Carrying the casket at Eduard Nektalov’s funeral in May. (Photo credit: Kirk Condyles)
On a pleasant evening near the end of May, Eduard Nektalov closed his jewelry store in the heart of the diamond district and told an employee he was going to an appointment before heading home. Nektalov, who owned the store with his father, Roman, then started walking toward the Rockefeller Center Garage, two blocks away, where he kept his $300,000 black Bentley.
It was about a quarter after seven when Nektalov turned onto Sixth Avenue from 47th Street, and the block was crowded with the usual mix of early-evening strollers: diamond-district workers heading home; tourists; people on their way to dinner. Nektalov, who walked this block every day, didn’t really notice. He was talking on his cell phone.
As Nektalov neared 48th Street, a long-haired man in a baseball cap, a black shirt, and black jeans walked up behind him, pulled a .45 out of the waistband of his pants, and shot the jeweler once in the back of the head. Nektalov collapsed instantly. As he lay facedown on the sidewalk, the shooter stood over him and calmly pumped two more bullets into his back. Purposefully, without panic, the gunman tucked away the weapon, did an about-face, and began to walk south on Sixth.
Across the street, in front of 1211 Sixth Avenue, a retired cop who was working security for Fox News had just escorted an anchor to her car. When he heard the shots, he scanned the street, spotted the gunman, and began to follow him. Realizing he was being trailed, the shooter swung around and pointed his gun directly at the guard, who abandoned his pursuit. The gunman then continued south on Sixth Avenue, turning east on 46th Street and cutting through a park to 45th, where he took off his hat and black shirt. Now wearing a white T-shirt, he was last seen at 42nd and Fifth, where he disappeared into the city.
“Eduard was incredibly smart,” says Christopher Chang, one of his attorneys. “If I had to analogize his personality to anyone, it would be to Michael Corleone.”
Meanwhile, 46-year-old Eduard Nektalov, a husband and father of two, never got off the pavement. He died on the street where he was shot, in front of the Gap.
Who was Eduard Nektalov? It’s a surprisingly complicated question. To start with, Nektalov lived his life within two insular subcultures. He was a member of the notoriously arcane world of the 47th Street jewelry business, where, it is said, more than 90 percent of the diamonds sold in America are handled.
He was also a Bukharan Jew. He came to the U.S. almost 30 years ago from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. The Bukharans trace their history in Central Asia back almost 2,000 years. Most came here following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and almost all of them have settled in Rego Park and Forest Hills, where the Bukharan community, which consisted of fewer than twenty families during the seventies, now numbers nearly 60,000 people. A stretch of 108th Street has become so crowded with Central Asian restaurants and food stores that it is now referred to as Bukharan Broadway. It’s an inward-looking world with a deep suspicion of outsiders, and one where people are still more likely to speak Bukharan, a Farsi dialect flecked with Hebrew, or Russian than English.
Nektalov was a man of considerable importance in the Bukharan community, a member of one of its most prominent and successful families. But he had a darker side as well. Last year, he was arrested, along with his father and nine other 47th Street jewelers, for laundering drug money. Eduard and Roman were caught in a sting run by the El Dorado Task Force, a Treasury Department operation specializing in large-scale money laundering, composed of agents from various federal agencies, including Customs and the IRS, as well as members of the NYPD.
Called Operation Meltdown, the elaborate effort was centered on the cooperation of a Colombian who had pleaded guilty to laundering more than $8 million in drug profits. He used the money to buy gold, which was then smuggled out of the country. In some instances, the jewelers melted the gold down and reshaped it into everyday items like belt buckles that would be easy to smuggle back to Colombia.
In an attempt to get himself a lighter sentence, the Colombian told federal authorities that he worked with a number of jewelry businesses in the diamond district to unload large amounts of cash. One of those businesses, he claimed, was Roman Jewelers. He agreed to wear a wire and go undercover to make deals on 47th Street. His meetings with Eduard and Roman Nektalov began in the summer of 2002 and lasted for months.
