russian roulette

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interview with keith praeger

He is Special Assistant Agent in Charge, US Customs, Southern District of Florida and will retire from the Customs Service in the summer of 1999 after 30 years of service. He has been involved in a wide range of high profile cases involving international organized crime, illegal arms and drug trafficking.

How did this case begin?

[We were] introduced to Pogrebezskij by an undercover Miami Beach police officer, who indicated that Pogrebezskij wanted to buy some stolen vehicles or get some stolen vehicles back to Lithuania. We introduced an undercover Customs agent to him, who said, "I have stolen vehicles to send back." In fact, we sent two vehicles overseas with him, which ingratiated ourselves with him. And he believed he was dealing with criminals like himself. From there, [we began] negotiating other things: more stolen vehicles, other consumer goods, things like that.

We received this letter from Jupiter Z.  It came both in Russian and  English,  accusing us of being FBI or CIA agents, which was peculiar to us, if this was supposed to be a scientific organization... During the course of one of those meetings, Pogrebezskij stated to my undercover agent, "Hey, I can get weapons. Are you guys interested?" And the undercover agent responded, "Yes, absolutely. What kind can you get?" At that point, he brought Alexander Darichev into the equation. They start negotiating. He then produces a brochure from a company called Armimex in Bulgaria, and the negotiation starts then for the types and the prices of different weapons of all kinds.

What do we know about Armimex?

It's licensed by Russia to produce certain types of ... weapons for them.

And they're based where?

In Sofia, Bulgaria.

How were the weapons going to get from Bulgaria to Lithuania?

The negotiation then turned to shipping the weapons to Lithuania, which was the official story. But the real story was to get them to us so we can send them down to South America. After we arrested Darichev and Pogrebezskij, we negotiated the use of a freighter to pick up the missiles in Bulgaria and deliver them in Puerto Rico.

They were supposed to go to Lithuania but they got sent to Puerto Rico instead?

Correct. They were going to go to Lithuania by way of Puerto Rico.

And they were just never quite going to get to Lithuania. Was that the idea?

Right. They were going to make up some story. Throughout the whole deal, this thing had to look like a legitimate deal. It had to have paperwork. There had to be a license. There had to be plausible deniability throughout the whole negotiation.

What kind of connections would somebody need to have in order to make a deal look that legit?

They'd have to be very well connected. They'd have to get some official letterheads and official stamps from pretty high up in various governments to make this happen, from their end.

Would it be possible to counterfeit these things?

I suppose. But we asked after the investigation came to conclusion, through our attaché office, we asked the Lithuanians if the document we had was legitimate. They indicated to us that it was; however, the individual who signed it is no longer employed by the Ministry of Defense. But they would not give an explanation for his departure.

What does that say to you?

I hate to speculate, but apparently, you know, either he didn't share or he got crossways with somebody.

So you're convinced that he was legit at the time that he signed it?

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Did the shoulder-to-air missiles ever end up here?

No, they didn't. They ended up on the dock in Bulgaria, waiting to be picked up. We decided to close the investigation because we had the two violators here, in our hand. We had built the best prosecutable case against them, and it was time to stop it. We also didn't want missiles careening around the Atlantic Ocean completely outside of our control. ...

At one point, the Customs agents went to London to meet with them. What happened then?

... During the course of our meeting in London, a letter came in from an agency in St. Petersburg, that we call Jupiter Z. And Alexander Darichev indicated to us that that was his contact for these weapons, at that time. ...

Did we have any cause to question whether or not the thing was legitimate?

Throughout the whole thing, we weren't sure if it was legit, to be honest with you. ... While we were in London, we received this letter from Jupiter Z. It came in both in Russian and in English, faxed to our hotel, basically accusing us of being FBI or CIA agents, which was peculiar to us. If this was supposed to be a scientific organization, you know, where did this letter come from? So we decided to just hang with it and see what would occur in the future.

Did you ever have any doubt that they could deliver those shoulder-to-air missiles?

Oh, we had lots of doubts throughout most of the time. We doubted whether they could do it. We kept going back and forth on whether we thought these guys were actually for real. We knew they were criminals, and we knew they had criminal tendencies, but to actually deliver something like a shoulder-fired missile or a tactical nuclear weapon--that they indicated they possibly could get--we weren't sure till the very end, actually.

So they offer the shoulder-to-air missiles. How did the conversation then get to tactical nuclear weapons?

They brought it up in a conversation too, that they can get anything we want. And that led to a conversation on: "Well, what do you mean?" "I mean anything you want." And the conversation turned to a smaller nuclear device that could fit in the back of a truck or vehicle.

And you said?

And we said, "Sure, we'd be interested in that." But we had agreed that we would do the missile case first, before we even discussed it again. And we had nicknamed it Project 2.

And so that's why we see in the undercover tape--

Correct. The Discussion Project 2 is for a tactical nuclear weapon.

When the 2 guys were arrested, they had $50 in their pocket. How did they get these connections to these people in Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Russia? How do you think this network might be working?

Well, we know Pogrebezskij had organized crime connections. Darichev's background is a little less clear to us. But apparently, he does have a lot of access to various government officials throughout the former Soviet bloc. Nobody in the former Soviet Union has any real money anyway. That's why they probably do things like this. So we had given them some money. We know some of it went to the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense. ... To be honest, we don't really know how they had that access, but they apparently did.

How much money did we give them?

$50,000, if I remember correctly.

For the shoulder-to-air missiles?

Correct. A down payment, $50,000. ...

And how much were we going to pay for the shoulder-to-air missiles?

We were in the millions of dollars. We were talking different levels, depending upon how many systems could be delivered and methods of payment. ...

