New York History – 2009: Robert Simels and the Guyanese Roger Khan saga etc…

MobFellas: Simels, Gleeson, and Shargel

David Shaftel | The Village Voice

Legendary local attorney Robert Simels is only being punished for representing some of New York’s most unredeemable gangsters, say some in local legal circles. Kind of a what-goes-around-comes-around situation.

Simels not only lawyered for mafia turncoat Henry Hill – on whose life GoodFellas was based – but also some of the biggest Latino and black drug kingpins of the ’80s and ’90s. AND NOW, SIMELS HIMSELF IS IN DEEP TROUBLE. He has been indicted for allegedly tampering with witnesses in a case revolving around a comparatively little-known Guyanese drug gangster, Shaheed “Roger” Khan.    

As it happens, THE VETERAN LAWYER IS ALSO THE STAR OF A REUNION that could only happen in New York City. Simels is being tried before U.S. Judge John Gleeson, who made his rep as a dogged prosecutor of John Gotti. And for his own defense, Simels has hired Gerald Shargel, one of Gotti’s main lawyers and a guy who is, in fact, one of the most prominent mob lawyers in the city. 

While some people may see this as an attempt to deliver a comeuppance to Bob Simels, you won’t see him showing up in Gleeson’s court as a meek supplicant. Nor will you see the prosecutors doing any pussyfooting. “That is basically the underlying story here,” says Nicholas Pileggi, author of Wiseguy, the book on Henry Hill that was adapted for Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. “Simels takes great joy in being a criminal defense lawyer. He goes in there with his smirk and his expensive clothes and likes to piss off guys who make $80,000 a year.” 

Pileggi, who worked with Simels on both the book and the movie deal, adds: “The government hasn’t forgotten about the past, and they want to rap him on the knuckles. These are not the kind of people who leave the game at the ballpark.” 

It is somewhat strange that Khan is overshadowed in all this. Though he’s not particularly well-known to the general public here, he’s a South American drug kingpin. But to New Yorkers, Khan is likely to stay in the background. Here is one of those rare cases in which the gangster reaches a plea agreement with prosecutors, and the gangster’s lawyer winds up facing trial. 

A DEA agent’s affidavit — based mostly on audiotapes of Simels allegedly tampering with witnesses in the Khan case — was enough to bring the obstruction charges against Khan, Simels, and a Simels associate, Arienne Irving.

During his preparation for his defense of Khan, the government says, Simels and Irving discussed a slew of ways to obstruct justice and otherwise tamper with witnesses, “from offering them money to murdering their family members.” The government claims to have recorded conversations during which Simels allegedly talked about “neutralizing” witnesses — and not in a benign way. 

After serving 10 years in a United States prison for drug trafficking, Roger Khan returned to Guyana in September 2019.

As for Simels? For much of his career, Robert Simels was known as an aggressive and talented prosecutor, then criminal defense lawyer who often won.

Today, in the biggest case of his life — his own — Simels mostly lost, though he did notch a small victory.

The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Simels’ 2009 convictions on attempted obstruction of justice and bribery, and the 14-year-prison sentence given to him by U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn, but vacated his conviction on two counts relating to importation and possession of electronic surveillance equipment.

By any accounting, ROBERT SIMELS STEPPED INTO A HORNETS’ NEST IN GUYANA WHEN HE TOOK ON THE CASE OF ROGER KHAN, who was arrested in 2006 by DEA agents in Suriname, Guyana’s eastern neighbor, and renditioned to New York via Trinidad. Simels was hired, family members and associates say, on the strength of his reputation for taking high-profile drug cases.

Khan, 37, besides being an alleged drug lord, is also accused of having been the driving force behind the “Phantom Squad”, a shadowy, extrajudicial police force linked to some 200 killings in Guyana.

From at least 2001 until his arrest, the DEA says, “Khan . . . obtained large quantities of cocaine, and then imported the cocaine into the Eastern District of New York and other places, where it was further distributed. Khan was ultimately able to control the cocaine industry in Guyana, in large part, because he was backed by a paramilitary squad that would murder, threaten, and intimidate others at Khan’s direction. Khan’s enforcers committed violent acts and murders on Khan’s orders that were directly in furtherance of Khan’s drug trafficking conspiracy.”

