Who killed little Ivanka?

There are really two basic kinds of intelligence services in the world – those which kill people, and those which don’t.

While U.S. intelligence historically has been somewhat squeamish about assassinations, in recent years – particularly since Barack Obama came to the White House – CIA has gone whole-hog into the killing business with drones, something which I’ve already expressed my reservations about on this blog. Being Americans, the CIA and the Pentagon have opted for an expensive, technologically impressive, somewhat sanitized method of killing people (it’s sanitized when you’re the drone crew several hundred or thousand miles away; it’s a lot less sanitized when you’re within a hundred meters of the target). Nevertheless, Washington isn’t being wholly disingenuous when it uses terms like “collateral damage” to describe the effect of a Hellfire missile on bystanders, since we’re not intentionally killing civilians who – sucks to be them – happen to be in the wrong place in the wrong time.

The U.S. technology-driven approach unfortunately lends itself to killing civilians, as do Israeli methods of targeted killing, which in recent years have increasingly gone for American-style technological solutions in Gaza and the West Bank. Other countries which do wetwork – as the Russians, who nearly invented this black art, call it – are usually more in-your-face about it, which has the odd effect of reducing civilian casualties. Say what you will about the KGB’s nasty umbrella trick which killed the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in September 1978, the ricin-filled pellet didn’t harm anyone but poor, doomed Georgi.

Intelligence services which conduct assassinations abroad and don’t seem to care at all who gets in the way are in a special category all by themselves, which is mercifully rather small. One of the bloodthirstiest services of them all was UDBA, the secret police force of Tito’s Yugoslavia. As I’ve explained elsewhere, although Cold War Yugoslavia got good Western press for being a kinder, gentler form of Bolshevism, its secret police was every bit as nasty as anything in the East Bloc. Indeed, UDBA’s operations in the West against what they called the “enemy emigration” were tougher and bloodier than anything the KGB did in the West after the late 1950s.

The doomed Sevo family

UDBA methods included killing – lots of it – and sometimes they cared not a whit who happened to be in the way. In the course of whacking nearly a hundred “state enemies” between the mid-1960s down to 1990, all across Europe, North America, and beyond, Tito’s spies murdered wholly innocent people too. In August 1972, near Venice, Italy, UDBA assassins liquidated Stjepan Sevo, a member of a Croatian terrorist group fighting Yugoslavia. Gunned down alongside Sevo inside his car were his wife Rosemarie and his nine-year-old step-daughter Tatjana, both of them shot repeatedly. German police fingered as the killer Vinko Sindicic, one of the most prolific UDBA hitmen, who is suspected in a dozen murders around the world in the 1970s and 1980s. After serving a decade in a British prison for a botched hit in Scotland in 1988, Sindicic returned to now-independent Croatia a free man; several attempts to prosecute him for UDBA murders have come to naught, amid whispers that Sindicic still has protectors in high places in the Balkans.

Five years later UDBA committed an equally appalling crime in the United States. On the night of 18-19 July 1977, Dragisa Kasikovic was murdered in Chicago in the office of a Serbian emigre group. It was a brutal crime, the forty-four-year-old Kasikovic having been butchered by more than sixty knife wounds. UDBA often used pistols for hits, while sometimes preferring more direct, indeed stereotypically Balkan, methods of hands-on killing. An anti-Yugoslav activist and Serbian nationalist, Kasikovic had emigrated to the USA and had been involved in the 1960s with SOPO, a Serbian emigre terrorist group which outlandishly plotted the overthrow of the Tito regime. Many of SOPO’s operations, none of which revealed much professionalism, verged towards comic-opera affairs; in one of the group’s “spectaculars” in 1979, SOPO fighters hijacked an American Airlines Boeing 727 out of New York’s LaGuardia airport with the intent of flying it into Communist Party headquarters in Belgrade. Happily, this eerie precursor to 9/11 never came close to happening, not least because the 727 had several thousand miles too little fuel to make it to Yugoslavia.

SOPO was also deeply penetrated by UDBA agents, as were practically all Yugoslav emigre groups opposed to the Tito regime. By the mid-1970s, Kasikovic was a prominent journalist in the Serbian community in the United States, known for his pronounced anti-Communist views. Kasikovic’s circle of emigre friends in the Chicago area included several people with close ties to the Yugoslav consulate in Chicago, which hosted several UDBA officers charged with monitoring the “enemy emigration.”

Ivanka and Dragisa, in happier times

Anti-Tito activists like Kasikovic knew they were being watched and that they could be marked men, and paranoia permeated the Yugoslav diaspora worldwide as emigres were killed by the dozen in the 1970s, in many countries, in hardly-ever-solved killings that usually were the handiwork of UDBA. Tragically, when UDBA caught up with Dragisa Kasikovic that summer night in 1977, he wasn’t alone. Ivanka Milosevic, the nine-year-old daughter of Kasikovic’s steady girlfriend, was with him and was murdered by his side. Little Ivanka was stabbed more than fifty times, her body barely recognizable from the butchery.

Chicago’s stunned Serbian community had a suspect from the start, Bogoje Panajotovic, a waiter who had emigrated from Serbia and who swam in the murky waters of the radical diaspora groups. Panajotovic was believed to be an UDBA collaborator – which was common enough among emigres – and his whereabouts on the night of the murders were sketchy. Nevertheless, the Chicago police, confronted by a highly complex situation filled with immigrants who often spoke in fractured English about conspiracies, assassinations, and cunning secret police operations which seemed too bizarre to be real, made little headway in the case. Some Chicago cops felt that the FBI was less than helpful with the case from the start.

Vinko Sindicic in “retirement”

That may have been because Panajotovic, the number-one suspect, was also an FBI informant. Panajotovic was feeding the Bureau information about SOPO and some insiders in the case felt that, in exchange, he was protected. What happened to Bogoje Panajotovic is anyone’s guess. Allowed to leave Chicago, he eventually “went Elvis.” Some say he died violently, as he lived, while some Serbian sources close to UDBA hint that the FBI gave him a new identity and a new life in the Mountain West of the United States.

All that is certain is that, thirty-five years after a terrible double murder, no one has been prosecuted for the bloodbath which claimed the life of a little American girl. Last year, a documentary film in Serbia reawakened interest in the case, and the murders have never disappeared entirely from memory among Serbs at home and abroad, amid whispers that American authorities have never really wanted to get to the bottom of the case, fearing the exposure of embarrassing information regarding U.S. intelligence looking the other way about many UDBA murders, and perhaps even protecting the killer of Ivanka Milosevic. They may be right, but we won’t be able to say for sure until this terrible crime is solved – better late than never.