Though Roman Jewelers occupies an expensive piece of 47th Street real estate—the Nektalovs own the four-story building and lease some of the space to several other jewelry businesses—the store has a surprisingly tired, depressing feel. Tax records show that Roman Jewelers grossed over $2 million last year, certainly a respectable figure, but less than you’d imagine might be needed to support a large multigenerational family, a Bentley, and a big, elaborate, recently built redbrick house in Forest Hills.
Though the cops say 47th Street is relatively crime-free—the street purportedly has a higher concentration of gun permits than any other single block in the city—the jewelry business, with its handshake deals and insular culture, is well suited to white-collar crimes like money laundering and fraud. In the past few months, for example, three diamond merchants were charged with laundering $1.5 million of South American drug money. The merchants allegedly took cash from dealers and then wrote checks in amounts ranging from $10,000 to $100,000. According to the indictment, the jewelers took a 6 percent fee and tried to bury the transactions by creating false sales invoices.
Nearly everyone busted in Operation Meltdown pleaded guilty and made a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s office. Except Eduard and Roman Nektalov and one other defendant. The Nektalov trial had been scheduled to start in July, several weeks after Eduard was murdered. Charged with five counts of money laundering, and selling nearly $170,000 in gold and diamonds to undercover agents, father and son steadfastly insisted they were innocent. “I’m a simple salesman. I buy and I sell. I don’t ask questions. I don’t know anything about Colombians or the Mafia or any of this,” Roman repeatedly told his friends.
When the Nektalovs were arrested, the community almost reflexively closed ranks around them. The Bukharans’ view of the world is shaped by their Soviet experience. They can be deeply suspicious of outsiders, particularly government authorities and the police. “Back in the Soviet Union, people were arrested all the time for things they didn’t do,” says Rabbi Yitzhak Yehoshua, one of the key Bukharan religious leaders in Queens. “Just because you are accused of something doesn’t always mean you did it.”
Eduard Nektalov came to the United States when he was 16, and quickly became one of the community’s leaders. He was vice-president of the Bukharan Jewish Congress, where he was instrumental in helping the fledgling organization raise $1 million in an early fund drive. And the Nektalov family—Eduard; his brother, Leon; and their father—is widely admired for its generosity within the Bukharan community, from its synagogue donations to its willingness to help more recent arrivals.
“All this Maﬁa talk, all this talk about crime,” says a Bukharan leader. “Edik was guilty of nothing! This murder is not a problem with the Nektalovs.”
“Eduard was a real loss for the community,” says Aron Aronov, an energetic 66-year-old with bushy white eyebrows who is the unofficial mayor of little Bukhara. Aronov, who speaks ten languages and worked as a translator in Uzbekistan, is also the founder, director, and curator of the Bukharan Museum, which is a block from the intersection of Queens and Woodhaven boulevards.
Occupying much of the top floor of a new yeshiva, the museum is filled with a quirky but growing collection of cultural artifacts: old photographs of sturdy-looking Bukharan men and women in their native Central Asian dress; beautiful handwoven carpets; flowing silk robes; handwritten Jewish prayer books used by Bukharans, who were denied printed texts by the Soviets; and remarkable pieces like a 400-year-old deerskin Torah.
“My friends go to Bahamas to relax,” says Aronov, who knocked down the garage in the back of his Rego Park home to re-create a traditional courtyard like the one he had in Tashkent. He built a wooden platform where he and friends sit on pillows and drink tea, planted grapes and an apricot tree, and put in a grill to cook lamb. “But for my vacation, I go to Uzbekistan to look for things for my museum. I will not allow a 2,000-year-old culture to just vanish.”
Aronov is nearly as protective of the Nektalov family, an allegiance that seems to be born mostly out of concern for the reputation of the Bukharan community as a whole. “Edik was well liked, and he was devoted to his people and his family,” Aronov says over lunch one afternoon in a Bukharan restaurant on 63rd Drive.
While eating the traditional meal of pilav (a rice-based stew with carrots and lamb), Aronov enthusiastically explained every ritual—from hand washing to how and when the tea is poured to which utensil is used for which dish. He insisted on giving me the short course in Bukharan culture before he would answer any questions. “Edik’s name alone was enough to raise money,” Aronov says, using Eduard’s nickname. “If he gave, others gave. You will find people critical of his father, but I guarantee you will not find anyone who will say something negative about Edik.”