Khan’s story is not that of a simple drug runner, though. In 1993, while he was living in Vermont and already had one felony under his belt, he was indicted for possession of a firearm, released on $1,000 bail, and “departed to his native country of Guyana and never returned to the United States,” according to a court document prepared by John Bergendahl, another of his attorneys. In Guyana, “Khan founded and operated a number of successful businesses, including, but not limited to, a housing development and a construction company, a carpet cleaning service, a nightclub, and a timber mill.”

Khan’s reputation seems to diverge along racial lines in Guyana, where about half the population is of African descent and half of East Indian descent, like him. To many Indo-Guyanese, he is a folk hero, responsible for cleaning up the streets when the country’s police force — which is predominantly Afro-Guyanese — couldn’t or wouldn’t, giving East Indians, who dominate the business community, a layer of protection where none previously existed. Khan has claimed, without copping to the existence of the Phantoms, to have helped the government put down a crime spree stemming from a 2002 prison break, and to have collaborated with the U.S. government in the region, most notably in the case of the safe retrieval of an American diplomat who was kidnapped off a Guyana golf course in 2003. Afro-Guyanese are more likely to associate Khan first and foremost as a leader of the Phantom Squad — a drug runner and a thug, to blame for just about every suspicious death in Guyana. Guyana, like Suriname, is a transshipping point for South American cocaine destined for North America, Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean, according to the DEA.

“Certainly, the numerous, unexplained deaths that we had in Guyana have not been there” since Khan has been off the streets, says Raphael Trotman, a Guyanese lawyer and founder of the Alliance for Change, a political party that aims to be non-racialized. Trotman says that while he has no direct evidence of Khan’s involvement in the Phantoms, things have been noticeably calmer in Guyana since his arrest. “There is a correlation between the lack of deaths and his absence.” Vic Puran, Khan’s Guyana-based lawyer, calls the Phantoms — and Khan’s involvement in them — just that: A figment of the imagination.

After Khan’s arrest, Simels made two trips to Guyana, where the case has dominated the press, to organize his defense. On one of these trips, in July 2007, he held a press conference at which he seemed to play to Guyana’s racial politics in order to argue that Khan was the victim of a politically motivated frame-up. Simels then proceeded to list the names of presumptive witnesses against Khan — even going so far as to spell out their names — and discredit them through linking them to involvement in the drug trade.

In a small country like Guyana — with its population of about 800,000, most located in or around the capital of Georgetown — the naming of witnesses was widely interpreted as putting them at risk of retribution from the Phantoms or from emboldened enemies of the incarcerated Khan. 

None of the names blared out by Simels, however, had been listed by the prosecution as witnesses. Dora Irizarry, the presiding judge in the Khan case, granted a government motion to have a gag order placed on Simels. Irizarry wrote that Simels’s statements at the press conference “appear to serve no purpose other than to attempt to silence, intimidate, and harass the identified individuals and to put them and their families and friends, many of whom live in Guyana or within Guyanese communities in the United States, in danger.”

She added that “he practically provided the press with a road map to some of their homes, spelling out names and identifying the family business in Guyana of one named individual.” The lawyer’s comments, she wrote, “ran so obviously contrary to his obvious ethical duties that, at one point, even members of the press . . . questioned the propriety of Simels’s remarks.”

It wasn’t only the press that was questioning Simels’s propriety — and it wasn’t only Simels’s public remarks that were being scrutinized. Without his knowledge, the attorney was being monitored by government investigators. According to DEA agent Cassandra Jackson’s affidavit, Simels told an informant that if the informant was called to testify, he (or she) “would need to lie about certain things,” and that a certain witness, “John Doe No. 1″ — the same witness Simels supposedly expressed interest in “neutralizing” — was the linchpin of the government’s case. Simels allegedly told the informant that he or she could help Khan by locating “possible government witnesses and/or the witnesses’ family members” so that they might help influence potential witnesses’ testimonies.

In a subsequent meeting, according to the affidavit, Simels reiterated that he wanted John Doe No. 1 not to testify, saying that “we need to know every little detail of his life” and that “the government’s case will collapse if the witness is neutralized by us [pause] or neutralized by us on cross-examination.” The affidavit goes on to say, somewhat cryptically, that “Simels further explained that they should explore both options.”

“I think [John Doe No. 1] might rethink his position once we start reaching out to his extensions,” the informant allegedly said to Simels, continuing, “One thing I’ve learned is that a man — whether he’s a criminal, he’s a preacher, he always values his mother. . . . You don’t ever want anything to happen to her.” 

