KGB Meets BSO
If Hollywood were to revisit the Cold War era with a movie about an idealistic rogue inside the KGB, studio execs would probably cast a large, menacing leading man, maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. They would want someone who fits the stereotypical mold of a jackbooted stoic, someone who lives up to the public perception of the former Soviet Union's once fearsome security agency. Emin Gadzhiyev would scarcely fit the bill. A stout, balding man with big, bushy eyebrows, the Cold War veteran is far more John Belushi than Conan the Barbarian.
On a rain-drenched Sunday morning in June, Gadzhiyev slumps in an armchair in his sparsely furnished, cream-color apartment. There are black rings under his eyes, and a paunch is visible beneath his loose-fitting Tshirt. Beside him is a small table upon which lie a laptop, a portable phone, and a thick stapled document. He reaches for the manuscript, weighing it in his hands. In big, bold letters on the cover are the words "Red Mafia: A treatment for an original screenplay based on events in the life of Emin Gadzhiyev, formerly Lt. Colonel, KGB." He smiles. "Very loosely based," he says with a slow chuckle, which erupts into laughter.
Rejected by Hollywood when Cold War tales were going out of vogue, the souped-up movie version of Gadzhiyev's life is "probably 60percent fiction," he says. "We had to make it sellable -- romance, action, you know, more Hollywood," he adds, kicking up his feet in the high-rise Hallandale apartment he shares with his second wife, Irina, and plenty of stuffed animals. Making it sellable, the budding capitalist quickly realized, would require professional help. And so, shortly after moving to South Florida from California eight years ago, Gadzhiyev tracked down a screenwriter to help bring his tale of corruption and organized crime in the crumbling Soviet empire to the multiplex. The 58-page movie treatment that Palm Beach Gardens actor-screenwriter Ken Roberts pieced together after 20 hours of interviews captures the essence of Gadzhiyev's odyssey but only roughly follows the contours of his years with theKGB.
Even the cinematic version of his late-'80s defection is greatly pared down. In the screenwriter's tale, Gadzhiyev's escape is nearly cut short when he is picked up in Belgrade by Yugoslav counterintelligence and threatened with deportation back to Moscow. At the last minute, though, in one of those nifty action-movie twists, the powers that be let him go, and he slips off to Washington, D.C., carrying in his head enough evidence of institutional corruption to shake the Soviet state at its foundation. The reality of that escape was far less tidy and considerably more painful. Gadzhiyev eventually did find his Hollywood ending but only after many months of physical and mental anguish, languishing uncertainly in a Yugoslav jail. And that's where the movie ends and Gadzhiyev's story begins.
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"I'm in a patrol car now. I'm a goddamn cop." Gadzhiyev is on the phone with an old friend, sharing the good news. After more than a decade without a gun or a badge, he is back on the job, doing what he loves best. Well, almost. During his eight years with the KGB, the former electromechanical engineer was assigned to the Second Chief Directorate, the massive security agency's domestic counterintelligence arm. Far more detective than secret agent, Gadzhiyev had duties ranging from preventing security leaks and defections to tackling smuggling, fraud, and other forms of organized crime and corruption. Now, however, the 47-year-old is just another rookie cop. At the end of May, having passed through a rather rigorous application process, he received from the Broward Sheriff's Office a gun, a badge, and a uniform and began cruising the streets of southern Broward County as a patrol officer in training. Five days a week, he assists his field training officer in responding to crimes that, in another time and place, would be considerably beneath his station -- mostly burglar alarms, domestic violence, and smalltime pushers and users. But early next month, eight years after the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the most experienced rookie on the force will become the first former KGB officer to become a full-fledged American cop. Although he wishes he could leapfrog straight into the detective squad -- preferably into the organized crime division -- the humbled former lieutenant colonel still beams at the thought of starting his law-enforcement careeranew.
"This is my American dream," he says with adolescent glee, while proudly displaying the revolver he keeps stashed in the kitchen when he's off duty. "Right now I'm a deputy on the road, a patrol officer, so that's the job I need to do." He disappears into the bedroom. "Have you seen the hat?" he asks, flashing a Gomer Pyle grin, his cue ball hidden beneath the BSO's good-ol'-boy, wide-brimmed, green-and-gold hat. "Isn't this hat just gorgeous?"