After the shooting, frustrated detectives found this out firsthand. Nektalov’s family and friends offered little real help. “Let’s put it this way,” Lieutenant T. J. Moroney, commander of the Midtown North Detective Squad, says diplomatically, “the family has been somewhat less than forthcoming.”
One of the family’s theories involves acrimony over a ten-year-old real-estate deal. Roman has even claimed to friends that perhaps it was a bias crime. Outside the circle, however, there’s near unanimity as to what probably happened. “The Colombians or even some Russian he’d done business with may have believed that when the moment of truth arrived—the trial—he would fold and make a deal,” says one law-enforcement source.
Theories, however, are still all investigators have, even though dozens of uniforms, detectives from every precinct in Manhattan, police dogs, and guys from Emergency Services were at the scene of the murder within minutes of the shooting. There were also 30 eyewitnesses ready to give statements. (Also at the scene, weirdly, were the actresses Candice Bergen and Lorraine Bracco, who turned up as part of their participation in the NYPD’s annual commander-for-a-day program.)
Since Rockefeller Center and the surrounding streets are among the most watched and protected blocks in the city, fifteen separate surveillance systems captured images of the shooter. But not one produced a decent shot of the killer’s face, even after some of the footage was taken to FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, for enhancement. “The quality of the images is so bad,” Moroney says, sitting in his impossibly narrow, almost bowling-alley-like office tucked in a back corner of the precinct house, “that you can’t even tell the shooter’s race.”Roman Nektalov decided to bring his family to America in 1973. Getting out of the Soviet Union in those days was difficult, if not impossible, especially for Jews. Roman managed, however, to deftly navigate the bureaucracy and get permission to leave. But at the last possible moment, Soviet authorities detained him. The official charges were never clear, but this was a common form of harassment in that era.
The rest of the family went to Israel and waited. In a matter of months they were reunited. They settled in Queens, where there were three other Bukharan families who’d also managed to leave around that time, and another twenty that had immigrated years earlier. Most of these families had escaped across the border to Afghanistan, then worked their way to Israel, and eventually the U.S.
Roman had been a watchmaker in Samarkand. Before long, he found an American Jew who took him to 47th Street and, in the words of a relative, “showed him the way.” He worked hard, and eventually opened a small booth selling gold chains in one of the large retail exchanges.
“This is a very easy business to get into,” says Benny Cohen, an Israeli native who has been a distributor of precious stones on 47th Street for 24 years. “It requires very little knowledge at its lower levels other than ‘buy cheap and make a profit when you sell.’ ”
There’s a steady stream of immigrants and Hasids arriving on 47th Street all the time to get their start. Usually a friend or a rabbi calls someone in the business on the newcomer’s behalf. All they have to do, Cohen says, is give him a couple of stones to take door to door. “So he will make 5 percent on every $10,000 worth of stones he sells,” he says. “That’s not bad for someone with no skill or training.”
Jews have a long history in the diamond business, owing largely to the fact that in Europe they were often not allowed to own land. Putting their money in diamonds had two advantages. The stones were essentially liquid, like cash, and they were easy to carry from country to country during times when Jews were forced to move. The business was revolutionized and took on much of its present shape at the hands of the Oppenheimers, German Jews who bought the De Beers cartel in 1926.
Up until the mid-nineties, De Beers controlled almost the entire global diamond market. As new mines opened up, however, more people were able to get into the business, and De Beers’ market share has now dropped, by most estimates, to less than 65 percent. But their archaic, ritualistic system of doing business is still intact.
Every fifth Monday, 125 people called sight-holders gather in a room in London, where they are each presented with an elegantly wrapped box. Inside the box is their diamond allotment. “You can’t haggle over price,” says Renée Rose Shield, a professor at Brown and author of Diamond Stories: Enduring Change on 47th Street. “And you must accept what you’re given or risk being dropped as a sight-holder. And the list of people waiting for one of these spots is very long.” The diamonds, which are in their rough, unfinished form, are then distributed throughout the world market.