According to the affidavit, Simels then cautioned the informant about killing the witness’s mother, but said, “Whatever [Khan’s] got to do financially, he’s going to do to resolve these issues. [Pause.] There is money that’s available.” Then the informant, according to the affidavit, “suggested that John Doe No. 1 ‘might suddenly get amnesia,’ ” to which Simels allegedly replied, “That’s a terrible thing, but if it happens, it happens.”

The informant, according to the court documents, “asked Simels about the possibility of ‘heat’ coming back to Khan if a government witness stops cooperating and refuses to testify because someone close to him or her ‘fall[s] off the face of the earth.’ Simels replied: ‘They’d have to figure out a way to tie it back to Roger [Khan]. . . . But [pause] it seems to me that — [pause] I’m going to leave it to you to figure out what’s going to best get to [John Doe No. 1].’ “

Later in the summer, in another meeting at Simels’s office, according to the affidavit, the informant told Simels that another witness, “Jane Doe No. 2,” was “willing to testify in conformity with Khan’s defense.” Simels then allegedly typed up a statement outlining what he wanted the witness to say, including that John Doe No. 1 was affiliated with a terrorist organization and that he intended to falsely testify against Khan. According to the affidavit, “the document also had blank spaces in which Jane Doe No. 2 was to add names. The informant then told Simels that Jane Doe No. 2 wanted $10,000 in exchange for signing the document.”

In a subsequent telephone conversation about the payment, which was recorded by the informant, Simels allegedly said, “Tell her that obviously she can’t get any money until she meets with me, but that I’ll make the agreement with her. . . . She’s got to meet with me. If she does it and she signs the document, she gets half then and she gets half when she, ah, finishes testifying.”

The taped conversations make up the meat of agent Jackson’s affidavit, which has landed Simels in trouble and has now brought together in one courtroom three of the most notable figures in the recent history of New York mobsters and the lawmen who pursued them.

Gleeson, who became a judge in 1994, has a glowing reputation in legal and law enforcement circles. Bruce Mouw, the former Gambino case supervisor for the FBI, says Gleeson was “one of the finest prosecutors I’ve ever worked with, a quality professional.”

Perhaps the strongest testimonial to Gleeson’s reputation as a mob-busting prosecutor came in 1992, when Gotti’s new lawyers sought to have Gleeson removed from the Gotti case because he had an “intense personal interest” in prosecuting the crime boss.

Shargel has tried a case before Gleeson, one with similarities to the Simels case. In the murder trial of Michael Burnett — a lifelong con man who was the driving force behind the graft scandal at the New York City Parking Violations Bureau that ensnared Friedman — Shargel defended attorney Howard Krantz, who was accused of supplying a hired killer with a gun used to kill a Staten Island bank teller who was set to testify against Burnett in a fraud trial. In the trial, Shargel categorized his client as a dupe, but Krantz was convicted.

Shargel is smooth enough, of course, to say he’s pleased that Gleeson is the trial judge on Simels’s case. “I have enormous respect for him,” Shargel says. “As a taxpayer, you get what you pay for with him. He’s a fair and intelligent judge.”

As for Simels? “He is willing to do things that lawyers shouldn’t do on behalf of their clients,” says a former prosecutor and adversary of Simels who declines to be named. “Some attorneys go beyond being advocates and become part of the organization, which is unfortunate because Simels is a competent lawyer, but he definitely crosses the line. I’ve seen enough of Bob Simels that it does not surprise me that his name has come up as someone who would be in this kind of trouble.”

Not so, says Shargel.

You almost have to think that Bob Simels would know better than to get himself into this kind of trouble. He began his career in the early ’70s in the New York State Special Prosecutor’s Office, where he worked on the prosecution of corruption cases involving links between the NYPD and organized crime.

Simels has told Pileggi that, upon entering private practice in the late ’70s, he had always wanted to be a mob lawyer, but because of his association with Hill, who was considered a “rat”, Italian gangsters sought to distance themselves from him.

Simels wound up representing drug kingpins who have become street legends, such as “Boy George” Rivera, who, by the time he was arrested at 21, according to the feds, had amassed some $15 million from his “Obsession” brand of heroin. In 1991, Rivera received a life sentence without parole.

Another of Simels’s clients, Thomas “Tony Montana” Mickens, was known for his profligate spending, acumen as a money launderer, and obsessive admiration for Al Pacino’s Scarface character. He is now serving a 35-year sentence.