Employing a man in U.S. law enforcement who was once on the front lines of the Cold War -- on the other side -- has already aroused the suspicions of more than a few conspiracy-theory stalwarts. In 1996, the year Gadzhiyev first became both a U.S. citizen and a guard at the Broward County Jail, his olive-hued face filled the cover of The New American, the glossy magazine of the extreme right-wing John Birch Society. Inspired by Gadzhiyev's early efforts to become an American police officer (his initial 1996 application with the BSO landed him the spot in corrections), the lengthy and extensively researched cover story dissects the former KGB officer's claims that he was once an anti-corruption crusader but uncovers no clear evidence to the contrary.
"Is Gadzhiyev an American success story, or a living security breach?" writes William Norman Grigg. "Might he be a 'sleeper' agent or an asset of a KGB-aligned mafia group?" Forwarded to the BSO a few months after Gadzhiyev was hired as a corrections officer, the article eventually wound up in his personnel file. Also in the file is a letter from Bill Leonard, a card-carrying member of the Birch Society, who mailed the article to then-sheriff Ron Cochran. "I have been studying the international communist conspiracy for years," writes Leonard. "The infiltration of every facet of American life by this conspiracy already has given them control of the administrative and judicial branches of our federal government . They will stop at nothing to attain final control." In spite of such paranoid rhetoric, the questions Griggs brings up might be valid if only Gadzhiyev didn't have such solid credentials.
Before being granted political asylum in the United States in 1989, Gadzhiyev spent seven months in Munich, where he was hooked up to a polygraph machine while being poked and prodded by U.S. intelligence. He later worked on contract for a now-defunct CIA front company in Miami called Premier Executive Services, for whom he says he prepared a 400-page dictionary of Soviet counterintelligence terms. In addition he has assisted local and federal law-enforcement agencies in investigating cases involving organized crime figures from the republics of the former Soviet Union, and he is a sometime consultant to Fred Rustmann, a retired CIA agent who runs an international private investigation firm in West Palm Beach. Rustmann, whose company assists corporations with security issues overseas, says Gadzhiyev has been a sort of flashlight for him in the former Soviet Union. "Emin's been able to point us to the right people and tell us how best to deal with them," he explains. "The sheriff's office has got a serious guy who really knows the Russian mentality."
Among the references listed in Gadzhiyev's application for employment with the BSO are three FBI agents and a detective with the BSO's Strategic Intelligence Section. "Since May of 1994 [Gadzhiyev] has worked with me as a consultant and advisor regarding Russian organized crime in the United States as well as in Moscow, Russia," writes Det. Gary Dickinson in an extensive report prepared during the BSO's five-month background investigation. "I have found him to be credible, trustworthy and reliable as a consultant on sensitive investigations. There has never been any indication to the contrary." (Although Gadzhiyev's expertise on Russian organized crime was a likely factor in his hiring, no one at the BSO would speculate about his future prospects beyond regular patrol duty).
Joe Hess, who teaches defensive tactics at the BSO's Criminal Justice Institute, says Gadzhiyev was probably the most enthusiastic student in his class. "He was like a sponge," he recalls. "I mean, to go from handling these big high-tech cases to doing patrol work is not an easy transition. He's very knowledgeable and street savvy. Combining his experiences from two such different worlds will make him a real well-rounded officer."
Despite such accolades nothing about Gadzhiyev's career with the KGB is verifiable. His former partner is dead, and the remote, war-torn country of Azerbaijan, the former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea where he grew up and spent most of his career, is in such a state of turmoil that tracking down information relating to events that transpired there more than a decade ago is now nearly impossible. In addition, with few other economic opportunities available, many of Gadzhiyev's former colleagues are now actively working for the bad guys. Still, he has passed muster with both the CIA and the BSO, both of which have put him through a battery of lie-detector tests. Also, experts say his egotistical impulse to get his story on film or in print is not at all unusual. "Every defector wants to write a book," says Bill Geimer, the head of the Jamestown Foundation -- an organization that, at the height of the Cold War, helped many high-ranking KGB defectors find their feet in the U.S. and in many cases line up book deals. "This guy's going to be a cop?" he asks. "I think that's a greatidea."
