By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
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.
The photos taken by sheriff's deputies on August 9, 1995, are startling in their detail: A young man is sprawled across the front seat of his 13-year-old Mercedes, his corduroys and bare chest covered with blood.
Other than the blood, Fehmi's car is spotless in the photos. Cans of Lysol line the car door's map pouch; a pine-shaped air freshener dangles from the rearview mirror.
Meanwhile, Danaj's cottage down the street was a mess. Danaj had no running water, so the photos show a porch with plastic jugs of water, soap and a razor. Bullet shells litter the porch floor; neighbors told deputies they often heard gunshots from the cottage.
Inside, old magazines, clothes and crayons are piled carelessly. There's no stove or refrigerator, just a karaoke machine. When Fehmi arrived that day, Danaj was eating lunch; the photos show peppers in an electric skillet, balanced carefully on a cardboard box in front of the TV.
Danaj insists Fehmi came into his cottage and attacked him, and he shot in self-defense. But, as even the sheriff's report notes, the pictures show no signs of a struggle. "If they fought," Lisa asks plaintively, "why wouldn't things be knocked over?"
In a case where emotions overshadow hard evidence, speculation has been rampant. The Halilis are convinced that Fehmi came to Bacliff to confront Danaj about something Danaj wanted to keep quiet. Misho Ivic, who gave Johnny his first job oystering, suggests Danaj may have made rude comments about a family friend. More than anything, he says, Danaj resented the Halilis. "The problem is, they came from the same area. One succeeds, one doesn't. The one that doesn't hates the other really bad."
The story in the sheriff's reports seems far from complete. Fehmi spent the morning at a dry dock with another Prestige employee, 46-year-old Avdiraim Hisenaj, fiberglassing a boat.
Just before 1 p.m., the two men headed to Skinneroo's restaurant in Bacliff, one block from Danaj's cottage. They were supposed to meet Fehmi's dad and brother. Instead, they called Danaj to say they were coming over.
Neighbors reported hearing Hisenaj and Fehmi arguing in a foreign language outside the cottage. Later they heard a gunshot, a pause and another shot. Then a neighbor witnessed Fehmi's car careen down the street, driverless, with Hisenaj chasing behind and shouting, "He's been shot!"
The car rolled into a ditch. Fehmi's body had fallen across the front seat. His chest was spurting blood.
At 1:12, Danaj called 911. He was very upset, the dispatcher reported. "Vehicle in the ditch, kill, kill," her notes record him saying.
When Galveston County sheriff's deputies arrived, Danaj told them Fehmi showed up and began "boxing" him. Danaj said he "boxed Fehmi for a little bit and then shot him."
Because Danaj's English was limited, it's unclear if he actually meant there was fighting instead of boxing. But no neighbors had seen a physical altercation. While Danaj displayed a few razor-thin cuts on his forearm and a line of blood dripping from one ear, there were no signs of a serious beating.
And despite the neighbors' testimony about what they heard, he insisted he'd shot only once. Danaj owned two guns, a revolver and a semiautomatic, and both had been fired, according to the sheriff's report. The bullet that killed Fehmi matched Danaj's semiautomatic.
However, deputies also found a gun in Fehmi's pants pocket. There was no indication he'd even displayed it that day, although Danaj claimed he'd grabbed his gun because he saw Fehmi's first. (Fehmi was carrying more than $1,000 cash at the time; relatives say he had the gun for protection.)
Fehmi's companion, Hisenaj, hardly cleared up the confusion. He claimed that Fehmi had dropped him at the restaurant and he had no idea what happened. Hisenaj had an arrest record for domestic disputes and driving under the influence, and the deputies concluded he was lying, according to reports.
But instead of pushing harder, the deputies let him go. And instead of arresting Danaj or taking him in for further questioning, they let him go, too.
A week later, Hisenaj returned with a lawyer. He said he'd lied because he was afraid.
Then he told a different story: Fehmi had wanted to pay Danaj, but Danaj pulled Fehmi onto the porch and beat him. Danaj took out his gun, Fehmi put his hands up and they walked into the house. There was a gunshot. Fehmi ran out, spitting blood. Danaj fired a second shot as Fehmi staggered into his car and tried to drive away.
Parts of the story still didn't compute. Hisenaj couldn't explain why he'd been arguing with Fehmi shortly before the gunshots, as witnesses had reported; he said they hadn't talked. And he had no explanation for Danaj's attack.
