The Murder Squad

May 22, 2018

(This is the second in a series of stories about overseas civilian police advisor assignments. The first was entitled Kosovo).


I arrived in Kosovo in July 2002, and as I wrote in the first article was assigned an administrative position in the Main Headquarters building in downtown Pristina. The positions were relevant to the rebuilding of the Kosovo Police Service and included stints in Strategic Planning, Promotions, and Policy Development. Yawn. I did not want to spend my time overseas riding a desk and pushing a pencil. After three months, I went with CV in hand to an investigations unit, the Pristina Regional Serious Crimes Squad AKA The Murder Squad. The commander of that unit was on leave, so I was interviewed by his second-in-command, an Irish cop who was a high-ranking member of the Garda back home. I was accepted and told to report the following week. I went back to MHQ and informed the boss of my decision to leave. He was disappointed but understood.


The Murder Squad was so named by internationals who served in the unit that was created in 1999. They were overwhelmed with homicide cases; the streets of Pristina were littered with the dead bodies of police informants, organized crime adversaries, and other people victimized over perceived slights or wrongdoings. The unit could not keep up with the case load as revenge killings continued unabated, and most homicides went unsolved.


By the time I transferred to the unit in October 2002, more personnel had been added and the homicide rate was pretty much under control. In the building where I worked, a four-story former headquarters for the Serbian police, the Serious Crimes Unit occupied the second through fourth floors. The outside of the building was scarred with gunfire and damage from a rocket-propelled grenade, attacks that occurred at night when the building was mostly vacant. There would be another attempt at mayhem while I was there, a hand grenade attached to a UN vehicle left in the parking lot overnight. It was rigged so that when the vehicle was backed out of its parking space, a string would pull the loosened pin from the handle and the grenade would detonate. It was fortunately discovered prior to anyone moving the vehicle.


Kosovo, at that time, was approximately ninety percent Albanian Muslim and ten percent Serbian Orthodox Christian. There had been a tiny Jewish element present, but they fled when NATO forces invaded in 1999. Jewish ties to Christian Serbs were strong, and they feared what would happen if they stuck around in a Muslim-dominated Kosovo, and for good reason. Little more than fifty years earlier they had been rounded up by the Albanian Skanderburg Division, a German-trained SS unit, and deported to concentration camps in Albania. I heard at the time I served that some Jews remained in the province, particularly in the Prizren area south of Pristina, and was shown dilapidated cemeteries that were reportedly Jewish.


At any rate, this segment is not written to provide a history of Kosovo. To understand the region and why it collapsed into the mess that it was in the 1990's I recommend to the reader a book written by Rebecca West entitled Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (pub. 1941), and also a book by Robert D. Kaplan entitled Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (pub. 1993). Both are excellent sources of information on the history of the people, cultures, religions, politics, and mindsets. What fascinated me about Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was how little Kosovo had changed as of 2002, even though West took her trip through the region in the mid-1930's.


The Serious Crimes Squad was run by the Brits, and as I mentioned in the first article was divided into five units: three homicide squads, a cold case homicide squad, and a narcotics squad. Each squad had even numbers of internationals and KPS investigators, with a total of 100 investigators in the unit (50 international, 50 locals). Many KPS spoke a little English, and a few were fluent. Almost all of them were of Albanian descent, with a handful of Serbs. We had translators, all fluent in the languages of the province in addition to English. Some of those translators spoke German and/or Russian, as well. 


The Murder Unit was just that, a murder unit. We did not investigate any other crime, with two exceptions: once in the spring of 2003 when the Albanian girlfriend of a married, high-ranking U.N. official (no names mentioned!) was burglarized, and we received direct orders from the Police Commissioner to stick our noses into it; and another time when a car bomb exploded outside of a cafe on a busy street a few nights before Christmas 2002. Nobody died in that incident, not even the intended target who was walking by the front of the car when it detonated (a wheel from the vehicle propelled itself through a window of the cafe and out the back door into the alleyway, but the intended victim didn't get a scratch. It was an organized crime hit. The detonator was found in a vacant apartment on the fifth floor of a ten-story apartment building across the street, and car parts were found on the roof of that building). Outside of those two incidents, all we investigated was homicide. Occasionally, information was developed involving caches of explosives and/or firearms, and we would move on those in conjunction with the military.


I was on call one night when my phone rang and I was told a guy had been shot seven times. I was ready to roll, but told to stand down and let the appropriate KPS station send one of its investigators. If the victim wasn't dead, we didn't investigate ( that guy lived, by the way). I had other similar calls during my eight months in the unit.


The Murder Unit had been renamed the Pristina Regional Serious Crimes Squad by the time I came to it. All provinces had regional crime squads. Ours was the biggest because it was the busiest. Pristina was not a huge city, I would estimate around two hundred thousand at that time, and the region encompassed surrounding villages that added another several thousand, but we had enough homicides to keep us busy.


