A Brooklyn man was sentenced to 18 years in prison for running a “violent Albanian extortion crew” that targeted Astoria business owners who opened establishments on their “turf,” federal prosecutors announced on Friday.
Denis Nikolla, 36, worked with two other men to extort thousands of dollars from an Astoria restaurant owner and also used physical violence and a firearm to try to coerce other businesses to pay him for protection.
Nikolla was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment, to be followed by five years’ supervised release, for two counts of Hobbs Act extortion conspiracy, one count of threatening physical violence in furtherance of an extortion plan, and one count of brandishing a firearm.
Co-defendants Redinel Dervishaj and Besnik Llakatura, a former police officer from Staten Island, are awaiting sentencing.
According to court documents, Nikolla and his partners extorted an Astoria restaurant owner from May through November 2013 and forced him to pay $24,000 in monthly payments. When the owner opened his restaurant, Dervishaj demanded $4,000 from him for opening a restaurant in exchange for “protection” and because he opened the establishment in “our neighborhood.”
The owner sought help from Llakatura, an officer working in Staten Island, but did not know that the cop was working with the men to extort businesses in the neighborhood. Llakatura “actively discouraged” the owner from not paying and warned him that he would be harmed if he didn’t pay up.
Nikolla threatened the owner when he refused to make payments and pointed a semiautomatic handgun at him on a Queens street. The owner fled in his car but eventually agreed to make monthly payments that totaled $24,000.
Between April 2012 and November 2013, Nikolla and Dervishaj also tried extorting the owner of two nightclubs in Astoria. Nikolla told the owner that other clubs were also paying him for “protection.” When the owner refused, the men trapped the owner at a bar in Queens and held a gun to his ribs. They threatened to beat him up in front of his wife and kids if he didn’t pay. They further stated that they would hurt his family.
The three men threatened another owner of two clubs in Astoria and told him he had to pay weekly installments of $1,000 for protection. The victim refused and stopped visiting his clubs. In court-authorized wiretaps, detectives found that all three defendants worked together to locate the victim and forced him to pay.
The crew confronted the victim’s friend, beat him and pulled a gun on him to send a message to the victim. The owner fled the country and sold his clubs to avoid threats.
The U.S. Attorney’s office did not release the names or addresses of businesses targeted by the three men but did release a statement by George Stoupas, a business owner who was threatened by the men.
Stoupas said the threats were a “nightmare that has changed my life forever.”
“He has relentlessly pursued me, [threatened] me countless times, harassed me and [hurt] my business,” he said in the statement,” he said. “This career criminal who would [threaten] the life of my wife and my innocent children in order to gain riches is not to be underestimated and should be punished accordingly.”
Stoupas asked the judge to put himself in his shoes and keep in mind that Nikolla threatened him and his family with a gun.
“The defendant and his partners used fear, intimidation and threats of violence to demand payment from those who dared to open businesses on their so-called ‘turf’ of Astoria, Queens,” said former U.S. Attorney Robert Capers, who announced the conviction prior to submitting his mandated resignation from office on March 10. “When his victims refused to pay, the defendant and his partners escalated their efforts to secure payment, brazenly brandishing firearms at their victims. Today’s sentence sends a strong message that criminals who use extortion and violence to profit from others’ hard work in our community will be held accountable and punished.”
The case was handled by members of the Joint Organized Crime Task Force, which includes FBI agents, NYPD detectives, who led the investigation, as well as the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Division and the FBI’s Public Corruption squad.
“Today’s sentence should deter others who believe they can use violence to extort their victims,” said Police Commissioner James O’Neill. “My thanks to the prosecutors, detectives and agents whose work on this investigation led to this sentence. The neighborhood of Astoria is safer today because of your hard work.”