Interestingly, one of the most successful challenges to De Beers’ dominance of the market has been mounted over the past decade by a Bukharan Jew named Lev Leviev. A native of Tashkent and a friend of Vladimir Putin’s who now lives in Israel, Leviev managed to outmaneuver De Beers and negotiate a deal with Angola for exclusive access to its diamond production. At 48, he is a multibillionaire and an enthusiastic supporter of Jewish causes—a result, according to a well-worn story, of Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson’s having blessed one of his early, risky ventures. Leviev’s philanthropy is evident in Queens, where he built the yeshiva in Rego Park that houses Aron Aronov’s Bukharan Museum and that is also tuition-free.
On 47th Street, since much of the business is still conducted on the honor system, a man’s reputation is about as valuable a commodity as the stones themselves. Diamonds change hands all the time with little more than a handshake or a note scribbled on a scrap of paper.
“One accusation can make it impossible to do business,” says Benny Cohen. “In fact, sometimes you don’t even need an accusation. All you need is a whiff that something isn’t right. That’s enough to ruin someone. Everyone knows this, so they are very careful about what they say.”
But David Ribacoff, one of the founding members of New York’s Bukharan community, who helped start its first synagogue and who has assisted hundreds of immigrants in getting settled here, is scathing in his assessment of the Nektalovs. “I knew someday something was going to happen with these people,” he says. “If you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.”
Ribacoff’s family left Uzbekistan for Israel when he was 2 years old. The boat stopped in Alexandria, Egypt. Rather than continue on by train, which was the only way to complete the journey, they settled in Egypt. The Ribacoffs became a rich family of merchants who led a comfortable life in Alexandria until they were expelled in 1957. They lived in Brazil for seven years before settling in Queens in 1963. “My brother and another guy started the first Sephardic synagogue in Queens in September of 1963,” he says.
Ribacoff, now 79, spent twenty years in the jewelry business on 47th Street. “There are people in our community who lived too long under Soviet rule,” he says. “The only way they could survive is to cheat the government, and they do it here as well. Everybody on 47th Street knew if you had stolen stuff, you could bring it to the Nektalovs. I urge you not to praise these people.”
Nearly two months after Eduard’s funeral, Rafael Nektalov, his cousin and the editor of the Bukharan Times, was in the below-ground office of his newspaper in Forest Hills. Known in the community as an agitator who likes to use the Times to create controversy, Rafael began life as a journalist when he came to America in the early nineties. In Uzbekistan, he was a noted composer and professor of music. He had about an hour before he needed to leave for court to attend Roman’s money-laundering trial. He was dressed in black pants, a shiny black open-necked shirt, and black felt yarmulke. “I am shocked by the press coverage of Edik’s murder,” he said, half in English, half in Bukharan, through a translator. “All this mafia talk, all this talk about crime. Edik was guilty of nothing. My daughters burst into tears when they heard what happened. This murder is not a problem with the Nektalovs, it is Bloomberg’s problem. It is Bloomberg’s problem the city is so dangerous.”
When I tried to question him about this, he went even further. “It is not only Roman or Edik Nektalov that’s on trial,” he said before leaving for court. “It is the whole Bukharan community.”
One morning, I sat in a second-floor office on Austin Street in Forest Hills with Rabbi Yehoshua. The rabbi, still youthful-looking despite his long, untrimmed salt-and-pepper beard, came here from Israel eighteen years ago. His parents are from Samarkand. While he slowly explained what the Talmud says about circumstantial evidence, I had difficulty hearing him. The office, whose walls were decorated with portraits of Ariel Sharon and the Lubavitcher rebbe, belonged to the contractor overseeing construction of the new, five-story, $6 million Bukharan community center. The contractor, the president of the Bukharan Jewish Congress, the founder and curator of the Bukharan Museum, and two Hasids from Israel were arguing loudly around a conference table, waving their arms, pounding on the table, and, in the case of the Hasids, stroking their beards with very pale, delicate-looking fingers. They were yelling in both Bukharan and Hebrew, and when I asked what they were so passionately fighting about, I was told it was me.
Or at least whether talking to me was a good idea. The prevailing opinion seemed to be that any attempt to tell the story of the Bukharans through the prism of Eduard Nektalov’s murder was sure to reflect badly on everyone. They were certain that, once again, the entire community would look like a bunch of misfits and crooks.
