Published in Nacional number 433, 2004-03-02

Autor: Berislav Jelinić


USKOK investigating how Zagorec collected the ransom money

Last weekend, police arrested six men in connection with the kidnapping of the son of General Vladimir Zagorec, and the investigation is now heading in two different directions

Retired General Vladimir Zagorec did not report, and had no intention of reporting, the disappearance of his 17 year old son Tomislav to police. Tomislav went missing in front of his home in the elite Pantovčak neighbourhood in Zagreb last Monday.

Tomislav Zagorec, who was returning from school after stopping for a brief talk with his friends on British Square, was grabbed from behind at about 5:20 p.m. by two armed men who placed a sack over his head and forced him into a car, and then drove him to an unknown destination. Five days later, the boy was released, barefoot, at the Zagreb Mirogoj graveyard. He had the same bag on his head. After they let him out of the car, the kidnappers told him to leave the bad on his head until he had counted to a thousand. While he was counting in shock, barefoot in the snow, he was noticed by the graveyard security guard, who approached the boy and allowed him to telephone his father. In his 101 hours as a hostage, the boy had lost 5 kilograms and has still not recovered from the psychological shock.

However, due to the circumstances in which the five day kidnapping drama unfolded, the police doubt whether Vladimir Zagorec will be completely happy with the story’s end. During last weekend, the police arrested six people in several spectacular operations who they believe to be involved either directly or indirectly. Had they asked Vladimir Zagorec, that likely would not have happened.

The police learned about the kidnapping from a third person, though the police refused to reveal the identity of that person to Nacional. At first, Zagorec attempted to resolve the situation alone, listening to the instructions by the kidnappers that he not inform the police or they would kill his son. Afraid this would happen, he decided to not tell the police. Instead he went to see his ex-wife Gordana, who had called him concerned to ask if he knew where their son was, as he was quite late in coming home from school. The kidnappers had also informed Zagorec that he tell his ex-wife to not call the police. In the first telephone call, they told him they wanted 1.5 million Euro by noon the following day. In the second call, Zagorec asked the kidnappers if they could postpone the deadline to 5 p.m. on that same day.

Considering that the police learned of the kidnapping in the meantime, they contacted Zagorec, and he began to listen to police instructions. As a result, the kidnappers were apprehended. Which is why the police doubt that they will succeed in completely revealing all the details behind the first such kidnapping in Croatia.

The police believe that Zagorec knows exactly who and why his child was kidnapped, and they are quite convinced that this kidnapping is only the continuation of the incident at the end of last year, when unknown perpetrators attacked Zagorec with baseball bats in a public parking garage in the centre of Zagreb, breaking his nose, ribs and injuring his arms and legs. However, there are questions as to why that beating in November would indicate that something would happen to him or his family. After he was beaten, he was not threatened again and no one asked him for money. Had the two cases been connected, someone would have made their demands to Zagorec in the time between the beating and the kidnapping. According to Zagorec, no one had demanded anything from him.

“If he were to learn the background of the entire story, Zagorec could have similar problems with the people he has been connected to in various ways over the years. Just who this is we can only guess for now, but we assume that Zagorec’s safety would be equally jeopardized if the interests of those groups were to be compromised in any way. That is why he is in quite an uncomfortable position these days, as potential danger is coming from all sides,” stated a high ranking police official for Nacional.

They police believe that there is another reason behind Zagorec’s hesitation to cooperate, in addition to concern for the safety of his son. Last week, police kept a close eye on which bank in Croatia Zagorec would withdraw 1.5 million Euro, and later marked the money in order to help track down the kidnappers. How did Zagorec get the 1.5 million Euro? This is where Novica Petrač comes into the story. Petrač was arrested Monday for suspicions of his involvement in the kidnapping. This in fact is the most interesting part of the entire story. Novica Petrač is the son of well-known businessman Hrvoje Petrač, and Novica and Tomislav spent many summers together at the sea, playing together on the beaches of Krk, as their fathers are close friends.

After the retired general learned of the kidnapping of his son, the first thing he did was call his long time friend Hrvoje Petrač, whom he most trusted. Zagorec found Petrač abroad, where he was visiting his youngest son Roko. He asked for advice and at the same time, asked for his help in collecting the ransom money. Considering that he was out of the country, Petrač told Zagorec that he would ask his son Novica to do all he could to help Zagorec raise the money. He asked both men to be in touch. Petrač told Zagorec that it was impossible to raise that much money by noon the next day and to ask the kidnappers to postpone the deadline.

As we learned from sources close to General Zagorec, Novica began visiting his father’s friends and collecting money, but he managed only to gather 263,000 Euro, which was not nearly enough for the ransom. He informed both his father and General Zagorec, who then asked Petrač to put up his company as a guarantor on a loan he would take out from Hypo Alpe-Adria Bank. Petrač agreed to have his company Casino Vega be a guarantor for the 1.5 million Euro loan, and that company’s director, Davorin Firis, was to have signed the papers. Petrač called Firis to immediately return to Zagreb from Pula, where he was on official business. The agreement was that Novica would bring Firis to the bank headquarters at exactly 3 p.m. on 24 February to sign the papers. Firis managed to arrive from Pula on time and he, Nikica Petrač and Zagorec’s attorney waited at the bank for Zagorec to arrive. When he did arrive one hour late, he told them that he would not need the guarantee, as he had collected the money in another way. Somewhat surprised by Zagorec’s behaviour, they said goodbye to the general and his attorney and went home.

The question then is, who was Zagorec’s guarantor for the money? Nacional has learned that he did not need a real guarantor for the 1.5 million Euro, and that he had enough coverage for the money in his own accounts at the Austrian bank. In order to satisfy the bank conditions and to not have to later answer the awkward questions about where the money had come from, his company ‘PZ’, currently involved in building underground parking lots in Istria, was the guarantor.

