Nine members of an Albanian-run gang from Northeast Philadelphia that specialized in loan-sharking and illegal gambling - backed by intimidation with a gun and a hatchet - were arrested Friday morning, federal officials said.
All nine appeared in federal court Friday afternoon in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski, who set an arraignment for Wednesday. The men were to be held in custody until then.
The defendants, allegedly led by Northeast residents Ylli Gjeli, 48, and Fatimir Mustafaraj, 41, were indicted on racketeering, extortion, and other charges and are accused of running a criminal enterprise that federal authorities said thrived for more than a decade.
Gjeli, known as Willie, ruled with an iron fist, physically assaulting subordinates and associates, according to the indictment.
Gjeli, who would often search customers for weapons and recording devices, once grabbed a hatchet in one hand and a customer's arm in the other, the indictment said. He then slammed the hatchet onto a table right after the customer had pulled his hand away.
That same customer had placed at least $800,000 in bets with one of the gang members over one 10-month period, the indictment said.
Some of the defendants were charged with lending tens of thousands of dollars at high rates of interest, then threatening to break the arms and legs of anyone who did not pay. In one case, according to the 84-page indictment, a man who placed sports bets with the gang was told that if he did not pay his gambling debts, someone would be sent "to push [his] dad around."
In court, most of the nine appeared in T-shirts, cargo shorts, and flip-flops and did not have lawyers, indicative of their sudden and unexpected arrests at 6 a.m. Friday.
The only defendant with a lawyer present was Gjeli. Before the judge appeared, the lawyer, David Glassman, asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Salvatore Astolfi about various aspects of the case.
"No human trafficking, right?" Glassman asked.
"Right. You want us to add it?" Astolfi responded.
"Oh, no, no," Glassman said.
Later, speaking with a man sitting in the courtroom identified as Gjeli's brother, Glassman said Gjeli would not be released Friday: "Jesus Christ couldn't get him out," Glassman said. The brother held his head in his hands, in obvious distress.
Federal authorities say the men often used the basement of the Lion Bar & Grill, on the 7000 block of Frankford Avenue in the Northeast, to meet with customers. No one from the bar could be reached for comment Friday.
The gang also used other bars, coffee shops, and a pizza place, many of them in the Northeast, authorities said.
Employing cryptic language and using code words such as pizza to describe a loan, the men threatened anyone in their debt that "people from New York" would handle enforcement, the indictment said.
Federal authorities say the operation was active from the late 1990s through this month and involved loans and bets of up to $50,000. One person who received a $30,000 loan from the gang was required to make interest payments of $600 every week, authorities said.
Soccer was one of the sports on which the group took bets, according to the indictment.
If convicted of all charges, Gjeli and Mustafaraj face a maximum sentence of life in prison. The remaining defendants each face a maximum sentence of 20 years.
Charged along with Gjeli were George Markakis, 43; Gezim Asllani, 34; Rezart Rahmi Telushi, 40; Eneo Jahaj, 26; and Ardit Pone, all of Philadelphia; Erion Murataj, 35, of Huntingdon Valley; and Brian Jackson, 35, of Harleysville.
Seven of the nine men are Albanian, and two are American, Astolfi said outside the courtroom.
"This is a violent and corrupt organization that preyed on the community for many years," he said.
The multiagency investigation included the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Pennsylvania State Police, Montgomery County Detectives, and the New Jersey State Police and the U.S. Attorney's Office, which will prosecute the case.