A ragtag crew of Eastern European criminals in Brooklyn recently managed to do something they haven’t in years — grab the spotlight from more “sophisticated” gangs, thanks to a daring jail break from Rikers Island, law-enforcement experts say.
The “minor-leaguers,” known as the “KavKaz Nation,” have wreaked havoc in the criminal underworld in southern Brooklyn for nearly a decade by stealing from drug dealers, staging home-invasion robberies and working as cocaine and marijuana traffickers, authorities say.
But the hoods — who consider their turf to be Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach — typically fail to rise to the highest level of ex-Soviet organized crime, whose top leaders are referred to as “Thieves-in-Law,” according to a former Brooklyn federal prosecutor specializing in Eastern European rackets.
“KavKaz Nation gangsters are absolutely violent and dangerous. But most of them are minor-leaguers compared to the more sophisticated Eastern European organized criminals linked to Thieves-in-Law,” said Matt Jacobs, a former assistant US attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
Yet KavKaz crew members recently made headlines over a bold jail escape from the city’s floating lockup at Rikers Island, officials say.
Brooklyn federal prosecutors allege that a top-ranking KavKaz member, Roman Nikoghosyan, provided help to a cohort after the escapee shimmied down a rope from his fifth-floor cell at the jail barge, known as the Vernon C. Bain Correction Center, on July 10.
Nikoghosyan had planned to sneak Rikers escapee David Mordukhaev to California, but the cross-country escape plan was eventually foiled, in part because the FBI had wiretapped Nikoghosyan’s phone, authorities say.
Both suspects were arrested by the feds soon after they were caught allegedly plotting how Mordukhaev could steal away to the Golden State.
But even the escape was a stunning coup for the crew, which draws its members from the Eastern European enclave in southern Brooklyn.
KavKaz gangsters have been known to associate with members of the Bloods, the notorious street gang with a strong set in nearby Coney island, federal prosecutors allege.
The crew’s name is derived from the Caucasus region of Eurasia, which includes countries such as Armenia, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Azerbaijan. Some members ink tattoos of the Caucasus Mountains on their bodies to show allegiance to the crew.
As they pulled off robberies and other capers in the past decade, KavKaz gangsters have landed on the radar of the true illicit Eastern European shot-callers in Brooklyn — but often for the wrong reasons.
In 2012, Russian mobster Leonid Gershman — a ruthless Sheepshead Bay gangster serving 16 years in federal prison — suspected KavKaz members of robbing one of his Ocean Avenue marijuana stash houses.
After the robbery, Gershman and two of his cohorts lured KavKaz crew member Misha Azaryev, who they suspected of the break-in, to Ocean Parkway near Avenue Y, federal prosecutors charged.
While it was still light outside on the residential stretch of the thoroughfare, the gangsters confronted Azaryev about the robbery — and one of them pulled a pistol. Azaryev ran off, but was tripped up by the gangsters and viciously beaten.
One of the hoods smashed Azaryev’s face in with the butt of his pistol, sending his teeth flying in the air — all while terrified onlookers ate their dinner on a nearby front lawn, prosecutors wrote in court documents.
In the end, Gershman’s crew let KavKaz members keep the cash they had swiped in the stash house robbery. There had been a mix-up.
“We later found out that Misha [Azaryev] wasn’t the person that did it. They just used his car. He just got beat up basically for nothing,” one of Gershman’s cohorts later testified.
At least one KavKaz leader has been an exception to the notion that the crew is less than sophisticated, rising to a high level in the organized-crime world of southern Brooklyn, Jacobs said.
Natik Nisimov, a KavKaz boss who owned a barbershop on Ditmas Avenue in Kensington, commanded enough respect among Eastern European gangsters that he could influence decisions by someone like Gershman, authorities say.
In 2013, a low-level cocaine courier for Gershman, who was of the same ethnic background as KavKaz crew members, told his boss he had been robbed of his product and cash while making deals, according to prosecutors.
Gershman suspected a set-up and met with the courier, Rufat Zarbailov, in the underground parking garage of his Ocean Parkway building. There, the gangster held a box cutter to Zarbailov’s face and threatened to give him a “150,” or a cut from mouth to ear that would require 150 stitches to close.
After the threat, Zarbailov ran to Nisimov, the KavKaz leader, who was able to convene a sit-down with Gershman to squash the beef. In the end, Gershman agreed not to maim Zarbailov or to extort money from him, but pair also agreed the low-level courier would be “out of the game.”
Despite his rising stature in the underworld, Nisimov met his end because of a seemingly non-consequential beef with another tough in southern Brooklyn.
In 2015, Nisimov was gunned down in the morning hours of March 24 on Ocean Parkway near Quentin Road in Midwood, according to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.
The gunman, a Brighton Beach resident named Jeffrey McCrae, suspected Nisimov had passed a knife to an attacker who stabbed one of his friends earlier that morning, according to prosecutors.
Evidence later cleared Nisimov of any involvement in the stabbing, authorities said. McCrae convicted of the killing in 2018 and sentenced to 19 years in prison.
In terms of last month’s jailbreak, Mordukhaev pleaded guilty last week to a violation of federal supervised release over it and was slapped with a nearly two-year sentence in Brooklyn federal court, a rep for the US Attorney’s Office said
Nikoghosyan has not been charged in the escape. But he was charged in a five-count indictment last week for allegedly extorting a marijuana dealer who worked for him and for attempting to move luxury cars he fraudulently obtained from California to New York.
The feds also charged him with being a felon in possession of a weapon after they found a Hi-point 995 rifle at a Brooklyn stash house he allegedly controlled.
Nikoghosyan’s lawyer, Don Savatta, said he plans to plead not guilty to the indictment.
“We expect that the evidence as it unfolds will be different from the allegations being made now,” he said.