However, his statement was damning. He was an eyewitness, and he'd identified Danaj as the aggressor, contradicting the self-defense claim.
But Danaj was already gone. When the deputies let him go after the shooting, he cleaned out his bank account and fled Texas. By the time Hisenaj gave his statement, Danaj was frantically driving east.
On the Saturday after the murder, Galveston County sheriff's officers received a call from their counterparts in Chesapeake, Maryland. A deputy there explained that they'd stopped a car with expired Texas plates and a shattered windshield. The driver, Haki Danaj, professed to speak little English, but a search of his car found $3,000 cash -- and a business card for the sheriff in Galveston.
Under questioning, Danaj claimed the Halilis were chasing him. He said he was planning to flee to Greece.
Maryland deputies were concerned enough to call Galveston. But the deputies manning the Galveston office didn't seem to know what to do. They knew Danaj had been instructed to contact investigators for another interview. But Danaj told the Maryland deputies that he'd return to Galveston County when called; he just wanted to go to Greece first.
(Galveston County Sheriff Gean Leonard did not return repeated calls for comment.)
The deputies were stymied. So they called Assistant District Attorney Susan Criss, according to their report. She checked the database and said no charges were pending against Danaj; he was free to go.
The deputies reminded Danaj to phone them on Monday. He assured them that he would.
When Monday came, Danaj didn't call. When the grand jury issued its summons, he didn't answer. Instead, Danaj did just as he'd said.
He fled the country.
Fehmi Halili's father accompanied his son's body on its final trip back to their native land. The elder Halili had arrived in Texas a few years before Fehmi, intent on becoming a U.S. citizen. After his youngest son was killed, the man seemed to crumble. "I just want to take my boy home," he said. He left that summer to bury Fehmi in Kosovo; since then, he's returned to the States only for brief visits. "He just couldn't believe what had happened," Lisa says.
Meanwhile, Johnny and Lisa continued to push the district attorney for action. In 1996, 15 months after the shooting, the grand jury returned a murder indictment. The sheriff finally issued a warrant for Danaj's arrest.
No one expected Danaj to turn himself in. But in 2002, seven years and three months after killing Fehmi, Danaj arrived at Newark's Liberty International Airport. He was promptly arrested and transferred to Galveston County, where trial was set for March 2004.
However, District Attorney Kurt Sistrunk had another trial to attend to first: that of cross-dressing real estate heir Robert Durst. In a case that attracted national attention, Durst was accused of shooting his neighbor, chopping up the body and dumping the remains in Galveston Bay.
Sistrunk had been a prosecutor for 13 years, but he'd just been elected district attorney in January 2003. He decided to try the Durst case personally, squaring off against three of Houston's top defense attorneys.
While Durst admitted to the shooting and dismembering, his lawyers argued that it didn't matter because Durst had fired in self-defense. The jurors agreed, and Durst was acquitted.
National media commentators criticized Sistrunk for failing to give jurors the option to convict on a lesser charge, such as manslaughter. ABC legal analyst Cynthia McFadden noted, "The prosecution had plenty of time to come up with a consistent story. I don't think they did."
Four months later, Sistrunk was set to try the Danaj case. "I got the same judge, the same courtroom and the same district attorney," says Lisa Halili. "And he gets cold feet on me."
On the Friday before the trial was to start, Sistrunk called Lisa. He explained that he'd struck a deal with Danaj's court-appointed attorney, Winifred Webber. Danaj would plead guilty -- to a misdemeanor. (Webber did not return repeated calls for comment.)
"A misdemeanor?" Lisa was stunned. "You're going to put a murderer on the street?" Sistrunk assured her that the conviction would be enough to get Danaj deported. Lisa angrily told him it wasn't enough for the family.
Sistrunk called back later that day to tell her the deal had been toughened; Danaj would plead guilty to manslaughter, meaning he'd admit to "recklessly" causing Halili's death. Lisa begged him to go to trial on the charge of murder, which required showing he'd "intentionally or knowingly" killed her brother-in-law. "We were on the phone for three hours with me trying to build his confidence," she says.
On the following Monday, a pack of Halilis and their supporters showed up in court. They waited all morning, then while the group was having lunch, Sistrunk called Lisa's cell phone. He told her to get back to the courthouse. The deal was set: Haki would plead guilty to manslaughter. A second-degree felony, manslaughter can carry up to 20 years in prison. But Sistrunk had agreed to recommend the minimum term, two years.
