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Former Baltimore officer battles homicide in Kosovo; Veteran of city squad joins U.N. police corps


PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- When the subject was murder, Tom Pellegrini thought he had seen it all in Baltimore, from domestics to drugs, revenge to contract killings and, of course, the little girl from Reservoir Hill.

Then the former Baltimore homicide detective came to Kosovo, the land of the ethnic hate hit.

"In Baltimore, there was usually a reason why people were killed, involving victims having done something to cause their demise," Pellegrini says. "But here, a person may be killed just because of their ethnic background. He may be the finest person in the world, a doctor, a lawyer, but sometimes, it just doesn't matter."

Pellegrini was a central figure in David Simon's book "Homicide," which led to the television series. But homicide Kosovo-style doesn't fit into some neat television package.

It can be ugly and unfathomable, festering feuds among ethnic Albanians and Serbs boiling over to murder, crossing the thin line from war crimes to homicide.

There have been daylight hits in front of hundreds who maintain a code of silence, and night-time killings where the murderers just slip away. The jails are full, the courts are barely operating and the police are undermanned, as an alphabet soup of international organizations tries to rebuild a war-ravaged place. The old Serb-dominated police force doesn't exist anymore. Often the instruments of Serbian oppression of ethnic Albanians, the police have disappeared.

The civilian work they left behind could occupy even the most experienced of homicide officers such as Pellegrini, part of the civilian police corps working for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). The U.N. police group consists of almost 2,400 police officers from 45 countries. The U.S. contingent with 500 is the largest.

Pellegrini is the deputy in Pristina's 15-member homicide squad, sharing duties with police officers from seven other nations.

With Pristina's dusty, traffic-clogged streets, frequent power blackouts, water shortages and lack of jobs, the citizens maintain that it's a wonder that more criminal acts aren't committed. The good news for officers such as Pellegrini is that the rate of killing has subsided in recent months. The bad news is that the death toll in this province of about 1.5 million people has crept to nearly 500 since NATO bombarded Yugoslavia into defeat and the multinational military Kosovo Force (KFOR) entered Kosovo in June.

In Pristina, population 400,000, a homicide occurs every three days. This year, 28 homicides have been committed in Pristina. (That's about 20 fewer than in Baltimore this year.)

"Quite frankly, it's not much different here than in Baltimore City," Pellegrini says. "I thought coming to this kind of environment, the homicide rate would be out of sight and uncontrollable. But the workload here is not any heavier than what it was in Baltimore City homicide in the late 1980s or early 1990s."

Pellegrini, a blunt 50-year-old from Pasadena, Md., who retired last year, is trying to make a difference in the Balkans. He's seeking to keep law and order and solve killings in a land that has seen thousands killed in a year of war and uncertain peace.

There's a lot of killing to account for. While war crimes investigators seek to unravel the mysteries of mass graves, others, such as Pellegrini, deal with the day-to-day homicides.

After 20 years on the Baltimore police force, including 8 1/2 years in the homicide unit, Pellegrini traded his badge for a blue U.N. beret and began a one-year Kosovo hitch in October. One of his friends from the Baltimore police force, Vince Moulter, also headed for Kosovo and serves in Prizren.

Pellegrini was lured by the challenge and by the opportunity to earn tax-free pay that could reach more than $90,000 in salary and living stipends if he completes the grueling yearlong cycle of 30 days on and six days off. "Money was an issue, but at the same time, I felt I had significant expertise that I did not want to go to waste," he says.

U.N. officers can gather evidence but lack a fully equipped crime lab to analyze data. Interrogation skills are frequently lost in a fog of translation. And when the officers get on the scene of a murder, they are often met by silence or, worse, hate. "When problems occur, people sometimes get together and take out their vengeance on U.N. police and equipment," Pellegrini says. "Here we are, thousands of kilometers from home, for their benefit, and they thank you by doing that."

The first case

For Pellegrini, his first Kosovo murder case was his saddest.

A 15-year-old Kosovar Albanian wandered into a minefield and part of his leg was blown off. The father returned home from a job in Germany, blamed his 40-year-old wife for the accident and, during an escalating argument, strangled her, Pellegrini says.

Case closed. Or was it? Pellegrini says the killer was in jail for several months, then was freed by a local court.

"Some of the customs [hold] it's OK for men to beat up women," Pellegrini says. "They said he was no longer a danger to society. They no longer had a legitimate reason to hold him."

Other Balkan veterans have seen and heard worse. Some locals celebrated Albania's independence by beating a Serbian professor to death and battering two Serbian women, one fatally.

"Almost a thousand people were around that scene, and almost no one reacted," says Charly Gortano, an Austrian police officer who heads Pristina's homicide department, known formally as the Regional Investigation Unit.

The first police unit to arrive on the scene was attacked. Highly publicized efforts to get witness statements, including newspaper appeals, led nowhere.

"Not one person came forward," Gortano says. "There could be two reasons. One, no one trusts the police, and this could be from the previous time [when Serbs ran the province]. Or the people around are too scared to inform us. Sometimes it's frustrating missing basic cooperation between people and police."

"If people aren't cooperating, we can't stop [the killing]," Gortano says. "They have to learn this, and we have to live with it. We are a different kind of police. We treat them as human beings."

Elusive justice

Other unsolved cases have haunted the investigators. One involves a Bulgarian working for UNMIK who was beaten and shot after youths asked him in Serbian what time it was. When he answered in Serbian, the youths turned on him.

In a case in September, in Lipljan, a 15-year-old Kosovar Albanian girl allegedly killed a Serb with a pipe, and a crowd burned the body. When investigators questioned the girl, Gortano says, she said: "We can talk about whatever you want, all night. This is only a Serb.' "

Gortano says the girl was in prison for two months before relatives produced a birth certificate that claimed she was 13. That earned her a release as a juvenile.

One of Pellegrini's colleagues on the U.N. force, a Jordanian police officer, was forced to watch as his female Serbian landlord was executed for the "crime" of leasing her apartment to part of the international force occupying Kosovo. No arrests have been made.

"It's going to take at least 20 years to make any significant changes to the attitude and mind-set of people who live here," Pellegrini says.

"We're giving the people of Kosovo a golden opportunity to improve the quality of their lives here. If they don't take that opportunity, it's their fault, not mine."

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