Leader of Brooklyn-based eastern European organized crime syndicate extradited from Switzerland to face racketeering and other charges


Date: September 9, 2022

Contact: newsroom@ci.irs.gov

Viktor Zelinger, also known as "Vitya" and "Vityok," the alleged leader of an eastern European organized crime syndicate that operated in the Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island neighborhoods of Brooklyn and was linked to high-level Russian mafia members known as "Thieves in Law" or "Thieves," was extradited today from Switzerland to the United States on a nine-count superseding indictment. Zelinger is charged with racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, arson, arson conspiracy, illegal gambling, illegal gambling conspiracy, extortionate collection of credit and two counts of extortionate collection of credit conspiracy. Zelinger, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen with dual Ukrainian citizenship, is scheduled to be arraigned tomorrow in federal court in Brooklyn before United States Magistrate Judge Peggy Kuo.

Breon Peace, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Frank A. Tarentino III, Special Agent-in-Charge, Drug Enforcement Administration, New York Division (DEA), and Thomas Fattorusso, Special Agent-in-Charge, Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation, New York (IRS-CI), announced the extradition.

"As alleged, Zelinger was a ruthless leader of a violent criminal syndicate that wreaked havoc throughout Brooklyn with seeming impunity, including an arson in the middle of the night that endangered civilians and firefighters. Zelinger's underlings were arrested by our law enforcement partners and prosecuted by this Office, and now he will learn the serious consequences for his crimes," stated United States Attorney Peace.

Mr. Peace thanked the Swiss government for its assistance with Zelinger's arrest and extradition, the Justice Department's Office of International Affairs (OIA), and the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) for its investigation of the charged arson and heroic efforts in rescuing residents trapped in an apartment building as a result of that blaze.

"When Viktor Zelinger stepped onto American soil, all the alleged crimes he is charged with became a reality after years on the run. As a prominent leader in the 'Thieves in Law,' Zelinger held the decision-making power in New York further enabling organized crime around the world. This extradition demonstrates DEA's global reach and perseverance, as well as our commitment to the rule of law. I applaud the DEA Strike Force and all of our law enforcement partners on their diligence throughout this investigation," stated DEA Special Agent-in-Charge Tarentino.

"Today points to just the beginning for Viktor Zelinger as he was returned to the United States to face justice for years of alleged criminal activity. Extortion, narcotics trafficking, assault, and arson—setting fire to an apartment building for vengeance—are just a sample of the charges against Zelinger, the alleged leader of an organized crime mob in Brooklyn. This extradition is true testament to the global reach of IRS Criminal Investigation and our incredible investigative partnerships in the DEA Strikeforce," stated IRS-CI Special Agent-in-Charge Fattorusso.

As alleged in a superseding indictment, the defendant was the leader of a sophisticated criminal organization that engaged in a wide range of activities traditionally associated with organized crime, including extortion, arson, assault, drug trafficking, illegal gambling, loansharking and wire fraud. The organization also reported to and associated with high-ranking members of eastern European mafia, known as "воры в зако́ не" (pronounced "vory v zakone"), which literally translates to "Thieves in Law" or "Thieves."

From approximately 2011 to May 2017, members of Zelinger's syndicate carried out numerous crimes, including arson and extortion, operated high stakes gambling establishments, trafficked in narcotics, assaulted victims, and facilitated loansharking. Zelinger ordered the arson of an apartment building at 2220 Voorhies Avenue in Sheepshead Bay because it housed a rival high-stakes poker game on the ground floor that competed with the defendant's illegal gambling spot at 2663 Coney Island Avenue. Specifically, Zelinger directed members of the syndicate to break into the Voorhies Avenue building in the early morning hours of May 2, 2016 and set a fire. The second and third floors of the building contained occupied apartments. As a result of the fire, two building residents and five firefighters were injured, with one firefighter suffering career-ending burns, and the building was destroyed.

The defendant's Coney Island Avenue gambling spot provided poker players with complimentary food and alcohol and "massage girls," who gave players back and shoulder rubs during the games. Poker players used narcotics, including cocaine and marijuana supplied by members and associates of the syndicate during the games. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were wagered, with individual players sometimes winning or losing tens of thousands of dollars in a single night.

OIA worked with Swiss law enforcement partners to secure Zelinger's apprehension and extradition, the latter of which was carried out by the United States Marshals Service. Zelinger was apprehended in Switzerland on an extradition request based on charges pending in the Eastern District of New York. The Federal Department of Justice and Police for the Swiss Confederation approved the extradition on August 31, 2022.

If convicted, Zelinger faces a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years' imprisonment and a maximum of 40 years' imprisonment for each of the arson counts; a maximum of 20 years' imprisonment for each of the racketeering and extortion counts; and a maximum of five years' imprisonment for each of the gambling counts.

Ten other defendants previously charged in the government's case either were convicted at trial of or pleaded guilty to racketeering and related crimes.

This prosecution is part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) Strike Force Initiative, which provides for the establishment of permanent multi-agency task force teams that work side-by-side in the same location. This co-located model enables agents from different agencies to collaborate on intelligence-driven, multi-jurisdictional operations to disrupt and dismantle the most significant drug traffickers, money launderers, gangs, and transnational criminal organizations.

The government's case is being handled by the Office's Organized Crime and Gangs Section. Assistant United States Attorney Victor Zapana is in charge of the prosecution.