“The Bukharans are so sensitive about their image because they have an inferiority complex,” says Gloria Blumenthal, director of acculturation and community organization at the New York Association for New Americans, where she helps resettle Bukharan immigrants. “It’s an issue for all Soviet Jews because they spent so many years as outcasts, being looked down upon. But it’s twice as bad for the Bukharans. They were not only viewed as inferior because they were Jews, they were also viewed as backward and primitive because of their Oriental culture.”
Blumenthal says the Bukharans are fighting the classic immigrant battle. They are struggling to adjust to their new home, to assimilate and become Americans, while at the same time trying not to completely forfeit their own 2,000-year-old culture. Some of the cultural differences are almost comical.
Frequent complaints are lodged in Rego Park’s apartment buildings over Bukharans making too much noise in the hallways. Bukharan tenants regularly argue and do battle in the hallways because, where they come from, hallways are viewed as an extension of the home. Similarly, you can easily spot a Bukharan house in Rego Park and Forest Hills by the front yard. If it is elaborately gated and filled with furniture, it is likely Bukharan—Bukharans prefer to sit in the front, where they can watch the street and see who goes by rather than cloister themselves in the backyard.
Some of the issues, however, are more serious. There is, Blumenthal says, a great deal of poverty and unemployment. Things can be particularly difficult for teenagers caught between New World friends and Old World parents. “Intermarriage for them,” Blumenthal says, “means marrying someone who is not Bukharan.”
Near the end of July, two months after Eduard Nektalov was gunned down, his father stood trial for money laundering. The scene in Part 18B of the federal courthouse was both tragic and strange. Still in mourning, Roman came to court every day dressed in black, as did the rest of his immediate family. He followed the case against him through a translator. The courtroom was always filled with 50 to 100 people from the Bukharan community, who turned out to show support for one of their leaders. During the last week of the trial, Roman, who is 75, suffered two heart attacks.
“We visited him in the hospital,” says Christopher E. Chang, one of the defense attorneys. “And he signed a waiver allowing the trial to go forward without his presence in the courtroom. He was crying, he looked terrible, and he said one way or the other he needed the ordeal to be over. His son Leon said the trial was killing him.”
The morning after Roman’s second heart attack, the case was wrapped up and given to the jury that afternoon. In the end, Roman Nektalov was acquitted of the four most serious charges he faced, but convicted on one count of money laundering.
This despite the fact that the government seized $1.8 million worth of diamonds that were spread out on a table in the back of the store when Roman was arrested by federal agents. They claimed the stones were about to be sold to the Colombians. Though no decision has yet been made about whether the lone guilty verdict will be appealed, Chang says that even if it stands, Roman will likely get probation instead of jail time.
In the end, the most compelling aspect of the trial may have been what it revealed about Eduard. “You don’t get shot once in the head and twice in the back in broad daylight for no reason,” says Chang. “And it’s clear on the tapes, he was the person doing some kind of deal. The truth is, once Eduard was killed, the strength of the government’s case really changed.”
Chang points out there is one tape from October 2002 in which Roman and his son Leon are speaking in Bukharan. Leon can clearly be heard pleading with his father not to get involved. “He says, ‘We don’t do things like this,’ ” Chang recounts. “And eventually you can hear Leon say, ‘Fine, do what you want, but don’t get me involved.’ It’s almost like this snapped Roman back to reality. Because you can hear him later on saying to the undercover, ‘No, I can’t do this. I can’t do this.’ ”
Chang seems genuinely surprised when I tell him that the impression in the community is exactly the opposite. People talked about Roman’s vanity, his ego, and his need to feel important. But no one criticized Eduard. The feeling clearly seemed to be that if someone were capable of doing something illegal, it would probably be Roman, not Eduard.
“While I realize that Roman was the much more public of the two, Eduard was running the business. Roman was semi-retired,” Chang says. “And Eduard was incredibly smart. If I were going to analogize his personality to someone, I would have said Michael Corleone. His English wasn’t very good, but he was always at least two steps ahead of me. In retrospect, if Eduard had been alive, this case may not have been as triable as I initially thought.”