The police however, brought in Novica Petrač for questioning. Police officers dressed in civilians clothes, armed with pistols and shotguns awaited Petrač’s black automobile in front of their office in Zagreb, thinking that Novica was inside. They were disappointed when the father exited the black BMW X5. He told them that Novica was inside and would go in for questioning without any problems, but that he could not understand why they brought such weapons to bring him in for questioning. He went up to the fourth floor to get his son, who came down to the police and went with them to the station. There they asked him if he knew General Zagorec and Ivica Mataković, and asked him to talk about his relationship with them. According to information we received from sources close to Petrač’s attorneys, Nikica Petrač told them that he believed this was a big set up and that he chose not to say anything. The police said they would arrest him if he refused to cooperate, to which he responded that he they could go right ahead as he was completely innocent and did not want to get involved in any set ups.

When Hrvoje Petrač heard that his son had been arrested, he immediately contact General Zagorec and told him that HTV reporters had called asking for a statement. He asked Zagorec to also give his statement to HTV explaining Novica’s role in the entire operation. Zagorec was surprised at the arrest of his friend’s son and he said, “Your Novica is a son to me, just like my Tomislav, and let the press call me, I will tell them about how hard Novica tried to help me in these difficult days.” Ten minutes later, the HTV reporters called Zagorec to get his statement. However, the general no longer picked up the telephone to explain the role of his friend Petrač and his son in the drama that had taken place over the past seven days. As Nacional has learned from reliable sources, USKOK has launched an investigation in order to learn just how and with what guarantees Zagorec came to the money.

The kidnappers changed the place, time and manner for the money drop off. The drop off of half the money, 750,000 Euro was to have taken place on Tuesday at 5 p.m. Zagorec drove in his car and was directed by cell phone through the city, only for the entire drop off to be called off in the end as they realized that he was being followed by police. The police, with the help of the secret service, had placed a tracking device in the briefcase with the money. In addition, they also used a special device to scan for the signal of the cell phone the kidnappers were calling from. The circle was getting smaller, and in fact the police knew of the whereabouts of the kidnappers even before Tomislav Zagorec was released. However, they did not dare to intervene in order to keep the boy from being harmed.

After several changes to the drop off plans, Zagorec finally sent the money by City Express. The police also monitored that package. During this entire time, the kidnappers threatened Zagorec that they would harm the boy by cutting off his fingers and toes and then they would kill him if he involved the police. The police arrested the suspects one day after the first payment was made in Zagreb’s Malešnica neighbourhood. The anti-terrorist unit broke into the apartment on the 4th floor at 31 Marina Tartaglie Street, and arrested Marinko Gošuljević Kinez and Tomislav Ćurić from Bjelovar, Siniša Ježovit from Koprivnica and Ivan Bastalić from Zagreb. Later, two other men were also arrested.

Gošuljević is known in Bjelovar by many as the unofficial leader who was accused and later acquitted of the extortion and blackmailing of local businessmen. The accusation was that the group threw an ax before one of the victims and said that Kinez was great at cutting off ears. The group avoided penalty as the victims, fearing for their lives, constantly changed their statements out of fear of accusing them directly. Gošuljević was acquitted on 3 September 2002 on charged that he attempted to rob a branch of Varaždinska Bank in Varaždinske Toplice and for the attempted murder of a police officer. At that time, the court did not validate the identification made by the police officer. The police learned that Gošuljević was in possession of over 20 types of handguns. Allegedly, police also caught Gošuljević drug dealing in the village Tomas.

According to his wife, Siniša Ježovit suffers from PTSP and lives off a 3000 kuna military pension as a member of the Thunder unit from 1991 to 1995. He is also involved in real estate. He is also well known to police for multiple crimes.

Tomislav Ćurić was suspected of murder in Switzerland, recently for the robbery of a perfume shop, while he works as a radioanaesthetist in his spare time.

The last man arrested, Stevo Smrček, has had no significant trouble with the law to date. The police found ammunition in his attic, which was likely left over from the war years, but he had all the adequate documentation to cover that. He is not connected with the group. Smrček occasionally works as a welder. Allegedly, he heard that the police were asking around about him, so he decided to turn himself in. For the time being, he is not talking, like the other suspects.

Though there is no direct evidence to prove it, the police suspect that this criminal group is lead from abroad by Jadranko Češljar, originally from the village Ždralovo near Bjelovar. Both he and Gošuljević were the “heros” of General Mile Ćuk in the 1990s. Ćuk, together with former chief of police in Bjelovar, Mate Sićaja, protected the men. Currently, their only connection is that they are being represented by the same attorney. Gordana Grubeša represented Gošuljević on earlier occasions, is currently representing Smrček and Češljar is also her client. Several years ago, Češljar was convicted of extortion. However, he asked for his sentence to be delayed as his wife was pregnant. When that request was denied, he left the country. Today, there is no knowledge of his whereabouts, and since the statute of limitations has come into effect on his sentence.

Češljar and the group arrested on suspicions of organizing the kidnapping of Zagorec’s son have been informally connected with organized drug dealing. For now, the police have succeeded in reconstructing that they began their crimes in the early1990s, when the entire are was ruled by Mile Ćuk, the former Bjelovar master of life and death.

As Nacional has learned, the police has also began looking at the connection between the kidnapping and the purchase of the S300 rocket system, in which Zagorec was involved as was General Mile Ćuk. It will be interesting to see where that investigation goes. However, many secrets of the modern Croatia could be revealed, unfortunately over the psychological terror of a 17 year old boy.

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