Shady Atlanta Luxury Car Dealers and Russian Gangster Linked to Local Businesses

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Mani Chulpayev
The two men took turns waling on Jeffrey Worstell. A gold chain danced against the skinny one's white tank top as he beat the 29-year-old mechanic senseless with a nickel-plated .357 Smith & Wesson. When the skinny guy needed a breather, his partner -- a hefty six-foot man in a sloppy white shirt and jeans -- added some shots with an aluminum bat.

They traded weapons, attacked, and traded again. Worstell, bruised and bloody, crumpled in the grass on the side of the road in Boca Raton. The skinny guy pressed the gun to Worstell's head, motioning him toward the popped trunk of a green 1995 Infinity J30. Worstell grappled with his attacker. Then a pain exploded on the right side of his head.

Blinking awake from unconsciousness minutes later, Worstell realized he was locked in the trunk of a moving car. A Miley Cyrus song leaked in from nearby traffic. As the Atlanta-based mechanic would later tell police, all he could do was pound against the inside of the trunk, desperate that an outsider might hear.

The June 2011 assault would initially be characterized as a random act of violence against an out-of-towner. But the incident turned out to be just one thread in a scheme much larger and more sordid.

Worstell would be tied to a web of sketchy auto dealers who dealt in used and sometimes stolen luxury cars and bounced between South Florida and Atlanta. Currently, the entire crew is being investigated by the Secret Service, and one of them is awaiting trial for murdering a rapper. The whole tale is proof positive of a Florida maxim: Colorful hustlers from elsewhere inevitably drip down south.

Mani Chulpayev arrived in New York City from Russia in 1989 at age 12. The family settled in Queens, where his father owned food carts. The younger Chulpayev ducked straight work, instead forming an extortion crew with six fellow countrymen. They squeezed $500 weekly tributes from small-store owners, keeping business coming with threats of violence and arson. Chulpayev also worked Medicaid fraud schemes and pimped out prostitutes.

By 1998, he was indicted on a host of charges, including arson, interference of commerce through threat of violence, and racketeering. He rolled. Conversations recorded on a wire he wore helped the government stop Russian crews from organizing into an Italian Mafia-style collective across the Northeast. For four years, the stocky and hard-faced Chulpayev climbed witness stands, eventually helping convict a dozen former associates. In 2002, the New York Times dubbed him "one of the most important cooperating witnesses in the history of the government's battle against Russian organized crime." His cooperation cut his potential life sentence down to just four years.

By the mid-2000s, Chulpayev had served his time and relocated to Atlanta, where he sold luxury cars such as Escalades and Hummers. But in 2005, he was busted, with four others, by federal agents. The group's business had hinged on acquiring stolen cars, altering the VIN numbers, and matching them with counterfeit titles from Wisconsin and Ohio in order to resell the stolen goods.

Facing up to six years in prison, Chulpayev again cooperated with authorities. He turned over other members of his car ring and helped police in a South Carolina murder-for-hire case. This time, his service earned Chulpayev a two-and-a-half-year sentence. He returned to the Atlanta luxury car business upon his release.

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