It was a sunny spring day in May 2004 when Carlos Fortier, a hit man dressed all in black, hurried up Sixth Avenue toward his intended target, his hand clutching a Colt .45 semiautomatic. He knew what he had to do.
His eyes locked on Eduard Nektalov, a prominent Diamond District dealer, who had just left his Roman Jewelers shop and was going to pick up his $300,000 Bentley from a Rockefeller Center garage, presumably to head back to his Queens neighborhood. Nektalov, 46, was known there as a patrician figure in the Bukharan Jewish community of Rego Park and Forest Hills, a leader people relied on for advice.
Just two blocks from Radio City Music Hall amid a scene packed with a rush-hour workers and shoppers, Fortier, then 35, pulled his gun and walked straight up behind Netkalov. Raising the pistol, he pumped a single bullet into the back of the jeweler’s head. Netkalov collapsed on his face in front of a Gap store. Fortier blasted two more bullets into his back, leaning in to make sure the job was done, then turned and headed down Sixth Avenue in the direction he came, tucking the weapon into the front waistband of his black jeans.
I was across the street when I heard the shots — “Boom, boom, boom.” Then I saw the killer, strolling the avenue as if he hadn’t a care in the world. A security guard for Fox News, based across the street, crossed in front of me, drawing his own weapon, a Glock, which he held by his knee. I followed them both, watching from the west side of Sixth. One block south, Fortier apparently sensed he was being tracked. He spun and pointed his .45 at the guard, retired NYPD Lt. John Doherty, who quickly scurried out of the line of fire.
After a brief standoff with no gunfire, Fortier put the weapon back in his pants and walked off. I crossed the street, intending to tail the gunman farther, but lost him. The Post’s coverage, dubbed “Murder on 6th,” won a New York Press Club award. It featured a story in which I was quoted as a witness, along with my firsthand account.
One bizarre element was the presence of actresses Candice Bergen and Lorraine Bracco, who had been nearby in a squad car as part of the NYPD’s Commander for a Day program, which allows luminaries to shadow cops on patrol. The two stars arrived within a couple of minutes of the shooting. “What’s with the celebs?” I asked an NYPD deputy commissioner I knew. I saw Bergen standing next to Nektalov’s body. She commented that it was the first time she had seen brain matter.
The motive for the hit remained unclear until 13 years later, when prosecutors filed murder–conspiracy charges against the plot’s mastermind. The trial began two weeks ago in Manhattan federal court, and I was a witness for the prosecution, taking the stand, helping prosecutors from the US Attorney’s Office make their case.
The proceedings revealed a secret of the Diamond District — that this industry, which purportedly handles 90 percent of all diamond transactions in the United States and is run by Orthodox and observant Jews, had its own godfather, a ruthless Hispanic gangster named Hector Rivera, who used violence and intimidation to dominate 47th Street.
Aided by a hardened crew of criminal cohorts, the gangster acted as a “sort of underworld boss” who helped merchants collect debts and resolve disputes but also parlayed his inside information to rob them, according to prosecutor Scott Hartman.
In Rivera’s heyday, he was as portly as Marlon Brando in “The Godfather,” but in court, dressed in a dark suit and white open-collar shirt, he had shrunk considerably. Still, Rivera cast a long shadow.
After I testified on Monday, Nov. 13, I discovered details about the slaying back in 2004. It was originally thought that Fortier, a convicted killer with AIDS, got paid to rub out Nektalov, possibly because the victim, himself facing jail after having been indicted on money-laundering charges, was rumored to be cooperating with the feds. Could Nektalov have run afoul of Colombian drug dealers, who used 47th Street gem traders to hide their profits through gold purchases?
He never told who hired him. The case went cold. But now Rivera, 65 and bald, sat quietly in the courtroom as he heard testimony against him. He looked like an insurance salesman.
Making eye contact with Rivera, I told a crowded courtroom my tale: how I’d seen Fortier with the gun in his pants and the ex-cop who followed him and the standoff. I stood up and demonstrated how Fortier held the weapon he pointed at Doherty with both hands, his feet spread as if he were at a firing range. And that I took off after him.
“Why did you do that?” prosecutor Jordan Estes asked.
“I’m a reporter,” I replied. “It was probably not the smartest move I’ve ever made in my life, but I just decided I wanted to follow him to see what he did.”
