joseph LoCascio were owners. “I put a few dollars into it. . . . Tore chipped in a few dollars, Joe chipped in . . . ”
Yet he had no idea how many employees he had, and he gave an address for his firm that was several years out of date. That was because he rarely, if ever, went to the office, he explained. “I could go once a year,” he said. “I could go once every three years.” He didn’t need to. His job only took up about “an hour” a day. Asked how that hour was spent, Mustafa labored to describe the creative process.
“My particular day, I go out, I talk to a lot of different types of people. I try to come up with ideas. I try to figure out what the public likes. And that’s my idea.” There wasn’t anyone he could refer the government to, however, because “they don’t know I’m trying to pick their brain.”
Despite the Homeland Security Department’s intense efforts, including putting an FBI agent on the stand to testify, the hearing judge later shocked the government by ruling in Mustafa’s favor, canceling the deportation order. The judge cited Mustafa’s more than 40 years as a resident, his American-born wife, five American-born children, as well as the fact that the defendant had paid “very, very substantial taxes.” In addition, said immigration judge John Reid, “he is well regarded in at least some segment of the neighborhood.” All in all, the judge said, the “scales tip very, very heavily in favor of the respondent’s equities.”
The agency appealed, but that was denied as well. Mustafa finally became a free man early last year, just in time to be indicted for his role in the business that made him such a substantial taxpayer. Now that he stands convicted, the government is likely to seek his deportation once he’s done his time. According to the feds, he can go back to Italy, where he was born. Mustafa’s lawyers, however, have insisted there is no place else to send him. On his passport application he listed himself as stateless. A millionaire without a country.