Sipping tea, Gadzhiyev bristles at the mention of the John Birch Society. "I am not one of those bloody KGB officers everyone talks about," he says abruptly. "I was basically a cop." Gadzhiyev is eager to dispel misconceptions about the Soviet security agency, a centralized monstrosity that was essentially the equivalent of the CIA, NSA, FBI, and INS rolled into one. With more than a dozen divisions under its umbrella, KGB headquarters in Moscow controlled spies overseas, border guards, counterintelligence officers like Gadzhiyev, and the infamous "thought police," who threw dissidents like Andrei Sakharov into gulags. Although he served time behind enemy lines in Afghanistan and occasionally engaged in espionage activities (he speaks five languages and spent time under cover in Italy), as the head of the organized crime division in Azerbaijan, Gadzhiyev was mostly involved in investigating actual crimes. Many of those crimes, he quickly found out, could be traced to corrupt high-ranking Communist Party functionaries, to the KGB itself, and even to the Kremlin. In many cases, Gadzhiyev claims, the corruption in the Communist Party was the precursor to the post-Soviet mobsters who have in the last decade become billionaires and are increasingly making their presence felt in South Florida.
Investigating the mobsters' predecessors first bolstered Gadzhiyev's career and then wound up destroying it. By the mid-'80s, his overzealous pursuit of high-profile officials had transformed him from a promising young officer into an agency pariah. In 1987, after he had been forced to tender his resignation, Gadzhiyev's disillusionment with Soviet society was at its peak. Gorbachev's perestroika reforms were in full swing, and the Soviet Union was already on the verge of political and economic collapse. Soviet tanks patrolled the streets of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, Gadzhiyev's oil-rich and increasingly volatile homeland. The mostly Moslem republic, which four years later would become the first former Soviet satellite to gain independence, is a country whose people have little in common with the Russian bureaucrats who called the shots in the region during seven decades of Soviet domination. Their true enemies, though, have long been the people of neighboring Armenia, with whom they share an age-old, Balkan-style enmity. In 1987, with the two countries on the verge of a war that is barely contained today, mass demonstrations against the country's Armenian minority spilled through the capital, and mixed couples, like Gadzhiyev's Armenian mother and Azerbaijani father, became prime targets of Mobrage.
"I went to Moscow for the last time, to KGB headquarters," he recalls. "I tried to warn them about the coming bloodshed in Azerbaijan and the possible consequences for the entire Soviet Union. They wouldn't listen. They basically told me to get the fuck out. I stood there in front of KGB headquarters. Psychologically I was dead inside. It was very icy and cold, and I saw this old woman across the street. She looked like she was 90, and she asked me to help her cross the street. I asked her where she was going and offered to take her there. We were walking in silence, whipped by snow and wind, and I was crying. I didn't know whether it was from the cold or the stress. I looked at this woman, alone in the cold carrying her bread, and then and there realized I had to do it. I had to escape. I had no idea where I was going, but I knew I had togo."
Having made the decision to defect, in the spring of 1987 Gadzhiyev submitted a fraudulent application for travel to then-communist Yugoslavia and joined a Soviet tour group en route to Belgrade. There, on a Sunday just before noon, he slipped away from the group, plodding nervously toward the American embassy. "I approached the Yugoslav guards outside the gate," he recalls. "I didn't speak English yet, so I introduced myself as an Italian. I told them I needed to speak to the embassy security officer, that it was urgent." Forty-five minutes later Gadzhiyev was still standing out front. Gnawed by paranoia, he felt certain that the Yugoslav guards soon would be onto him. "I couldn't stand there any longer," he says. "I told them, 'Look, I have some business in town, I'll be back in an hour. Can you please contact the security officer?'" Gadzhiyev eventually did find his way past the gates of the embassy, but the message he received inside was not at all what he expected. "They wanted to help me, but there were political ramifications to consider," he says. "They suggested I go through the United Nations mission in Belgrade." Which is exactly what hedid.
"The Yugoslavs grabbed me right in front of the mission," he recalls, explaining how Yugoslav counterintelligence officers tracked him down after a confidential informant connected to the UN mission gave them information about a possible defector. "They strip-searched me and threw me in a cell," he continues. "That night I lay there on the concrete floor wondering what would become of me. It was one of the worst nights of mylife."
Gadzhiyev wound up spending eight uncertain months in the Belgrade city jail, charged officially with traveling without documents. He shared a large two-room cell with a dozen indigenous inmates. "The first day they were looking me over, trying to figure out who I was," he recalls. "I decided that I would only speak Italian, and I told them my name was Gino. As it turned out, the toughest guy in the cell was an Italian, and he was thrilled to have someone to talk to in his native tongue. After that nobody ever botheredme."
During his months behind bars, Gadzhiyev says he received frequent visits from Soviet "diplomats," actually KGB officers who put pressure on him to return voluntarily to the Soviet Union. "They told me my father had called them and, strangely enough, that my wife was home crying for me," he says, explaining that he and his wife had split up long before he left Baku.