The Brits were good to work with, although their system of investigating differed slightly from ours. They insisted that statements be taken from all persons spoken to, and those statements be typed and signed, whereas in the USA if a victim/witness/suspect says he doesn't want to talk to us, or didn't see/hear/know anything, we indicate that in our report without the formality of a transcribed interview.


My squad had a British team leader from the British Ministry of Defense, and cops from Portugal, Germany, Finland, Norway, Austria, and Spain. We often worked closely with the other two homicide squads, which had cops from all over Europe, although the Brits did not take in any Russians or Ukrainians. It was one of those unspoken rules that we didn't put people from pro-Serbian countries into the squad.


What I loved about the unit was the camaraderie. It was the complete opposite of the atmosphere at MHQ, where people were concerned primarily with personal advancement. In the Serious Crimes Unit, every Friday night at seven we gathered in the office of the unit commander, a retired sergeant from a city in England, and had some brews. We'd sit around engaging in conversation, and eventually the singing would start. We Americans are sticks in the mud when it comes to this type of activity, but the Irish, Scots, Welsh, and English aren't shy at all about strumming a guitar and breaking out into song. Give an American enough to drink and they'll join in.   


I still stay in touch with two of those cops I worked with, a German from Bavaria and an Englishman from Plymouth. We exchange emails and the Englishman I've visited a few times.  


In a U.N. mission, there were no days off for the police. Instead, we were awarded compensatory time off (one comp day for every five worked) and 1.5 hours of annual leave per month. Most cops worked sixty or ninety straight days, and then flew back home or went somewhere in Europe as a tourist. I'd never been to Europe and utilized the opportunity to visit some of the great cities there every thirty days. Kosovo was centrally located, more or less, with Austrian Air, British Air, and Turkish Air serving the city of Priština. I'd pick a city and spend a week exploring it. In chronological order I saw Budapest, Paris, Istanbul, London, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Prague, and managed to work in a couple of trips home in between.


Almost every workday morning was started off by a trip to a British military base for breakfast. The Brits had their cup of tea with egg on toast, we Americans had our coffee with scrambled eggs and toast on the side ("Why in bloody hell do you Yanks not put the egg on the toast?"). That restaurant, like all places in Kosovo serving breakfast, advertised "hash browns" that were actually french fries. Why they called them "hash browns" on the breakfast menu and french fries on the lunch and dinner menus is beyond me. Some things just are.


I bring up the daily breakfast because even when our services were being requested on a homicide, the Brits still insisted that we eat first. 

"That dead body isn't going anywhere," my team leader told me one morning when I questioned the logic of going to chow rather than responding to a murder. "Besides, one thing you'll learn working in this unit is that this breakfast may very well be your last meal of the day." He was right about that on more than one occasion. But I, and a buddy from the Chicago PD, would laugh about it and say "Can you imagine what would happen in the states if we got called on a murder and said yeah, be right there, as soon as I go to breakfast?!"


There was another place for breakfast, too, and anyone serving in Pristina during that period would remember it: The Kukri. The Kukri was downtown and named after the famous fighting knife used by the legendary Gurkhas, the British-trained fighters from Nepal. It was run by a retired British military man who was married to a Serbian woman. Cafe by day and bar by night, there were some legendary drinking sessions that went on inside that place. It was actually on the ground floor of a ten-story apartment building, and when the noise got too loud the residents would throw objects or dump water out their windows on the people sitting below! 


It was no secret that the guy running the club had to pay organized crime money every month to keep the place open. He and I talked about it once, but he wouldn't name a specific figure other than to indicate it was several hundred per month. He still made money hand over fist. Those mobsters were part and parcel of the KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army. 


There were other bars in Pristina, including one down the road called The Irish, a tiny pub which, if Kosovo had mandated a fire code, would have been allotted maybe thirty people, but routinely held over one hundred.


A few cases stand out in memory from my time on The Murder Squad. I mentioned earlier a car bombing where no one died, but we were tasked with the investigation. I also worked hand grenade homicides, something your average cop from the USA never sees. The hand grenades were Soviet-made of hard plastic, a manufacturing process I was unaware existed. I thought that all hand grenades were made of steel  When they exploded, the fragments disintegrated into small curly slivers that resembled the tail of a pig, but make no mistake, they were just as deadly as steel and I'd seen the corpses that proved it.


In the eight months I was with the unit we kicked in a lot of doors, served search warrants, seized weapons and ammunition, sometimes we got drugs and cash, and we also arrested bad guys. We frequently worked in conjunction with military units, the French Marines being one of them (those boys knew how to kick ass). Our team worked over thirty homicides. Of those, one case that stands out involved a Serbian family living in the village of Obilič, an predominantly Albanian village just outside of Pristina. The Stolič murders made international headlines at that time.


More on that in the next article.











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