Hartman laid out the government’s case in his opening statement, describing how the Diamond District runs “mostly on reputation and handshakes, and unfortunately that creates many opportunities for fraud and exploitation.” It turned out that Rivera, a Vietnam vet from The Bronx with a long and colorful rap sheet, used beatings and even a kidnapping to keep people quiet. He was a feared character one should not cross.
That was Eduard Nektalov’s fatal mistake.
One of Rivera’s henchmen, it turned out, paid some Colombians $80,000 for ripped-off diamond earrings, then tried to sell them to Nektalov, who realized then and there that the earrings had been stolen from himself. Not surprisingly, he refused to pay and demanded his merchandise back. The Israeli-born thief, Roni Amrussi, appealed to his boss, Rivera, who told Nektalov to forget about his property and back off. He didn’t. Nektalov and his family went after Amrussi, beating him up on the street in a humiliating takedown. Rivera saw this as a threat to his power and vowed payback.
About a year later, the godfather was still contemplating how to exact his revenge when an opportunity presented itself: Nektalov and his father, Roman, got arrested in Operation Meltdown, which exposed a scheme in which 47th Street merchants laundered $8 million in Colombian drug proceeds. There were rumors that Nektalov had turned on the Colombians and was cooperating with prosecutors. This turned out not to be true, but no matter. Rivera figured he could put a hit on Nektalov and people would assume the cartel was responsible for the killing.
So Rivera asked his most trusted associate, Lixander Morales, to hire Fortier and work out a plan. Morales traveled to Puerto Rico to find Fortier, but it turned out the assassin was already in New York, staying at a homeless shelter in The Bronx. Moments after Nektalov was slain, Morales called Rivera and told him, “The baseball game is over.” Morales would get $20,000 for arranging the hit. Fortier took home $10,000.
The Diamond District Don nearly got away with it.
When Fortier died in jail, Rivera told Morales, “There’s no more evidence. There’s nothing to worry about.” But there was. A snitch who knew these men in The Bronx became troubled by the murder and began to talk. Eventually, this informant, Ivan Martinez, told police about Morales and the plot to kill Nektalov. In 2009, cops went to interview Morales, who had been arrested on unrelated charges and was being held in a jail in Puerto Rico. In New York, prosecutors prepared charges against him. But now they had an even bigger target: Hector Rivera.
Morales eventually pleaded guilty to murder for his role in Nektalov’s homicide. Facing life, he struck a pre-sentencing deal. He would testify against Rivera. A similar arrangement was worked out with Amrussi, who knew Rivera well. Early on in their relationship, they teamed up to hijack a Diamond District delivery, commandeering a FedEx truck and stealing packages with gems worth $1 million. During the heist, Amrussi became so worried that his legs started shaking, prompting Rivera to nickname him “Pollo” — chicken, in Spanish. Facing 35 years for robbery, extortion and weapons charges, Amrussi also flipped.
Throughout the trial last week, Rivera sat glumly, almost expressionless, as he listened to his two underlings give devastating testimony against him. Prosecutors needed only four days to build their case. They hoped a jury would convict Rivera on three murder–conspiracy charges. Rivera’s lawyer, Mark DeMarco, argued that jurors shouldn’t believe Amrussi and Morales, career criminals who, he said, had every reason to lie in order to have their pending sentences reduced.
“This trial has been a long time coming,” said Estes in her closing argument. “It’s time to bring Eduard Nektalov’s killer to justice.”
The jury needed just a couple of hours to convict Rivera Friday on all charges. His sentencing, scheduled for April 11 before Judge Paul Engelmayer, is a formality. He is going away for life, the mandatory minimum for murder conspiracy.
Even so, as the trial came to a close, a troubling thought occurred to me. I didn’t realize that back in 2004 Morales was actually at the scene of the killing, right there on Sixth Avenue assisting Fortier as he stalked Nektalov. Morales had spotted ex-cop Doherty following the shooter and alerted Fortier by calling out to him. He even stepped in front of Doherty, slowing him down and allowing the hit man to disappear. What could have happened if Morales had also seen me trying to tail Fortier, who had previously killed two men, one with a knife in Manhattan and another with a gun in Puerto Rico?
That’s something I’m trying not to think about too much.