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Brooklyn Eastern European crime syndicate leader extradited from Switzerland

Viktor Zelinger operated gang in Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island

September 11, 2022 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Last Friday, an alleged high-level leader of the Eastern European crime syndicate “воры в зако́ не,” in Ukrainian (vory v zako-ne) or “Thieves in Law” was extradited from Switzerland to the U.S. to face various charges related to criminal activities in Brooklyn.

Viktor Zelinger, also known as “Vitya” and “Vityok” – a dual citizen of the U.S. and Ukraine – had allegedly acted as the leader of a gang known as “Thieves” in various neighborhoods of south Brooklyn including Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island. He is facing racketeering, arson and arson conspiracy, illegal gambling and illegal gambling conspiracy and extortionate collection of credit and two counts of extortionate collection of credit conspiracy charges.

Viktor Zelinger, a leader of the “Thieves in Law” criminal syndicate in South Brooklyn. Photo: Eastern District of New York

He faces a minimum sentence of seven years’ imprisonment and a maximum of 40 for each of the racketeering extortion counts, with a maximum of five years for each of the gambling counts.

Zelinger was arraigned in Brooklyn federal court on Saturday, Sept. 10, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Kuo. The Department of Justice submitted a letter to the court requesting Viktor Zelinger’s pretrial detention based off the trial of two other Thieves leaders, Leonid Gershman and Aleksey Tsvetkov, who were convicted at trial of all charges relating to racketeering. The letter details criminal activity from illegal gambling to extortion of debtors and loansharking, including a member of the Thieves who “supplied firearms.”

Zelinger’s detainment in Switzerland was enacted through an extradition request by the Eastern District of New York and carried by the U.S. Marshal’s service – via the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs (OIA) – in coordination with the Swiss government and law enforcement. The Police for the Swiss Confederation and the U.S. Department of Justice approved the extradition request on Aug. 31.

According to the Eastern District of New York, from around 2011 to May 2017, members of Thieves had operated illegal gambling establishments, trafficked narcotics and committed various acts such as wire fraud, loansharking, extortion and arson as well as assault.

Zelinger had ordered arsons of various buildings connected with his legal activities. For example, he ordered the arson of a building at 2220 Voorhies Avenue in Sheepshead Bay because a rival in a high-stakes poker game, which had occurred at Zelinger’s own gambling parlor, lived in the apartment. Zelinger had made specific orders to break into the apartment on May 2, 2016, and to set a fire at Voorhies Avenue. The building housed occupied apartments on the second and third floors. The fire destroyed the building, leaving two residents and five firefighters injured. One firefighter who was injured during the emergency response suffered career-ending burn injuries.

Zelinger maintained an illegal gambling spot at 2663 Coney Island Avenue which offered participants complimentary food, alcohol and “massage girls” who gave players back rubs during games. Drugs supplied by the Thieves, which included cocaine, marijuana and narcotics, were also available to players. Games at the establishment were high stakes, with some resulting in a win or loss of tens of thousands in a single night.

“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,” said United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Breon Peace.

U.S. Attorney Peace thanked the Swiss government for its help in the extradition, as well as the FDNY for its investigation of the arsons and the heroic actions of the firefighters resulting in the rescue of the residents at Voorhies Avenue.

“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,” said DEA Special Agent-in-Charge Tarentino.

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