Russian billionaires battle for Fisher Island

Russian billionaires battle for Fisher Island
Illustration by Curt Merlo

Two middle-aged men sat at a corner table inside Nobu, London's hippest Japanese restaurant. One of them was slightly bent-over and heavy-browed, his frumpy clothing thoroughly stained with cigarette ash. The other wore a sweater and jeans, with a loose crop of hair clinging stubbornly to the top of his balding dome. Gravity and menace hung in his dark and dramatic eyebrows.

They spoke in emphatic Russian while female companions quietly picked at $15 slices of raw fish and two large bodyguards in suits and ties sat nearby. If you didn't speak the language, you'd think they were old friends catching up. They weren't.

Boris Berezovsky — the short, balding one — was a billionaire who once had the power to appoint presidents. He had been raised modestly in the gray muck of the Soviet Union before making immense fortunes through ruthless acquisition of entire Russian industries. He lived in exile as an enemy of Vladimir Putin.

Joseph Kay (right) is battling over Fisher Island.
Courtesy of Emanuel Zeltser
Joseph Kay (right) is battling over Fisher Island.
Curt Merlo

The other man was Emanuel Zeltser, a New York lawyer who specialized in the representation of Russian oligarchs — ruthless businessmen possessing staggering wealth.

It was the night of March 11, 2008, and the pair was haggling over the estate of a mutual friend named Badri — one of the world's most powerful men and a recent presidential candidate in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia — who had suddenly dropped dead a month earlier. His wealth had been estimated at $12 billion. But he had not planned for death at age 52, and his will was in dispute.

Up for grabs was a global package of real estate and business assets worth between $2 and $8 billion. The most valuable piece was Fisher Island, a posh 216-acre enclave just 200 yards from South Beach but accessible only by chopper or boat. Until the recent real estate meltdown, Forbes dubbed it "America's most expensive zip code." It is still among the leaders.

Berezovsky argued he was entitled to big chunks of those assets. "Without me," he explained calmly, his right hand twirling in the air, "much of this would have never happened."

Zeltser mostly listened, recording the percentages Berezovsky wanted to carve from each asset. Every ten minutes or so, he stepped out into the cold March night to suck down a Marlboro, his eyes lolling upward with the power of each drag.

He believed Berezovsky had poisoned his longtime friend Badri. But he didn't let on because he was here representing clients in New York — and a career of dealing with Russian titans had hardened him to such cutthroat tactics.

Back at the table, Zeltser plowed through his customary parade of Diet Cokes, which were served in closed cans. He also drank cappuccino.

As the dinner came to a close, Berezovsky seemed to be in a chipper mood. He jokingly lamented that he's often mistaken for the famous pianist with the same name. Zeltser stood up and suddenly felt a bit dizzy.

Berezovsky offered the services of his chauffeur and Rolls Royce Phantom for Zeltser's trip to the hotel. After sliding into the back seat, which was separated from the front by tinted glass, the lawyer slipped into a state of semiconsciousness. He would later believe he had been drugged. Soon the car pulled up beside a private jet at a small suburban airport.

It's a plane, the lawyer thought serenely. We're probably flying someplace.

A few hours later, the jet landed in Minsk, Belarus. Zeltser was seized by men and driven to a former KGB prison where he would spend the next 16 months. "On day one, I was beaten so badly that I couldn't see my face," he says. Then came the torture by near-suffocation.

The imprisonment and abuse of an American citizen sparked an international incident that would garner the attention of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But it was only another chapter in the incredible global battle over what was once Miami's most elite real estate. Largely unbeknownst to its millionaire residents, the saga of Fisher Island's Russian invasion stretches from Moscow to New York's Meatpacking District to South Beach and includes claims of murder, forgery, and paramilitary raids on American soil.

Berezovsky has angrily denied the kidnapping and poisoning allegations. He insists he simply loaned Zeltser the private jet. "Good riddance!" the billionaire declared in the Russian press as the attorney sat in prison. "[He is] an absolute world-class swindler."

Emanuel Zeltser was born in the year of Joseph Stalin's death — 1953 — on a 70-degree-below-zero day in a Siberian labor camp. His parents conceived him only to avoid execution. At that point, Soviet policy prohibited killing families of new mothers. "It was one of the most horrible places on earth," says Zeltser, who would spend the first six years of his life there. His family had been declared "enemies of the people" because they were descended from great wealth.

Music ran in their blood. Even in the freezing prison, his mother entertained the guards by playing elaborate compositions on confiscated pianos. After the family was pardoned and returned to what is now Moldova, his older brother Mark was handpicked to join the Moscow Conservatory. He is now one of the world's premier concert pianists.

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