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By Sean Pendergast
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They were an unlikely success story. An immigrant from communist Yugoslavia, he had no money, little English and a lowly job as a deckhand on an oyster boat. She was native of East Texas, waiting tables at Sambo's in Nassau Bay.
They met at the restaurant in the late '80s. By the time he borrowed $12,000 to buy a boat of his own, they were dating and she'd signed on as his deckhand.
"It was just me and him and this little bitty shrimp boat," Lisa Halili says. "And I'd never seen a boat in my life. But both of us were very ambitious."
Today Johnny and Lisa Halili own Prestige Oyster, the largest wholesale oyster company in Galveston Bay. They have 70 employees and about 400 contractors.
The country girl, now 43, wears a wedding ring encrusted with diamonds, drives a shiny black Mercedes-Benz SUV and supervises construction of a grand house overlooking the bay in San Leon, to replace the slightly less grand one next door. Her husband, nine years older, has welcomed a fleet of fellow immigrants: many of them relatives, including Johnny's younger brother Fehmi, who arrived from Europe in 1991 and quickly became the company's vice president.
Another immigrant worker was Haki Danaj, who came to the United States in the late '80s and began sorting oysters on the Halilis' boats. Muscle-bound and gruff, with a noticeable lack of personal hygiene, he was nicknamed Porko by his co-workers. "Nobody could stand the guy, but I didn't have the heart to fire him," says Johnny.
Johnny claims he immediately had a bad feeling about Danaj, but ethnic ties trumped his concerns. The Halilis, like many natives of the Yugoslavian province of Kosovo, are Albanian. So is Danaj. Without friends or family in Texas, he became their frequent guest on holidays.
Fehmi had pestered his brother Johnny and Lisa to take some time off and visit the family back in Europe. He assured them he could run the business while they were gone.
In the summer of 1995, the couple finally acquiesced. The trip was wonderful. But as they were making the return flight to the States on August 9, Danaj shot Fehmi point-blank in the chest. He died that day.
The shooting changed everything for Johnny and Lisa, and their ordeal only worsened in the nine years that followed. Galveston County sheriff's deputies let Danaj slip through their hands, not once but twice. The district attorney cut a deal, and the judge okayed it. Finally, immigration laws gave Danaj a near-total reprieve.
"This is the worst thing that can happen to somebody," Johnny says. "It can ruin your life."
Sitting on their porch, looking out on the whitecapped bay, Lisa is talking about Fehmi and tearing up. Even Johnny's eyes are red. A big man who exudes rough-hewn charm, he can't stop toying with the pile of Marlboro Light butts in the tray before him. A year and a half after he stopped smoking, he is lighting up again.
When Johnny left Kosovo in 1976, Fehmi was a toddler. Seventeen years passed before Johnny returned, showing off his bride and telling of his great success in America. His little brother, then 22, was a stranger.
Fehmi's cheerful disposition warmed the couple almost immediately, Johnny remembers. "Everybody talks good about their brothers, but he was the best kid you ever met." Within the year, the Halilis were making plans for Fehmi to join them in San Leon.
By the time 23-year-old Fehmi arrived in the States in 1991, the situation in Yugoslavia had turned ugly. Slobodan Milosevic had taken over the country. As a Serb, Milosevic was angry that Kosovo -- a province that Serbs considered the country's birthplace -- was dominated by ethnic Albanians like the Halilis. He'd stripped Kosovo of its autonomy and sent in soldiers to crush the resistance.
Sadik "Alex" Bunjaku, a cousin who'd arrived in Texas a few years earlier, remembers Fehmi's culture shock at his new land. "But it was a positive shock. The freedom, that was big. He loved this place."
Fehmi was famous for his practical jokes; at birthday parties, he couldn't resist shoving cake in the faces of the honorees. "We all learned to duck," Lisa says, laughing.
With his European accent and chivalrous manners, he quickly became a favorite among the old ladies who came to the company's retail outlet, Johnny's Oyster & Shrimp. "He couldn't get anything done because he'd be listening to their life stories," Lisa says.
By the summer of 1995, Fehmi had been made Prestige's vice president. He'd also fallen in love with an employee, a beautiful Mexican immigrant named Temo. "He was writing some poetry, drawing some little pictures," his then-roommate Bunjaku says. "He was very much in love." Bunjaku, amused by their sappiness, remembers seeing Fehmi scribble love birds on napkins.
When Johnny and Lisa called from their vacation in Europe that summer, Fehmi reported that business was great -- and that he had a special surprise for them when they returned.
When they returned, Temo explained the surprise: She and Fehmi had become engaged. By that time, Fehmi was dead.