An Irish American Serb story
By: Tom Deignan | Published Wednesday, August 24, 2011, 2:43 PM | Updated Friday, September 9, 2011, 10:27 PM
In June of 1979, a hijacked Boeing 727 landed at Ireland's Shannon airport. The plane had been commandeered by a Serbian nationalist who had been flying to Chicago, to be sentenced on a bombing charge.
Before the plane landed, however, the Serb, named Nikola Kavaja, burst into the cockpit and claimed to have a bomb. Kavaja eventually freed most of the crew and passengers, but maintained control of the plane.
His ultimate plan was to fly the aircraft to Yugoslavia and crash it into a building housing Communist officials.
The plane, however, ran low on fuel and had to land at Shannon, where the hijacker ultimately surrendered.
Ireland did not have an extradition treaty with the U.S., though diplomats scurried to put one together in about five minutes, so that Kavaja could be handed over to U.S. authorities. He was arrested in Dublin and Kavaja was ultimately sentenced to 20 years in jail.
This is one of the few, and certainly most colorful, Irish-American-Serb stories out there. But it is not the only Irish-American-Serb story.
A close associate of Kavaja's, who went to prison for participating in the same bombing, was a man by the name of Bosko Radonjic, who died earlier this month in Belgrade at the age of 67.
Known as "The Yugo," Radonjic had earlier lived in New York City before serving three years for the Chicago bombing. Radonjic later returned to New York City, where he found work as a humble parking lot attendant.
It so happens that Radonjic settled on the West Side of Manhattan, an enclave known as Hell's Kitchen. At the time, for an enterprising young man unafraid to spill blood, this was not a bad place to be.
Within a decade, Radonjic would find himself aligned with John Gotti. The Serb would also become the unlikely leader of the most famous Irish American criminal gang in New York history.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves. The year was 1982. The bars and docks and gambling halls and loan-sharking operations in Hell's Kitchen were generally ruled by Jimmy Coonan and the Westies, the Irish American gang linked to the Gambino crime family.
Just a few years earlier, Westies leaders Jimmy Coonan and Mickey Featherstone had been in prison. But the duo had maintained control of the West Side.
Though heavily Irish, the Westies were willing to take on an associate who could earn and take care of himself. So, beginning in 1983, Radonjic -- "The Yugo" -- went to work for Coonan.
Two years later, the killing of Gambino kingpin John Castellano outside of Spark's steakhouse in Manhattan shocked the underworld. Gotti was now ruling the Gambino family, and proved willing to work with the Westies.
Soon enough, however, the Westies themselves were in decline.
Featherstone began providing the government with information about Irish associates such as Coonan, "Mugsy Ritter" and James McElroy, some of whom were sentenced to decades in prison.
This came just as the West Side was flush with cash, thanks to yuppies willing to live in the formerly rough neighborhood because of its affordable rents. Not a few of those yuppies were interested in buying cocaine.
Irish American Westies such as Kenny Shannon and Kevin Kelly spent several years attempting to exploit this market. But police pressure grew too great and they turned themselves in.
And so, as the 1990s dawned, it was time to call in "The Yugo." Bosko Radonjic became the acknowledged leader of what remained of the Westies, dabbling in high-profile burglaries.
But even The Yugo couldn't stand the heat in Hell's Kitchen. He returned to his native Serbia in the early 1990s where, during the wars that wracked that region, he became a close adviser to accused war criminal Radovan Karadzic.
The Yugo was eventually arrested on jury-tampering charges in 1999, but he was released when the main witness against him -- Sammy "The Bull" Gravano -- was deemed unreliable.
The Westies. A war criminal. Sammy the Bull. The Teflon Don.
Yup. It's just your average Irish American Serb story.
(Contact "Sidewalks" at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/tomdeignan)