When they could hold him no longer, the Yugoslavs let Gadzhiyev go, and the U.S. government decided that, though he was not a prize intelligence catch, he might be of some value after all. They provided him with a one-way ticket to Vienna, in business class. "I drank everything I could get my hands on," he says. "By the time we landed, I'd drunken so much cognac I passed out." From Vienna it was a quick drive across the German border to Munich. Seven months later, after the CIA was done with him and the Immigration and Naturalization Service had approved his petition for political asylum, he caught a transatlantic flight to New York, followed by a connecting flight to paradise -- otherwise known as Southern California.
On the West Coast, where a nonprofit group called the International Rescue Committee first set him up with an apartment, Gadzhiyev's fantasies of capitalist enrichment soon gave way to harsh immigrant reality. Alone and nearly penniless in San Diego, he got work as a cab driver. More-extravagant capitalist endeavors, most of them involving food, would not come until years later, after he had moved from California to Florida.
"My wife, she cooks real good," Gadzhiyev says reverentially, eyeing a picture of the leggy blonde he met while on business in Moscow a few years ago and married in Fort Lauderdale in 1996. He emerges from the kitchen carrying a big glass jar full of fist-size plums bobbing in purple liquid. "These are much bigger than the ones we'll produce for the public," he says, slicing off a chunk of the vinegar-and-garlic-scented fruit. The plums are an Azerbaijani delicacy Gadzhiyev and his wife hope to market in the U.S. along with pickled grapes and fresh pomegranates. "This will give her something to do," he says, explaining why, last March, he launched Pickled Purple Plums, Inc. for the former business-school instructor. "She's used to working, not sitting home bored, reading allday."
Before relaunching his career in law enforcement, Gadzhiyev, who once hatched an ill-fated scheme to raise Caspian sturgeon in South Florida, was determined to turn all his bright ideas into legitimate corporate gold. One day in San Diego, having started to learn English at the local Berlitz school, Gadzhiyev was rifling through the yellow pages in search of opportunities. A small advertisement caught his eye, and he dialed George Schmalhofer, the man described in the ad as a former Secret Service agent turned private investigator, who answered the phone. "Here was this guy on the phone telling me he was a former KGB agent," recalls Schmalhofer. "I was like, 'All right, and I suppose we've been invaded by Martians too.' I mean, how often do you get a call like that?" Gadzhiyev told the PI he had a brilliant idea: The two of them should join forces and launch a firm called the Eagle and the Bear, a sort of Secret Service-KGB partnership. "Gadzhiyev was about three or four years ahead of his time," says Schmalhofer, who wound up hiring him to do surveillance work after checking him out with friends in intelligence. The year was 1990; the Soviet Union, though teetering on the brink of collapse, was still intact, and the KGB was still very much an international force with which to be reckoned. "People would look at him strangely when he told them who he was," says Schmalhofer. "I didn't tell that many people. He didn't seem to care, but I was a little more concerned for his health than he seemed tobe."
Gadzhiyev says that later that year the U.S. government offered him a $30,000 education grant to be used as he saw fit. He gladly accepted the money and moved across the country to Stuart, where he used the scholarship to learn how to fly. In April1991 he became the first former Soviet citizen to earn an American pilot's license. It was around that time that he met screenwriter Ken Roberts and his wife, with whom he developed a lasting friendship.
"One day Emin came over to the house," recalls Roberts. "He had this microcassette tape with him, and he handed it to me. He said, 'Listen Ken, I'm flying back to Baku. Hold on to this tape. If I'm not back in a few months, take it to the press.' It was all very cloak-and-dagger." Though he was tempted, Roberts says, he never listened to the tape but came terribly close to handing it over to the press. "He'd been gone an awfully long time," he recalls. "Then, out of the blue, I get this call. He was on a plane back from Moscow."
Gadzhiyev, who says the tape contained dirt on former Soviets currently in power, had traveled home to Baku at the invitation of old friends who had taken up positions in the government of newly independent Azerbaijan. The capital of the war-torn country was beginning to resemble a Wild West boom town, overrun by corruption, mobsters, and American oil men. While there he caught up with his teenage daughter and arranged to bring his ailing parents, who he had long hoped might follow him out of the country, back with him to the United States. He also came very close to being thrown into prison. "I realized I was under surveillance," says Gadzhiyev, who claims he was being tailed by a bitter, economically strapped former colleague. "This guy was trying to frame me. It was all about money. He must have thought I was a rich American now." The officer took out an arrest warrant on trumped-up charges that Gadzhiyev had been traveling with a phony passport. "I had to leave the country," he says. "It was obvious there was nothing left for me there." With his parents in tow, he returned to the States via Moscow and New York City, then helped the couple settle down in an Azerbaijani community in Utah. When Gadzhiyev was back in Florida, his troubles in Baku served as a dark reminder of his last days with theKGB.
