By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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A month after the death, Zeltser received a surprising phone call. "Let's meet," Berezovsky intoned. "We'll resolve the whole thing."
Zeltser jumped on a plane to London. That was the trip that would take an unexpected detour to KGB Penal Colony Number 15.
The moment Zeltser — still groggy from the spiked cappuccino, he says — stepped off the private jet in Belarus, he was seized by men in suits. They took him to a spare room in the airport. Among his interrogators was the chief of staff to the president of Belarus. First, goons punched him in the face. Then came an offer: Confess to spying on the country's industrial chemical complex, and he'd be freed to the American embassy.
Zeltser demanded to speak to an American representative. The goons punched him in the face some more and then delivered him to a penitentiary full of political prisoners, where he was tortured. Among the tactics: A gas mask with no air supply was slapped onto Zeltser's face, bringing him to his knees in a gasping fit.
His jailers tried such techniques for a month before deciding to just let him rot in a cell with three others. One hour a day, Zeltser shuffled along an exercise run and looked up at the gray sky through netting hung overhead. Food was potatoes and bread.
He eventually learned more about his arrest. One of Berezovsky's attorneys, on behalf of Inna, had sent a letter to the Belarus prosecutor general alleging that Zeltser and Kay had "embarked on a concerted attempt to gain improper and unlawful access to [Badri's] worldwide assets" through forgery.
With no trial, Zeltser was convicted of industrial espionage and forgery and sentenced to three years in prison.
One day, he was taken from his cell to an ornate room in the bowels of the prison. A guard brought him a Diet Coke. Then Berezovsky himself walked into the room.
"I don't understand why you're not signing whatever they want," the billionaire allegedly said.
Berezovsky could barely conceal a grin, says Zeltser. "It did not feel like he actually wanted something. He wanted to feel good seeing me in jail. He enjoyed himself."
There's a handy business tactic sometimes employed in Russia called "raiding." It's where you take a business by force, and while the original owners are tied up in court trying to regain ownership, you sell everything of value.
While Zeltser was puffing Minsk brand cigarettes in a prison cell, armed men were storming properties once controlled by Kay and changing the locks on Fisher Island.
Less than three weeks after Zeltser was imprisoned, a small troop of men dressed in black exited a van in Manhattan's chic Meatpacking District. Accompanied by locksmiths, they busted into a restaurant. Some interrogated the Russian cleaning ladies while others drilled their way into the safes.
As waitresses showed up for work, the invaders grabbed them by the arm and told them to meet "the new authority." They carried batons and appeared to have guns tucked at their waists.
It all happened the morning of March 31, 2008, at Ajna Bar, the kind of place you read about in Us Weekly when Sarah Jessica Parker orders a saketini. At least a dozen accounts filed in New York court describe the onslaught of the goon squad, led by Berezovsky's small, pugnacious New York lawyer, Martin Russo. (The attorney did not respond to several emails and phone messages seeking comment for this story.)
The 18,000-square-foot restaurant, according to documents he later filed in court, was owned by Joseph Kay. Following the bizarre occupation — cops were dispatched but no arrests were made — a debate over Ajna Bar's ownership began in civil court, an ordeal that slogs on today in Miami's federal bankruptcy chambers.
A corporate chess match was also under way on Fisher Island. The month of Badri's death, perhaps trying to preempt an ouster, Kay attempted to fire his fellow officers in Fisher Island Holdings. The move didn't work. A document later filed in court shows that the company's parent corporation, Euro Properties Investments, canned Kay and replaced him with his Fisher Island underlings — and current honchos of the island's community association — Gary Snider and Roberto Sosa.
Kay continues to argue in court that he could not be forced out of power on the island he purchased. But during a trip to Georgia, he was physically shut out of Fisher Island. The locks were changed to the management offices and social club.
Kay's name was ultimately scoured from Fisher Island Holdings — the company of which he still claims to be the rightful owner — in corporate records. This year, the firm even filed eviction proceedings for his residence at 6921 Valencia Dr. The property was padlocked, as was the steering wheel of the Ferrari parked in the garage. Kay was relegated to the employee queue in the island's all-important ferry hierarchy. (Kay has wrested back control of the house, says Zeltser. It's unclear what became of the $115,000 sports car.)
As the Fisher Island takeover was under way, Zeltser's imprisonment in Belarus was coming to a head. Word had reached Washington, D.C., that the lawyer was being denied medication for various ailments including heart disease and diabetes. On his MSNBC show, Keith Olbermann called the growing scandal "Torturegate." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton professed she was "very focused on this troubling situation."