Tom Nicholson in Bratislava -
Nemesis, when it came for Juraj Ondrejcak, arrived like a bolt from the clear night sky. Slovak special forces police rappelling down from a helicopter blasted their way into his sprawling complex high above the Bratislava suburb of Lamac in November, joining another assault team that had vaulted the three-metre walls protecting Ondrejcak's home while its occupants slept.
The overwhelming force used in the police assault matched the high profile of their target. Ondrejcak, 35, who goes by the alias Pito, heads a powerful and violent organised crime group operating out of Bratislava across western Slovakia.
Besides Pito, 22 members and accomplices of his "Pitovci" gang were sought on economic, drugs and violence charges in a coordinated operation on November 15 involving some 350 officers, mostly from elite SWAT teams. Some 21 suspects were arrested, 18 of whom were last week remanded in custody. "This was the largest and most successful action against organised crime in this country's history," said Interior Minister Daniel Lipsic, whose Christian Democrats party goes to the polls next March. "We are serving notice to organised crime figures who though they were above the law: your time is over."
Boss facing 10 years
The charges against Ondrejcak relate to the fire-bombings of two cars in the western Slovak city of Trnava on March 30 last year. Ondrejcak, who was allegedly the ringleader, "secured the explosives used in the attacks," according to Jana Tokolyova, spokesperson for the General Prosecutor's Office.
The principal target was a luxury BMW owned by Robert Trajkov, aka. the Beast, a member of a rival Bratislava-based gang known as the Sykorovci. Another vehicle owned by one of Trajkov's associates was also burned on the same night. The attacks were apparently in retaliation for the earlier firebombing of a bullet-proof Mercedes owned by one of Ondrejcak's closest associates, Miroslav Abraham. "I've got no comment, but I'd like to take this opportunity to say hello to Abraham's troupe of homosexuals," said Trajkov after the attack for the JOJ commercial TV station.
Ondrejcak and four others now face up to 10 years in prison if convicted for property damage and weapons offences. Trajkov is himself also in custody, charged with a recent gangland murder. "We have no comment at this point," said prominent defence attorney Peter Filip, who is representing Ondrejcak.
Separate charges were filed against seven men for drugs trafficking, as well as against six accused for an alleged mortgage fraud against unspecified US banks dating from 2006. According to the General Prosecutor's Office, the Pito gang members used foreign-born front-men to secure US loans under false pretences, then had the proceeds transferred to a local branch of the CSOB bank. The scam netted the suspects over €1m, with police allegedly intercepting a further €1.4m. The accused face up to 25 years if convicted for racketeering and money laundering. "They were charged after five years on the basis of no evidence," said defence attorney Ondrej Mularcik, who is representing the accused. "We don't even know what is in the indictment yet."
Key gang members targeted
Ondrejcak's arrest marks the latest in a series of busts of major organised crime figures by the Slovak police under their new chief, Jaroslav Spisiak. In April this year, a senior capo within the Sykorovci, Ladislav Balis, was remanded in custody for planning the murder of a fellow gang member; a month later, Libor Jaksik, one of two heads of the Jaksikovci gang, was arrested for extortion.
While Ondrejcak does not face the most serious charges or the longest possible sentence, the recent police operation took down some key members of his inner circle, including Abraham and Matej Salaga, one of Ondrejcak's oldest friends, who was rounded up with the mortgage fraud gang. The two grew up in Lamac together, and attended the same military academy in the north Slovak city of Martin in the early 1990s.
Nevertheless, a senior police source cautioned against overstating the importance of the Pitovci operation for the wider fight against Slovakia's home-brewed 'mafia'. "The Pito group was not a classic organised crime operation like the Sykorovci, where you have a boss and under him capos, each with their own crews," he said. "The Pitovci work more like a street gang, where the boss communicates with everyone. And it's clear that rival bosses, such as Kybel [alleged Sykorovci chief Robert Lalis], were quite happy to let the Pitovci run around the city with their guns and their bullet-proof vests, taking all the heat."
Making a name for himself
Ondrejcak's house lies on a quiet, opulent Bratislava street cutting into the old-growth Small Carpathians forest that crowns the city. But he spends much of his time in less swanky surroundings at Trojka, a pub with a Celtic folklore motif that he owns on a dilapidated city square. "We're just a bunch of guys who grew up together," he tells bne one afternoon this past summer, sitting on a concrete ledge in the alley behind Trojka and smoking a joint. His childhood friends - like him tattooed, shaven-headed and dressed in camouflage wear - came and went in black Mercedes G jeeps and on blatting chopper motorcycles.