When your undercover agents came back to you and said, "These guys claim they can get us tactical nuclear weapons," what was your response?

"Well, let's see what they can do." It was a certain degree of elevated awareness. And certain reporting requirements kick in, in any good old bureaucracy. But you start to say, "Okay. Well, let's do it step by step. Let's see what they can do." And we're testing them, they're testing us. They want to make sure we're not undercover law enforcement people, which they have accused us of numerous times throughout the whole investigation. They were right. [laughs]

What did we tell them that we were?

We told them that we had connections with Colombian narcotics traffickers, and they needed the weapons to keep those pesky helicopters out of their fields.

What would we want with tactical nuclear weapons?

Well, there's narco-terrorists. They didn't care what we wanted to do with it. They just wanted the money. This was about money. ...

This was actually all happening in 1995?

1995 through about 1997, is when it finally came down.

What caused it to finally come down? At what point did we decide to break it up?

Well, we didn't seem to be getting where we needed to be. And we had Darichev and Pogrebezskij back here in the United States, which was a good thing. We had probable cause to arrest them, but we needed some more overt acts. We wanted to see if this was on the level. We redid the whole scenario in an undercover fashion, got all the elements of the crime satisfied. And it was my call to arrest them, and we did. And once we arrested him, Darichev decided to cooperate. We put him on the phone to Armimex, who claimed they were ready to ship 40 missiles to us. We just needed a method to ship them.

And we asked him to make some other calls. Right?

We asked him to make several calls. He did not want to call Jupiter Z back. He said he was not going to touch those people. ... Didn't want to go near them. But he did call the boat captain on the vessel that was lined up to ship the weapons.

Did the boat captain know what he was going to be shipping?

Absolutely. Boat captain's a pirate. There's a warrant out for him now.

I was always under the impression that these things kind of compact inside of other things, and the boat doesn't necessarily know what they're carrying. Isn't that how it works?

Sometimes it does work that way. But this particular time, this boat captain had obviously some connection to Armimex, because they turned us on to him, and you know, that he would cooperate for money. And he was going to bring the weapons from Bulgaria to Puerto Rico and off-load them there. You know, the whole scenario of this investigation indicated that we were going to buy weapons. We were brokering a deal of shoulder-fired missiles for the government of Lithuania, yet in their mind that was plausible deniability, to send them to Puerto Rico. And if you look at a map, it's a little bit out of the way to go to Puerto Rico to send weapons to Lithuania. But they basically 'fessed up and said that's what they were going to do.

So then somebody in Lithuania was going to get rich off this deal?

I think it was several people that thought they would make a few dollars, for sure.

Did the money ever get there? Did they ever see it?

Well, we believe that $20,000 went to someone in the Ministry of Defense in Lithuania. ... We recovered some of the money in an account in New York. ...

So what happened to these guys? Where are they now?

They're in prison.

How long did they get?

Forty and 48 months. ...

What was the maximum they could have faced?

I think, 15 years. It was several different counts, so it adds up.

Is the case under appeal now or not, to your knowledge?

To my knowledge, it is under appeal.

As you look back on it now, is there any doubt in your mind that they were legit, that they could have delivered what they thought they could deliver?

There's no doubt in my mind that they could have delivered the shoulder-fired missiles. Let's say I'm about 90 percent sure they probably could have come up with the tactical nuclear weapon, but I'm not 100 percent sure because we were never able to pursue it.

Aside from the letter that we got from Jupiter Z, was there any other indication that they had connections in Russia?

Absolutely. Darichev point blank told us when we asked him if he would contact them so we could continue and see what would go on. He said, "Absolutely not. I will not contact those people." ... And the inference was that they were dangerous to him.

That's it? A letter and his refusal to make a phone call?

Right.

Do you know anything else about that company?

No. After the arrest, we asked for certain things to be handled for us by foreign governments. And some things are difficult. The Lithuanians were cooperative to a point. We did not ask the Russians for any information on Jupiter Z.

Aside from the specifics of this case, in a hypothetical sense, what is the connection between Russia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, to the United States? Can you speak in a general way about how that connection gets made?

... Down here, there's a growing group of Russian organized crime types that have adopted south Florida as second home. They like the weather, like everybody else. ... You know, organized crime people commit crimes. And one of the things we do is investigate crimes. The things they need back there where they can make money is, you know, consumer electronics, jeans, perfumes, clothes, automobiles. That's huge business for them back there. And that's what they try and get stolen property from here, back to those countries. And all the countries are open to it.

When you say "organized crime", is this like the mafia?

It's the Russian mafia. Correct.

Is it like Al Capone? Is it a family-based thing? How does their organized crime work?

They have a structure, and they're very violent, and well organized, and a network, and you know, all the things that our Cosa Nostra was, they are in spades.

And they're running things from there to here?

All over. ... They have a strong foothold here. They're in New York, Los Angeles, trying to move into the Caribbean islands, things like that.

What is the connection between Jupiter Z, the scientific institution, and the mafia?

Well, that's a really good question. And we don't know. I mean, I can suspect from now until I retire. And I'll know in my mind what I think they are, but what we're able to prove is a different story.

Tell me what you think in your mind.

Well, I question: If they're a scientific operation, why are they, number one, sending us on letterhead an accusatory letter saying that we're undercover FBI or CIA agents? That's number one. Number two: Why wouldn't Darichev call them at our behest, when he was willing to call Armimex and a boat captain and several other people? That's a pretty good road map to what I think they are.

We heard that he said he was worried about the threat to his family.

I haven't heard that, but I'm sure that was going through his mind. He definitely felt for his safety. ...


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