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Hitman's death is a reminder of an earlier Poland

Artur "Ivan" Zirajewski had accused Polish-American businessman Edward Mazur of murder.

A man, center, suspected of robbing the sign "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work makes you free") takes part in a re-creation of the crime scene in the presence of police and a prosecutor at Auschwitz Death Camp Museum, Oswiecim, Poland, Dec. 22, 2009. A recent prison death reminded Poland of a more corrupt, crime-ridden past. (Irek Dorozanski/Reuters)

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.