For years, criminal family clans have been playing around on the nose of the German authorities. A new process is now beginning in Cologne. The allegations weigh heavily: human trafficking, welfare fraud and theft. This is how the system works.

The bride price for 16-year-old Jelena was high: the Cologne clan of Michailovic (both names have been changed) is said to have paid the father 85,000 euros in 2016. The wedding celebration in Roma style with a scion of the tribe on the right bank of the Rhine is said to have cost another 40,000 euros. Apparently not too little for a “good thief” who works very professionally. With these words, the father is said to have offered his underage daughter to the buyer.

This is according to FOCUS-Online information in the indictment against five leaders of the Cologne Roma clan. It is about an internationally widespread extended family, which is said to have gone on a foray from the Rhine metropolis. The allegations range from the formation of a criminal organization, aggravated gang theft, large-scale benefit fraud, money laundering and human trafficking through the exploitation of a minor. The investigations in this case lead into a criminal shadowy world with archaic customs reminiscent of the Middle Ages.

During a raid in June 2020, investigators discovered a blank contract on marriage obligations on a family member’s cell phone. The one-page paper is divided into sections. In it, the seller confirms a corresponding payment for the daughter. Also, initially only a part of the sum flows. The rest happens when the intercourse is complete. In return, the buyer warns that the bride in the new household has to submit to and obey the rules. In addition, the daughter-in-law must still be a virgin.

The investigators are not sure whether this contract was set up for Jelena. From her point of view, however, the agreement fits the martyrdom that the young woman had to endure from then on. According to the indictment, the teenager should recoup the high purchase price for the Michailovic clan through thieving tours. Jelena is said to have been kept like a slave. When she gave birth to two children, the clan used the offspring as leverage against the young mother. When Jelena came home without much booty, there were said to have been beatings. The husband’s sisters threatened to cut off her hair, take her children and throw them out if she didn’t obey. The girl was never allowed to leave the white villa alone, according to the public prosecutor. Accordingly, Jelena was constantly monitored, and her mobile phone and Macedonian passport were confiscated.

A year after the marriage, the minor fled to her parents. A mob of clan members is said to have stormed their place of refuge and abducted the young woman back to the white villa. From then on, Jelena had to go on a thieving spree with other Cologne clan greats.

In dozens of cases, the gang plundered elderly residents of retirement homes between Munich and Hamburg. Even today, many victims suffer from the psychological consequences. The scam was always the same: the gang rattled through the dormitories for days, lured the elderly outside, distracted them while accomplices cleared out the apartments. In December 2019 alone, gold jewelery worth 40,000 euros was stolen from a pensioner in Lüneburg. Jelena had to give her booty to her husband’s clan. The mother of two seems to have been the perpetrator and the victim at the same time. In a first trial, she and five other accomplices were sentenced to three years in prison for aggravated gang theft.

The case shows once again how criminal family syndicates operate in the Rhineland. Large scale robbery, racketeering, money laundering, property crime and welfare fraud. The modus operandi is always the same, only the names are interchangeable. For decades, Kurdish-Lebanese clans such as the Al Zeins or the extended Roma family Gomann went about their illegal business from Leverkusen unhindered. According to the investigators, the Michailovic clan from Cologne is part of a network of families from the Balkans who went on nationwide thieving tours and ripped off the job center. According to the investigating prosecutor, the clan lived a canon of values ​​that is said to have been designed for criminal offenses and an internal penal code in the event of misconduct. According to the indictment, the legal understanding of the defendants “was characterized by a rejection … of the German legal system …”. For the family members, “non-Roma” were therefore considered the enemy.

A main actor is said to have ripped off pensioners with dementia. Between May and September 2019, she steered a wealthy widower to his bank several times and had him withdraw four-digit sums. The defendant is said to have collected a good 30,000 euros. According to the prosecutors, she declared the income as donations through forged letters from her patron.

Furthermore, the extended family is said to have cheated the welfare state for years. In any case, the transfers from the city of Cologne and the employment agency were always received on time. The rent subsidies and other assistance were between 274 and 820 euros per month. All social benefits, a total of 109,670 euros, were wrongly received, according to the indictment. The family is said to have partly used the money to service the loan for their Cologne property, which they bought 13 years ago for 280,000 euros. In addition, the property was elaborately prepared with marble inside and a garden house outside.

Nobody noticed the dizziness. With simple tricks, the clan glued the state authorities. For example, the daughter of the clan chief apparently issued rental contracts from clan members, which were then submitted to the job center, according to official documents. And already it was paid, for up to eleven years. Nobody checked on the spot. Surely the scam would have come out.

Especially since the family openly flaunted their status. The supposedly needy clan boss from Serbia roared around in either a Porsche Cayenne or a Porsche Panamera. Then his wife boasted in tapped phone calls that Porsche was the only option for her. The clan boss is said to have made 87,000 euros with pawn shops, which he did not tell the authorities. During the raid in June 2020, the investigators also confiscated expensive Rolex watches worth 14,700 euros, almost 17,000 euros in cash were hidden in a sock and in the children’s room the youngest daughter of the family was sucking on a pacifier with a chain made of real gold.