For all his street cred, Ondrejcak comes from a middle-class background (his parents were ministry bureaucrats). He attended the military academy in Martin, but left before completing his degree. "I realised I could make a lot more money [from his other activities]," he said.
According to Pito's former friend Ernest Valko, a former Constitutional Court chief justice who was murdered in his home a year ago, Ondrejcak worked in the 1990s for a security firm owned by former policeman Alexander Sabo (Sabo at the time was clerking in Valko's law office). Later he worked for the Sykorovci, on a crew run by capo Frantisek Borbely. "Yeah, he worked for us," said Borbely last year during an interview for bne at his Excalibur sports bar in Bratislava.
Around 2000, Ondrejcak set up on his own, by some accounts using violence and aggression to make a name for himself. His reach expanded beyond the capital to reach Kosice in the far east of the country, with the Pitovci providing protection for the common-law-wife of a Kosice gangster, Dusan Borzensky. It was there, by his own telling, that Ondrejcak received the only blemish on his criminal record so far, a suspended sentence for an assault on Borzensky's foe, crime boss Robert Okolicany. "My boys and I pulled him out of his car and I gave him a few slaps," Ondrejcak said proudly.
From street to boardroom
"Pito started out with the Sykorovci, but he made a name for himself very quickly," says Lubos Ferus, whose name still commands respect in the Nitra underworld. "Everyone was afraid of them, because they had so much energy, they didn't mess around, they would stab someone at the drop of a hat, they were like hornets."
By 2005, the Pitovci were displaying so much "energy" that they had become a target of intense police harassment: daily, leisurely and very public roadside stop-and-searches. As the current charges attest, police believed the gang was making its money principally from drugs trafficking, extortion and fraud.
At the same time, according to many who know him, Ondrejcak was building a name on that rarest of traits, honour among thieves. "I love the way he operates," said Ferus in an exclusive interview for bne. "He's incredibly strong because he keeps his word, which means that powerful people use his services, knowing that he can make things happen and that he's a straight shooter."
Ondrejcak's gang was also maturing and evolving, breaking into the lucrative world of "arbitration" - the settling of business debts or disputes through extra-judicial channels.
In 2007, members of the Pitovci intervened in a dispute between one of Slovakia's top international hockey stars, Miroslav Satan, and a pair of corrupt business partners in a major golf investment near Bratislava. At first they provided muscle to back up Satan's partners, who were trying to cheat the NHL forward out of the $7m he had invested in the project. In 2009, the business partners were charged with fraud. Satan's brother Peter told bne that once the Pitovci discovered they were representing men who had cheated Miro, a national sports icon, they offered to represent the Satan brothers for free against their former business partners. "We met maybe a half-dozen times, but I always turned them down," Peter Satan said.
Ondrejcak also claims to have helped local press magnate Ivan Kmotrik with crowd control at his Slovan football team's matches in Bratislava. The claim was grudgingly confirmed by Kmotrik, one of Slovakia's richest men. "Our marketing guys needed to solve a few problems they were having, so they changed the security company they were using, and maybe they asked Juraj [Ondrejcak] to help stop people from gate-jumping or throwing fireworks at kids. If so, I'm glad they did." Slovan most recently played Paris St Germain in the Champion's League.
And according to attorney Valko, who before his death represented the Slovenske elektrarne (SE) power utility, now majority owned by Italy's Enel, Ondrejcak figured on the opposing (and winning) side of a frivolous €30m suit over a rented furnace. "He wasn't just there to provide muscle, he was actually had money invested in the outcome," Valko complained to bne in the summer of 2010.
Ondrejcak's recent engagement with the more polite world of business was reflected in an internal police list of suspected Bratislava gangsters that was leaked to the press last month. For the first time, controversial but legitimate players such as entrepreneur Maros Kocner and lawyer Zoroslav Kollar were included among the Pitovci gang's associates.
In his personal life too, Ondrejcak was becoming more conventional. His common-law wife bore him twins last year, and this past summer he took a law degree from the private Jan Jesenius law faculty in western Slovakia. In an interview with bne, he said he planned to pursue a law doctorate, focusing on the crime of murder-for-hire.
Always communicative with the press, in the months leading up to his arrest he had begun to resist mentions of his name. "Do you really, really have to write that shit?" he asked this reporter, who was researching an article about his academic exploits. "You don't know what kind of problems you're causing me."
But no matter how much he disliked the media attention, Ondrejcak remained scrupulous about picking up his phone. Until last week, when its rings finally went unanswered.
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