Another of Simels’s clients was Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols, the Jamaica, Queens, drug gang leader now serving a life sentence on narcotics charges and an additional 40-year sentence for the 1985 murder of his parole officer. It was Nichols’s associate, Howard “Pappy” Mason, who was convicted in the murder of rookie police officer Edward Byrne, a killing that brought a new level of law enforcement scrutiny and public attention to the kingpins, and signaled the beginning of the end of their reign.

Of Simels’s kingpin clients, perhaps none is more notorious than Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, who, along with his violent “Supreme Team” drug gang, turned South Jamaica Queens’ Baisley housing projects into what is said to be one of the models for the Carter, the enormous crackhouse/storehouse in the movie New Jack City.

McGriff’s stature in southeast Queens — along with romanticized notions about his influence there — have made him a point of reference for many rappers. Indeed, it was 50 Cent’s detailed description of the Supreme Team organization’s machinations in his song “Ghetto Qu’ran” that, prevailing street wisdom has it, led to his being shot nine times during a 2000 attempt on his life.

In 2000, as 50 Cent sat in a friend’s car, another car pulled up alongside, and an alleged shooter Darryl ‘Hommo’ Baum let off nine shots from a 9mm handgun. 50 Cent was shot in the hand, arm, hip, both legs, chest and left cheek.

The shot through his cheek left him with a permanently swollen tongue. It also left him with a slur in his voice, which creates 50 Cent’s unique rapping voice. This is actually caused by a fragment of a bullet that is lodged to the inside of his mouth. His doctor decided to leave it there as it would potentially do more damage than help to remove it.

In 1989, under Simels’s counsel, McGriff pleaded guilty to drug charges and served the better part of eight years behind bars – he had been facing 150 years. In 2005, he was charged, along with Irv and Chris Gotti, née Lorenzo, with laundering Supreme Team drug money through the rap label Murder, Inc., which was headed by Irv Lorenzo.

Retired FBI agent Mark Johnston — who helped build cases against Mickens, Nichols, McGriff, and several of their associates — remembers Simels from those cases as a defense attorney who could come off as “crass and offensive”, was capable of offending judge and jury alike, and would fight tooth and nail to contest even the most minor procedural issue. “Even though a lot of this is a show,” says Johnston, “the defendant might think, ‘Hey, this guy is really willing to be a rebel and fight for me’, but all he’s doing is ticking everybody off, and, in the long run, that is not going to serve you well.”

The government unsealed a new indictment against Simels based on evidence found amid materials confiscated from Simels’s law office, which included “illegal electronic eavesdropping equipment, approximately $2,500 in cash, jewelry, a loaded firearm, and computers.” The prosecution clearly felt confident enough in the new evidence to risk the likely postponement of the trial, which is now scheduled for July — at which time Bob Simels’s tactics as a lawyer will get more public notice than he ever dreamed of.

A prominent Manhattan defense lawyer, Robert Simels, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for plotting to hurt witnesses testifying against his client in a drug case.

Simels was convicted of tampering with eight witnesses set to testify against his then-client Shaheed (Roger) Khan, a major cocaine trafficker from Guyana.

The foregoing was a 2009 essay.

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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On March 15, 2020 at 6:33 pm

    I tell y’all – this essay is like a movie script …. I would certainly pay to see it!!

    • kamtanblog  On March 16, 2020 at 3:33 am

      Reads Jonestown without religious
      aspect.
      Surprised the movie “Jonestown” not
      made yet !

    • Ken Persaud  On March 17, 2020 at 12:13 pm

      What some in the “legal circles” have expressed is an opinion, not facts.

      Simels was convicted on the basis of irrefutable evidence. And that is why he was sent to the Big Spring Correctional Institute. Moreover, he lost most of his cases. In short, he was not a good defender.

      You need to read the whole article to understand the full story, not only the very top.

      Ken

  • Trevor  On March 16, 2020 at 11:52 am

    Funny how the international community has forgotten the role that Bharrat Jagdeo and his PPP goons played in the role with Roger Khan.
    Roger Khan snitched that he was hired by the PPP to exterminate Afro-Guyanese on behalf of the Indo-Guyanese business community. Yet the PPP is being lauded as the beacon of democracy by the international community smh

  • Clyde Duncan  On March 16, 2020 at 10:14 pm

    Kamtan: Here is a movie for ya!!

    Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
    2006 ‧ Historical Documentary ‧ 1h 26m

  • Clyde Duncan  On March 16, 2020 at 10:16 pm

    Jonestown (2013)
    23-min | Short, Drama, History | November 2013 (USA)

    A thriller that dramatizes the last 24 hours in the lives of Jim Jones and The Peoples Temple Church through the eyes of a reporter.

    Director: David B. Berget
    Writers: Cherise Pascual (screenplay), David B. Berget (story) | 1 more credit »

  • Clyde Duncan  On March 17, 2020 at 1:13 am

    Trevor: You must have failed English comprehension ….

    The essay is about ….

    A Legendary local attorney Robert Simels who is being punished for representing some of New York’s most irredeemable gangsters – Kind of a what-goes-around-comes-around situation.

    And you had to run off in a tangent!!

    • Ken Persaud  On March 17, 2020 at 7:05 am

      Clyde Duncan asserts that the essay is about Robert Simels “being punished” for representing NY “irredeemable gangsters”. Wrong!

      It is ironic that you’d suggest that Trevor failed English comprehension when the essay is clearly about Simels being punished for witness tampering and not because he represented notorious gangsters.

      Yes, part of the essay is a synopsis of the small-time drug-man Roger Khan’s story. And you are correct that Trevor ran off on a tangent- irrelevancy. But the New York lawyer is in jail for his illegal conduct and not because of who he represented.

      Ken

  • Clyde Duncan  On March 17, 2020 at 11:36 am

    Ken Persaud: Now, go right back to the top of the essay – the opening paragraph may enlighten you …. BUT, who knows??

  • Clyde Duncan  On March 17, 2020 at 5:50 pm

    While some people may see this as an attempt to deliver a comeuppance to Bob Simels, you won’t see him showing up in Gleeson’s court as a meek supplicant. Nor will you see the prosecutors doing any pussyfooting.

    “THAT IS BASICALLY THE UNDERLYING STORY HERE,” says Nicholas Pileggi, author of Wiseguy, the book on Henry Hill that was adapted for Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas.

    “Simels takes great joy in being a criminal defense lawyer. He goes in there with his smirk and his expensive clothes and likes to piss off guys who make $80,000 a year.”

    Pileggi, who worked with Simels on both the book and the movie deal, adds: “The government hasn’t forgotten about the past, and they want to rap him on the knuckles. These are not the kind of people who leave the game at the ballpark.”

    As for Simels?

    For much of his career, ROBERT SIMELS WAS KNOWN AS AN AGGRESSIVE AND TALENTED PROSECUTOR, THEN CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAWYER WHO OFTEN WON.

    Today, in the biggest case of his life — his own — Simels mostly lost, though he did notch a small victory.

    “Simels is willing to do things that lawyers shouldn’t do on behalf of their clients,” says a former prosecutor and adversary of Simels who declines to be named.

    “Some attorneys go beyond being advocates and become part of the organization, which is unfortunate because SIMELS IS A COMPETENT LAWYER, but he definitely crosses the line. I’ve seen enough of Bob Simels that it does not surprise me that his name has come up as someone who would be in this kind of trouble.”

    Retired FBI agent Mark Johnston — who helped build cases against Mickens, Nichols, McGriff, and several of their associates — remembers Simels from those cases as a defense attorney who could come off as “crass and offensive”, was capable of offending judge and jury alike, and would fight tooth and nail to contest even the most minor procedural issue.

    “Even though a lot of this is a show,” says Johnston, “the defendant might think, ‘Hey, this guy is really willing to be a rebel and fight for me’, BUT ALL HE’S DOING IS TICKING EVERYBODY OFF, AND, IN THE LONG RUN, THAT IS NOT GOING TO SERVE YOU WELL.”

    I got the foregoing from the essay – the only thing I would add is that the first time I heard the name, “50 Cent” – I thought, “this guy must be one of us!”

    • Ken Persaud  On March 17, 2020 at 7:16 pm

      You do the crime, you do the time:

      In regards to the bad guys Robert Simels represented, he was a lousy lawyer. In other cases he fared much better.

      He was convicted primarily for his criminal behaviour- like removing witnesses from the face of the earth, obstruction of justice and bribery.

      He could have kept his smirk and reputation intact if he was smart. He obviously must not have read George Orwell’s 1984, that anything you do or say will be recorded.

      Ken

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