9 indicted in Philadelphia loan-sharking, gambling ring

Nine people have been charged with operating loan-sharking and illegal gambling ring out of several Philadelphia businesses.

An indictment, filed in federal court in Philadelphia, was unsealed today against the nine, charging them with racketeering, gambling and firearms offenses.

Prosecutors say the nine used various restaurants and coffee shops to run the loan-sharking and illegal gambling operation, making money by collecting on loans using intimidation, threats and violence.

They allegedly threatened customers with a firearm, hatchet and threats. Prosecutors say they told customers they would kill them, break their legs or physically harm their family members if debts weren't paid.

The nine charged are: 48-year-old Ylli Gjeli, 41-year-old Fatimir Mustafaraj, 43-year-old George Markakis, 34-year-old Gezim Asllani, 40-year-old Rezart Rahmi Telushi, 26-year-old Eneo Jahaj, 35-year-old Ardit Pone, 35-year-old Erion Murataj and 35-year-old Brian Jackson.

In one instance, prosecutors say, Gjeli -- whom the indictment names as a leader of the organization -- grabbed a customer's arm and slammed a hatchet into a table as the customer pulled his hand away. Gjeli also allegedly paced a gun to that customer's head.

"The indictment charges the defendants with running a violent loan sharking and gambling enterprise, using intimidation, threats, and actual violence as part of their illegal business," U.S. Attorney for Philadelphia Zane Memeger said in a statement. "We will not tolerate this type of criminal activity that preys upon financial weakness and threatens the physical safety of the individuals in debt and their innocent family members."

The indictment describes activities from the late 1990s through this month, involving loans and bets of up to $30,000 to $50,000, with hundreds of dollars in interest per week.

Authorities said Mustafaraj was also a leader of the ring, and the two directed other members, made and approved loans, supervised the illegal gambling business, used intimidation, collected payments and physically assaulted associates. Markakis was allegedly a leader of the illegal gambling operation; the others indicted are alleged loan-collectors or "bookies," officials said.

Charges include racketeering conspiracy, racketeering collection of unlawful debt, making extortionate extensions of credit, collections of extensions of credit by extortionate means, operating an illegal gambling business and possessing a firearm to further a violent crime.

Prosecutors say the group tried to cover up the operation by limiting their discussion of criminal activities while on the phone, using coded language -- such as saying "pizza" instead of loan -- conducting transactions in cash, and checking whether customers were carrying weapons or recording devices.

The defendants were arrested this morning.

The case involved investigators from the FBI, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations, state police in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and Montgomery County detectives.

Contact Emily Babay at 215-854-2153 or ebabay@philly.com. Follow @emilybabay on Twitter.

Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443; BreakingNewsDesk@philly.com. Follow @phillynews on Twitter.