Rifling through a drawer in his Hallandale apartment, he pulls out a dog-eared manuscript. Awkwardly titled The Worm Within, the 20-page book proposal is more accurate but far less riveting than the movie treatment that preceded it. Ghostwritten as Gadzhiyev's autobiography by octogenarian journalist Joe Crankshaw of The Stuart News, the shopped-around-and-rejected proposal provides a brief introduction to the tumultuous career of an honest man in a den of thieves. It begins in the early '80s with the case that would be Gadzhiyev's introduction to high-level corruption.
"Two Latin American students, a Cuban and a Nicaraguan I think it was, had turned up dead at this illegal bar in Baku," he recalls. "I went to gather preliminary evidence early the next morning, and it was the strangest thing I had ever seen -- the bar had disappeared." The bar and all of the evidence had apparently been bulldozed overnight. Shortly thereafter the KGB officer in charge of investigating the illegal establishment was transferred to another republic. It was clear to Gadzhiyev that powerful people had a vested interest in keeping the bar out of the spotlight. In spite of those setbacks, Gadzhiyev says, he was able to use the vast network of confidential informants for which the KGB is famous to track down the killer, an Armenian thug named Spartacus, who confessed and was later executed. Informants recruited during the investigation implicated customs agents and federal police officers from the Ministry of the Interior in the illegal bar and in an enormous cigarette-smuggling operation headquartered there. The case was the young officer's first indication that corruption was far more endemic than he had ever imagined.
Over the next couple of years, Gadzhiyev says, he tackled one corruption case after another, discovering jars full of cash and gold in the back yards of party functionaries' houses, including officials from his own agency. "I couldn't understand why they would do it," he says. "You could use the money to pay off another official to get a higher-ranking job -- that's about it. I mean, there were no Rolls-Royces you could buy. You couldn't show any outward displays of wealth; it would just be too suspicious."
In the mid-'80s, while Gadzhiyev was being increasingly discouraged from investigating such cases, threats to his family and the death of his partner in a suspicious car accident convinced him it was time to get out. He abruptly resigned from the KGB and for the next few years took up security work, first with a space-research facility in Baku and then with the Soviet Ministry of Culture. Then in 1987, with his first marriage in shambles and his country on the verge of all-out war, Gadzhiyev decided toflee.
Sifting through a stash of black-and-white photos that are his only remnants of a previous life, he is lost in the memories he still hopes will someday put his name on a bestseller list or a movie theater marquee. There he is, a 12-year-old smiling for the camera, on his parents' boat on the Caspian Sea, framed by mountains. There he is again, a dashing young man in his twenties, playing jazz on an old electric guitar. That guitar, the one he used to play on the beach for his pals, is gone now, but he has a new one he sometimes pulls out of the closet when he's feeling nostalgic. There he is in Afghanistan, a young war hero squinting in the sun, cradling an AK47 assault rifle. He saw death there -- a friend blown away by a land mine, capture averted by using stones to kill armed mujahideen guards. And there he is in his KGB uniform, hair thinning, his Red Star proudly displayed beneath his lapel. Gadzhiyev says he earned the prestigious medal after he did his part for the Soviet space program by organizing the theft of space shuttle technology from a French scientist during an international conference in Baku.
"I won't ever be moving back to Azerbaijan," he says, putting the photos into a leather attaché case. "My life is here now." He glances at his watch. It's nearly time to head into the Broward Sheriff's Office station for roll call, but Gadzhiyev is feeling a bit under the weather. "I don't know if I should call in sick," he says, smiling, as if thrilled that he has the option. "In the KGB you didn't call in sick. They had their own doctors who checked you out and let you know if you were sick or not." He pauses for a moment, pondering the choices. "Aw, what the hell, I think I'll stay home," he says, opting to flush the sniffling and sneezing out of his system so he'll be in top shape to finish off his field training. "If I do my job well, my next promotion will be to detective," he says confidently. "That will be the pinnacle of my Americandream."
Contact Jay Cheshes at his e-mail address:
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