Hitman's death is a reminder of an earlier Poland

WARSAW, Poland — Artur “Ivan” Zirajewski, a notorious Polish hitman, had accused a Polish-American businessman of the 1998 execution-style slaying of Gen. Marek Papala, who was the commander of Poland's police. But Zirajewski, the only witness fingering Edward Mazur, died in prison Jan. 3.

The decade-old investigation into Papala's murder has been a long-standing irritant in Polish-U.S. relations, and now Zirajewski's death could derail it.

Zirajewski died after ingesting poison. Police suspect he was trying to get sent to the prison hospital — possibly part of an attempted escape. Investigators talked to more than 60 witnesses last week and determined that Zirajewski died from complications resulting from a blood clot in the lungs.

Zirajewski was a holdover from the unruly atmosphere of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Polish communism was collapsing and a new, and often corrupt, capitalism was rising to take its place. It was the same world that Mazur inhabited as he returned from Chicago to his homeland as an intermediary for Western companies hoping to make big deals in Poland, where his connections to the communist-era secret police establishment proved to be invaluable.

At the time, the only way to be able to get lucrative import/export contracts, or get a place at the table when state assets were being sold off, was to be tightly connected to communist apparatchiks and secret police officers, many of whom made a smooth transition from working for the Communist Party to being budding capitalists.

While Mazur struck deals, Zirajewski was clambering up the ranks of the underworld in the port city of Gdansk, the birthplace of the Solidarity labor union that helped bring down communism. He started out as a car thief, and then became a soldier for one of the city's budding crime lords. He then joined a self-proclaimed “hitmen club,” which took part in the brutal 1998 murder of a Gdansk businessman. The man was seized, taken to a forest, choked, then strangled and his body was burned.

As a war between local gangs fighting for control of lucrative smuggling routes on the border with Germany broke out in 1997 and 1998, police finally cracked down and Zirajewski was arrested. In prison his tough-guy pose quickly collapsed, and, occasionally weeping, he began to spill his secrets to the authorities.

That was the same year that Papala, an acquaintance of Mazur, was shot in the head as he walked across a parking lot near his Warsaw home.

By 1999, Zirajewski was telling investigators that he had taken part in a meeting in the coastal resort city of Sopot with crime leaders and a businessman to discuss the killing of a target identified as “the big dog” for a fee of $40,000. In later years, Zirajewski refined his story to name Mazur, whom he singled out in a 2002 police lineup in which Mazur was made to wear a red jacket by police.

However, Mazur was freed shortly after being arrested in 2002 and allowed to return to the U.S.

The case regained steam in 2005, following the formation of a government led by the right-wing Law and Justice party. The party's leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, espoused the theory that most of Poland's problems were due to a secretive cabal of former secret police agents, corrupt businessmen and criminals who formed a “network” that called the shots from behind the scenes. Mazur's checkered past and Papala's execution dovetailed perfectly with that worldview, and a breakthrough in the case could have been hugely embarrassing for some of Kaczynski's political rivals.

The new justice minister set teams of his people to work on the case, and an extradition request was sent to U.S. authorities, leading to Mazur's arrest. However, when the extradition case came before a U.S. judge in 2007, he threw out the Polish request and set Mazur free, calling Zirajewski “a known scoundrel and unmitigated liar” who stood to benefit from judicial leniency by fingering someone for one of post-communist Poland's most spectacular crimes. Zirajewski was serving a 15-year sentence for murder when he died.

Mazur's lawyer called the extradition attempt a “frame-up” and Polish authorities were fatally weakened by having to rely only on Zirajewski's testimony, without being able to come up with a convincing motive for why Mazur would have wanted Papala dead.

The current Polish government, which has distanced itself from the conspiratorial stance of its predecessor, has been slowly working on the case, including preparing for the trial of Andrzej “Nightingale” Z., accused of organizing Papala's murder. Now both that case, and any further steps against Mazur, are in danger of collapsing.