If the judge signed off on the deal, Danaj had enough credit for time served to ensure he'd be a free man by summer.
Sistrunk had told Lisa she'd get to make a victim impact statement in court. She knew it was her last chance; she prayed it would be enough to convince the judge to reject the deal.
Susan Criss had come a long way since that phone call from Maryland authorities in 1995, when as an assistant district attorney she'd given the okay for Danaj's release. Now she was the state district judge presiding in his murder case.
Under questioning from Sistrunk in court, Danaj said he knew he could face up to 20 years in prison by pleading guilty to manslaughter. He knew he could be deported, too.
Judge Criss asked the district attorney about the victim's relatives. "The family has asked that the state address this case in a different manner and that they have their day in court, your honor," Sistrunk replied. "But the state has chosen to proceed with the plea in the interest of justice."
Sistrunk outlined what he called "uncontested" facts. They were almost entirely from the defendant's perspective: Fehmi and Danaj started fighting; Fehmi pulled a gun; Danaj told him to stop but Fehmi refused. "They are one or two feet away from each other, at which time the defendant shoots" Fehmi.
Hearing that, Criss noted that Sistrunk clearly had "a lot of concerns" about the case. "But I'm not sure I understand whether or not you believe the evidence indicates he's guilty of manslaughter or the evidence indicates he did this act in self-defense?"
Sistrunk said he thought the evidence warranted a conviction, just not on a murder charge. "We believe the evidence truly supports a reckless act on the part of the defendant. Nothing less."
He never mentioned that Danaj had fired a second shot. Or that no one heard him try to stop the fight or call for help -- and that, in fact, Fehmi's companion claimed he'd seen Danaj grab Fehmi.
Criss agreed to the sentence recommended by the prosecutor: two years in prison.
By the time the judge inquired if the family wanted to make a statement, it was too late. Lisa Halili was almost reeling when she approached the judge's bench, choking back tears.
"I'm really totally confused," she said. "What I had been told was I could come up here and beg for the mercy of the court. We waited nine years to have our day in court. They told us to let the system work, and it works. But there is evidence here to support a murder charge!"
Judge Criss tried to explain the law over Lisa's sobs. "If the D.A. wants to make an offer," the judge said quietly, "the family cannot override that."
"So what I'm saying is not going to change a single thing?" Lisa cried. "We've lost our day in court?"
Johnny Halili beckoned his wife, his face expressionless. "Lisa, let's go home."
Criss explained, again, that Lisa could tell Danaj how his actions had hurt her family. But that was it.
"What can I say to a murderer except, 'You beat the system!' " Lisa cried. " 'You get to go home!'
"If it's my last dying breath, someone is going to hear me. This is the biggest injustice I have seen in my life." Then she turned to Judge Criss. "It shouldn't be two people's decision -- it should be a jury of 12. I can't live with that. Maybe y'all can live with that, but I can't!"
Johnny Halili stepped toward his wife. "Lisa," he said, "let's go home."
Sistrunk admits that his main goal in the plea bargain was to secure a conviction. That alone, he thought, would be enough to get Danaj deported.
He was wrong. The facts of the case seem to indicate that Danaj should be deported, says Luisa Aquino, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But it would take a conviction on a crime of "moral turpitude" to do so, she explains. Murder fits that legal description; manslaughter does not. "We had to let him go."
Without any immigration orders to hold him, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had no choice but to parole Danaj on March 29, says spokesman Mike Viesca. Thanks to credits for time served and good behavior, it was less than a month after his guilty plea.
He was supposed to report to a halfway house; instead police found him hanging around an elementary school not far from San Leon. His parole was revoked, and he was returned to prison.
By July 9, Danaj will have served his full sentence. The state has no choice but to make him a free man, Viesca says.
Sistrunk says he was unaware of the parole date. Before trial, immigration authorities told his assistant that a manslaughter conviction was enough to deport Danaj, Sistrunk says. Now the immigration agency says it needed twomanslaughter convictions, he says.
" 'Disgusted' is a kind word for how we felt," Sistrunk admits.
After Danaj's sentencing, the usually gregarious Johnny Halili had no desire to talk to people or tend to business. He retreated into a world of regrets, blaming himself for bringing his brother to this country and ultimately his death. "Sometimes I wish I was never here," he admits.
