FOR years, Oklahoma's image outside the state was flavored by “Grapes of Wrath” references. Thankfully, that's changed. Oklahoma City's economic vitality and the international appeal of the Thunder have placed a new spotlight on Oklahoma; people across the country and world have accordingly adjusted their views. Oklahoma is increasingly known as a good place to do business.
Unfortunately, the business of some people now attracted to the state is the “business” of organized crime. A federal case involving two men provides the latest example. Kevin Konstantinov and Elvin Alisuretove pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Both men live in Seattle, but have ties to Russia.
The men were indicted on charges of defrauding five Oklahoma banks — four in Durant and one in Oklahoma City — out of roughly $400,000 by stealing credit and debit card account numbers through the use of “skimmers” at gas pumps in Arkansas and Durant. An estimated 50 to 500 people were victimized; total losses in all affected states may run as high as $1 million. The stolen numbers were used for fraudulent transactions in Oklahoma, Eastern Europe and Russia.
This isn't the only instance of apparent activity by Russian organized crime officials in Oklahoma. A more unusual case occurred in 2011, when Fedor and Anatoliy Natekin were caught and convicted of illegally harvesting Oklahoma paddlefish for caviar. As with Konstantinov and Alisuretove, the Natekins were from Washington state — Kent instead of Seattle — but their Russian ties didn't go unnoted by local authorities.
The two men were stopped for speeding on Interstate 35 in Kay County and caught with 305 pounds of caviar processed from paddlefish eggs. At that time, a pound of paddlefish caviar retailed for as much as $325 per pound, so the poached caviar could have generated nearly $100,000.
Since one female paddlefish produces an average of five to seven pounds of eggs, officials estimated the men had harvested 40 to 50 paddlefish. Under state law at that time, citizens were legally allowed to take just one paddlefish per day. The poaching, especially given the apparent organized crime element, threatened to wipe out the paddlefish population in Oklahoma.
The Natekins paid fines and restitution totaling $8,978 each — not much of a deterrent given the potential money they could reap from their illegal activity. In response, state lawmakers voted in 2012 to increase penalties. Under the new law, anyone caught with paddlefish products with a market value greater than $5,000 could be fined between $5,000 and $25,000, and imprisoned for up to one year. The state can also seize and sell any item, equipment, vehicle or property used in a poaching operation.
Combine Russian crime reports with other organized crime efforts related to drug and human trafficking in Oklahoma via the three interstates, and citizens have reason for concern. These negative developments in no way outweigh other positive state trends, but they shouldn't be ignored. If anything, these developments add weight to calls to increase law enforcement manpower in Oklahoma and to make better use of existing resources through strategic targeting of crime.
The days when the Russian mob couldn't find Oklahoma on a map are over. The world is constantly changing. Oklahoma's law enforcement and corrections strategies must change with it.