Pure luxury, and that under the eyes of the social authorities. How is that possible? According to the Cologne authorities, no information can be given on individual cases and ongoing proceedings for reasons of data protection law. Fraud in social benefits is “not the norm”, emphasized Martina Würker, Managing Director of the Cologne Job Center: “But if we have a suspicion, we clarify it and pursue fraud consistently. It is important to us to get back money that was wrongly paid.”

The city of Cologne added: The first-time granting of social assistance was “always based on the four-eyes principle”. This “ensures that all individually relevant requirements are correctly taken into account,” said a city spokeswoman. There are also random checks. In addition, the “needs assessment service” of the social welfare office can also carry out home visits in individual cases. In the current year, “13 cases of suspected abuse of benefits have been identified,” the spokeswoman said. 13 cases out of more than 27,000 people collecting welfare. According to the information, a good 214 million euros were paid out last year alone.

The control mechanisms did not work for the extended Michailovic family in Cologne. Just as little as in the case of the Kurdish-Lebanese clan Al Zein in Leverkusen. The accused boss only recently confessed in his trial that the family villa in the Rheindorf district had been paid for by the municipal job center. The Leverkusen clan leader Michel Goman and his wife and children also received six-figure state support while he converted his apartment into a luxury apartment and ripped off people with other family members through fraud. At the same time, he bought real estate worth millions through straw men and drove expensive sports cars.

In the large-scale complex against at least 70 mostly Syrian refugees who had set up an illegal hawala banking system, the two bosses from Düsseldorf are said to have shifted a good 120 million euros to Turkey and further into the Middle East. Some of the money came from criminal sources and was raised on the Bosporus by appropriate recipients.

The big Hawaladars sometimes raked in two million euros a year. And yet they gladly took the government support with them. Since 2016, one of the two bosses is said to have cheated the job center by 138,000 euros, and he also received almost 1,600 euros in child benefit for his six offspring. Even the school meals were financed by the public purse. If the investigators for organized crime (OC) hadn’t gotten on the trail of the financial smugglers, the rip-off by the social security authorities would have continued today.

A look at the case rate in NRW confirms the misery. According to the Ministry of the Interior, the numbers have fallen from a good 3,300 procedures in 2016 to almost 2,100 last year. Oliver Huth, head of the Association of German Criminal Investigators (BDK) in North Rhine-Westphalia, assumes that the number of unreported cases is significantly higher, especially in the OK area. “Unfortunately, it often happens that on the one hand there are criminal family structures in which all conceivable crimes are committed because the rule of law is not accepted.” On the other hand, however, the welfare state is “then exploited and unjustly cashed in”. The fact that the job centers or the social welfare office do not always look closely in such cases is “unfortunately a virulent issue”.

Huth cites several reasons. On the one hand, there is often no staff available to make a home visit, for example. Occasionally, however, there is also a lack of awareness of the problem. “The responsible offices see themselves simply as a kind of approval authority, they are not interested in uncovering fraud.” In the ongoing lawsuit against members of the Al-Zein clan in Düsseldorf, for example, it turned out “that grotesquely, applications were even approved, although the papers didn’t even have a signature”.

The detective emphasizes that data protection and the social secrecy that applies in Germany are playing into the hands of the perpetrators. For example, the social welfare office occasionally pays child benefit, although the school authority knows that these children are not registered in any school. “But if the data were networked, it would quickly become clear that the subsidized children do not actually live in Germany,” says Huth.

The police only receive information about social assistance benefits for suspects “if we request it from the public prosecutor’s office, i.e. we can already substantiate a corresponding suspicion of fraud”. Ultimately, the organized swindle also brings “the people who are entitled to the support into disrepute,” Huth annoyed: “In the end, we have a huge problem with legal peace and the acceptance of democracy if the state doesn’t work at this point.”

In the fight against organized social benefit fraud, the State Criminal Police Office of North Rhine-Westphalia has developed the “MISSIMO” model. The project aims in particular to shed light on the abuse of child benefit by immigrants from south-eastern European EU countries.

In this way, a Romanian gang was broken up in Wuppertal, who received allowances for 96 children, even though they did not live in Germany. In April 2022, the district court of Cologne sentenced a Roma connection from Romania to tax evasion and the unlawful receipt of child benefit. In total, the perpetrators stole more than 700,000 euros using forged registration papers.

The trial of the accused from the Michailovic clan is still pending. The suspects have long since been released from custody. Her lawyers declined to comment on the request. After a lengthy legal hiccup before the social courts and its own calculation errors, according to the public prosecutor’s office, the job center was only awarded a fraction of the Hartz IV benefits it had stolen. The accused are now living again in the villa sponsored by the job center on the right bank of the Rhine. The prosecutors have entered a prohibition on sale in the land register. In the meantime, according to estimates, the value of the property has tripled to a good 600,000 euros. Since installments are still due and social benefits have been canceled, the question arises as to what the family currently lives on? Nobody knows.