‘Godfather of Chaldean Mafia’ swept up in arrests
A convicted murderer who was known to police as the “Godfather of the Chaldean Mafia” and two of his lieutenants are among the Metro Detroit Iraqi immigrants with criminal records who were recently arrested and targeted for deportation.
Louis Akrawi, 69, fled Iraq in 1968 after an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein, whose Ba’ath Party had just seized power, according to his family and a local author and organized crime historian. Akrawi and his deceased sister’s four children first escaped to Turkey before immigrating to Detroit.
Akrawi never became a U.S. citizen.
Police say Akrawi was a brash, ruthless crime lord from the 1980s until his 1996 second-degree murder conviction. He was paroled in February after serving more than 20 years for ordering a botched gangland shooting that resulted in the death of an innocent bystander.
During his heyday, Akrawi also had a reputation as an enthusiastic supporter of Detroit’s sizable Chaldean community who helped new immigrants get settled and start businesses. When former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young gave Hussein a key to the city in 1980, Akrawi organized anti-Hussein protests outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Seven Mile.
“Louis Akrawi is a very complex figure in the history of Detroit,” said author Scott Burnstein, who has written several books about organized crime in Detroit. “Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a lot of different opinions about him. He was a lightning rod. Some people in the Chaldean community passionately loved him, and certain members of law enforcement passionately hated him.”
Akrawi, who is being held in a Louisiana federal facility, was arrested May 22 as part of an immigration sweep that netted more than 100 Chaldean Iraqi natives with criminal records who are in the United States illegally.
A federal judge heard arguments Wednesday after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit claiming the Chaldeans set for deportation were in danger of being killed because of ongoing radical Muslim persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
Rebecca Adducci, Detroit field office director for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, said the agency’s efforts will get dangerous criminals off the street.
“The operation in this region was specifically conducted to address the very real public safety threat represented by the criminal aliens arrested,” Adducci said in a statement. “The vast majority of those arrested in the Detroit metropolitan area have very serious felony convictions, multiple felony convictions in many cases.”
Akrawi’s son, Victor Akrawi, said his father has paid his debt to society and should be allowed to stay with his family.
“He was American enough to be in the American prison system for 21 years, but now that he served his sentence, he’s not American,” he said. “He’s 69 years old, he has two artificial knees, and he needs surgery on both eyes. Sending him back to Iraq is unfair.”
In addition to Akrawi, two of his former associates also were arrested: Hatim Zakar and Najah Konja, both of whom were convicted in a 1991 drug conspiracy case in Oakland County. Akrawi also was charged in that case, but was acquitted.
‘He was into everything’
Police say Akrawi was the leader of a Detroit crime syndicate that dealt drugs and ran illegal gambling operations and extortion schemes. The high-profile 1989 drive-by execution of Akrawi’s nephew, reported drug kingpin Harry Kalasho, kicked off a bloody war that saw rival Chaldean gangs killing each other and blowing up businesses.
Investigators found 100 sticks of dynamite after raiding a gang member’s garage, said retired Detroit cop Charles Flanagan, whose investigation helped convict Akrawi.
“He was a big barrel-chested SOB who thought he ruled the world,” Flanagan said. “He used to brag about how the cops couldn’t catch him, and how he was the baddest guy in Detroit.
“He was into everything,” Flanagan said. “Before the casinos, (illegal) gambling was huge in Detroit, and he ran a major operation. His organization was heavy into drugs; they had a connection with the Colombian (cocaine) cartel.”
The move to deport Akrawi is the second such attempt. He was first paroled from a Michigan prison in November 2011, but later spent three months in jail while immigration officials initiated deportation proceedings. At the time, Iraq refused deportees from the United States without travel documents.
Federal officials were forced to release Akrawi after he had spent 180 days in jail because of a U.S Supreme Court decision that detainees couldn’t be held beyond that period. Five days later, the Michigan Department of Corrections revoked his parole and sent him back in prison.
After his second parole in February, Akrawi lived in his sister’s West Bloomfield Township home until his arrest, Victor Akrawi said. “He’s been working with me in my coffee shop, not hurting anybody,” he said.
In January, the Trump administration dropped Iraq from the list of Muslim-majority countries covered by a temporary travel ban. In exchange, Iraq agreed to accept U.S. deportees, opening the door for the recent arrests of Akrawi and others.
Although Metro Detroit Muslims almost uniformly opposed President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, many of the region’s Chaldeans, including the Akrawis, said they supported his candidacy.
“These days, if you’re not American, you’re a piece of s---,” Victor Akrawi said. “That’s the Trump era for you. The sad thing is, we supported Trump.”
Flanagan said anyone advocating for Akrawi to stay in the United States is misguided.
“This is exactly who Trump was talking about when he said some illegal immigrants are dangerous,” he said
Baghdad to Seven Mile
Akrawi was 19 when he and other members of the Iraqi Socialist Party tried to overthrow Hussein shortly after the Ba’ath Party seized power, Victor Akrawi said.
“Someone snitched (about the plan) and set them all up, so my dad had to flee for his life,” he said.
Akrawi immigrated to Detroit’s burgeoning Chaldean neighborhood near Seven Mile and John R. Flanagan said Akrawi embarked on a life of crime, using his restaurant, LA Ribs & Chicken, as a front.
“They say he was popular in the Chaldean community, but that’s only because he was giving people what they wanted: gambling and drugs,” said Flanagan, who was in charge of the 11th Precinct Special Operations unit during the early 1990s.
In 1993, a rival gang tried to kill Akrawi, so he retaliated by hiring two men to gun down the owner of a Detroit party store. Instead, 34-year-old Michael Cogborn was killed by a stray bullet as he stood in line to buy a gallon of milk.
Akrawi was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, although Detroit Recorder’s Court Judge John Shamo reduced the charge to second-degree murder.
It took three years to convict Akrawi. During the raucous murder trial, witnesses recanted their earlier grand jury testimony, and Flanagan and Akrawi gave media interviews in which they hurled insults at each other.
Shamo held Flanagan in contempt of court for leaving the courthouse after the judge claimed he had told him to stay. Flanagan was locked up in the Wayne County Jail for 30 hours before the Michigan Court of Appeals overruled Shamo’s decision.
The judge also held Flanagan and two attorneys in the case in contempt for violating a gag order by talking to the media.
After three years of delays and drama, the jury took 40 minutes to return a guilty verdict against Akrawi. Shamo sentenced him to 15-25 years in prison.
“It was a slap on the wrist,” Flanagan said. “He should be in prison for the rest of his life. Louis Akrawi and his whole crew need to be deported.”
Burnstein said Akrawi’s charisma is a double-edged sword.
“He’s one of the most strong-willed men I’ve ever met,” he said. “But that can cut both ways. That was an asset when it came to fighting for the Chaldean community, but some of that strong-willed nature worked against him because it drew the ire of the police who were chasing him.”