Ten years ago, an Albanian immigrant agreed to help the Justice Department build a case against a mobster accused of human smuggling. In exchange, he says, federal prosecutors promised him a green card and protection for his family. But the mobster fled the country and the informant, Ed Demiraj, says the U.S. government reneged on its commitment — with violent results.
All these years later, Demiraj tells NPR he and his family still are living in fear of an organized crime ring whose members threatened his life and left him for dead. Demiraj says a man approached him in a coffee shop in South Texas last week with an ominous warning to watch out. Then the windows in his house got broken.
"I put my life in danger, to protect your country, to protect the United States from those people," Demiraj says. "Why they doing to me like that?"
His story begins shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, in Texas, where Demiraj heard his boss, Bill Bedini, had been arrested on human-smuggling charges.
Demiraj, who wasn't in the U.S. legally, says he turned himself in and told a federal prosecutor in Texas that he wanted to help. But he had an important question once the talks got under way.
"And I ask her, what protection can you give to my family, I do have a family, those people are very [dangerous], very, and she said, we know that," Demiraj says.
Demiraj says the prosecutor agreed to give him asylum and provide security for his wife and children. But nothing was in writing with the Justice Department. Then Bedini, the alleged mobster, left the country after getting released on bail. And any deal that Demiraj may have had was off.
In custody for months at an immigration center near Laredo, Texas, Demiraj was deported. When he went back home to Albania to live with his parents there, he says, people tied to the mobster showed up one day, shot him and left him for dead. Neighbors took Demiraj to a hospital and then a safe house.
Eventually, he made his way back to Texas, jump-started his company, which paints and remodels houses, and reunited with his family. But immigration authorities denied asylum applications by his wife and his 19-year-old son. He says that put his family in jeopardy all over again.
"If they going there for sure, for sure, that happened to me and by God thanks God I am alive," he says. "But it's for sure if they go back to Albania they are going to get kidnapped, they are going to be killed."
Joshua Rosenkranz, an attorney for the family at the Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe law firm in New York, is asking the courts to keep the family together in the U.S. The Demirajs' two younger children, a boy age 10 and a girl age 5, were born in the U.S. and are American citizens. Rozenkranz is also asking the Justice Department to keep them safe here. The answer so far, he says, has been no.
"So when the government says we cannot provide security, what it really means is, the Demirajs of the world are not a priority," Rozenkranz says. "When they're no longer useful to us, they're expendable."
Demiraj's lawyers have rallied former Justice Department officials to support their case. One of them is former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.
"You give your word you ought to keep it, it's as old as the playground," Thornburgh says, adding that there's a bigger principle at stake.
"If the Department of Justice doesn't stick to the terms of a deal made with a prospective witness and jettisons that witness, that word is going to travel very fast in the community at large, and they're going to have a great deal of difficulty getting people to cooperate and that's what law enforcement depends upon," Thornburgh says.
The Justice Department's civil division, which is handling the immigration side of the case, says it doesn't have the power to grant security protection. A spokeswoman referred calls to the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Texas, who declined to comment.
Marina Garcia Marmolejo, the federal prosecutor who Demiraj says made those promises 10 years ago, is now a nominee for a federal judgeship. She didn't return a call for comment.
Rosenkranz says there's no time to waste. "I've been handling high-profile cases for over 25 years and I don't think I've ever felt as fearful for the life of a client as I am now," he says.