Lisa became an activist. She contacted the U.S. Attorney's Office to see if Danaj could be charged for using an unlicensed firearm. She lobbied her congressman for action and convinced the state attorney general to investigate.
Ultimately, Texas law seemed to provide her best option. The law specifically bars victims' families from appealing a sentence. But a judge is required to ask if a written victim impact statement has been given to the district attorney -- before accepting a plea. If so, the judge is required to ask for a copy of the statement.
While Criss inquired about the family's feelings, she never asked about the statement in court. Nor did Sistrunk provide one. The judge says she asked the D.A. about a statement in her chambers but was told the family hadn't written one.
In fact, the Halilis say they didn't receive the forms for a statement until after the sentencing. Their attorney had written Sistrunk three months before sentencing, saying they wanted to "exercise all rights" available to them. They never got information about a written statement.
Amy Wright, executive director of the Women's Advocacy Project in Austin, says a victim or close relatives have the right to be informed about the statements. And they have the right for their statements to be considered by the prosecutor and judge prior to accepting a plea bargain. "It's dead on. This is not something that's subject to debate."
Records show that one of the Halili brothers was given the forms in 1996, Sistrunk says. But he admits there is no record of anyone broaching the matter in the eight years that followed, until March 4, 2004 -- three days after the sentencing.
"It was an assumption on my part that things existed, and they didn't," Sistrunk says. "In haste, the plea agreement was done without them submitting it. We followed up as soon as we could."
That wasn't enough for Lisa. She persuaded Houston attorney Rick Martini, Prestige's maritime lawyer, to appeal the sentence. Without a victim impact statement, she argued, the sentence was illegal.
In May, the National Crime Victims Law Institute in Portland agreed to assist Martini's efforts. Institute attorney Kim Montagriff says that if the impact statement law wasn't followed, Danaj's punishment could be overturned and a new sentencing ordered.
"Granted, nothing may change," Montagriff says. "But the victim is entitled to at least have the proper procedure followed."
With the institute's help, Martini filed a brief making a case for a new sentencing. To the surprise of everyone, except Lisa Halili, Judge Criss set an early-July hearing to listen to the lawyer's arguments and hear Sistrunk's rebuttal. Lisa hired a former Harris County prosecutor, Chuck Stanfield, to argue the family's case.
The possibilities thrilled victims' advocates.
Dianne Clements, executive director of Justice For All in Houston, knows of no case where a judge has overturned sentencing because impact statement laws weren't followed. She was thrilled when Judge Criss agreed to hear arguments on the issue because it could set a precedent, Clements says. "If nothing else, I guarantee the D.A. will make sure from now on that they've given the victim a chance to make a statement. And the judge will never accept a plea without finding out if he's done that."
Criss admitted that she's never heard of a judge conducting a sentencing hearing a second time because of a missing victim's impact statement. She knows what the Halilis really want is a different sentence, one that would keep Danaj in prison.
"I don't think what they want is allowed," she said. "But I've given them the opportunity to show me that it is."
Lisa and Johnny Halili knew the hearing was their last chance. They needed to believe that, however remote, there was the possibility of a new, tougher sentence.
But last Thursday, one day before the scheduled July 2 hearing, their anticipation collapsed into bitterness. That afternoon, Sistrunk played his legal ace. Because the family had also appealed to the state's 14th Court of Appeals, he argued, Criss had no jurisdiction over their complaint. He asked that appellate court for an emergency order to stop the hearing.
The court agreed.
The Halilis were stunned. Without the hearing, Danaj would be released from jail in one week.
Stanfield says he's searching for a way to intervene before then. The law is tricky, he says: Texas clearly provides victims with certain rights, but it doesn't spell out how to remedy violations of the law. "We're trying to address that issue," he says. "We do have some ideas."
The Halilis' quest looks ever more desperate. They're not just battling Danaj; despite Sistrunk's admission that he messed up, the district attorney's office has shown itself willing to fight. And time is on his side.
Danaj has already been released so many times. On the day of the shooting. A week later, when he was in Maryland, intent on fleeing the country. Finally, almost a decade later, when he was paroled instead of deported after less than two years in prison.
This week, despite the best efforts of the Halili family, he's set to be released one more time. And this time, barring a miracle for the Halilis, he'll walk free for good.