Arrest in Croatia Murder Doesn’t Erase All Doubt

Published: April 25, 2009

ZAGREB, Croatia — Six months have passed since Ivana Hodak, a glamorous young lawyer who was part of her country’s “Golden Generation,” was shot and killed in the stairwell of her family home, leaving a nagging mystery of whether she was truly slain by a homeless drifter or by a hired killer.

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Johan Spanner for The New York Times

A picture of Ivana Hodak at her father’s office. At left is a photo that her friend Iva Majoli, a former tennis star, gave to the family.



Johan Spanner for The New York Times

Zvonimir Hodak, a Zagreb lawyer, suspects that the murder of his daughter was related to his client’s arrest.

The passage of time has done little to resolve the questions in the murder case, one of the most prominent here since Croatia declared independence in 1991.

The killing has been connected in the public consciousness with two other deaths two weeks later: those of the editor and marketing chief of the magazine Nacional, who were killed by a car bomb while the editor was investigating organized crime.

Though there is no evidence linking them, the killings have prompted national soul-searching. “The question we are facing is: us, the rule of law; or them, the criminals, the terrorists and the mafia,” Stjepan Mesic, Croatia’s president, said.

The fatal attacks have generated alarm in the European Union, heightening concerns that lawlessness dating to the Balkan wars of the 1990s has erupted in Croatia, which joined NATO this month and is next in line to join the European Union, the world’s biggest trading bloc.

In the Hodak case, the police arrested a former tennis academy janitor, Mladen Slogar, in February and said he confessed that he killed her because he bore a grudge against her father, Zvonimir Hodak, a powerful lawyer. But in a region prone to conspiracy theories, the Hodak case has spawned many.

One of the main doubters is Mr. Hodak, 72, who has defended some of Croatia’s most notorious gangsters and war crimes suspects. He expressed skepticism about the evidence.

“I just don’t buy it,” he said in an interview. “To me, it looks like a professional killing rather than an amateur. This case has been overshadowed by petty lies. Why would someone want to kill Ivana? Why not kill me instead?”

Mr. Hodak said he believed that his daughter’s killing was linked to the arrest of one of his clients, a former Croatian general, Vladimir Zagorec, who in March was sentenced to seven years in prison for embezzling $5 million worth of gems.

Mr. Zagorec, who helped procure weapons for Croatia during its war with rebel Serbs from 1991 to 1995, circumventing an international arms embargo, was accused of stealing the jewels to help purchase an air defense system on the black market.

The prosecution of Mr. Zagorec was instigated by testimony from his archenemy, Hrvoje Petrac, the most notorious crime boss in Croatia, who is in prison for orchestrating the kidnapping of Mr. Zagorec’s son in 2005.

During his trial, Mr. Petrac testified that Mr. Zagorec had asked him to find a buyer for the stolen jewels. That prompted state prosecutors to investigate and led to Mr. Zagorec’s arrest.

At the time of Ms. Hodak’s death, she was working at her father’s firm on the Zagorec case. Investigators say the work may have taken a precarious turn last summer when she fell in love with Ljubo Pavasovic, Mr. Petrac’s lawyer. The relationship created a potentially lethal conflict of interest, with her father and her boyfriend defending bitter foes who were considered vengeful and dangerous.

Friends say Ms. Hodak, 26, fashioned herself as a Croatian version of Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City.”

Although Ms. Hodak worked at two jobs, raised money for African children and rescued stray dogs, friends said she also pined for fancy labels and dated rich and powerful men. One person who knew Ms. Hodak recalled that when her friends proposed a three-month motorbike adventure in South America, sleeping under the stars, she responded: “Only if it is five-stars.”

At her funeral her friends all wore black dresses and brightly colored stiletto heels. Her best friend, Jelena Percin, said in a eulogy: “You’re absolutely fabulous.”

Iva Majoli, a former international tennis star who vacationed with Ms. Hodak last summer, said she remained baffled by the killing. “She was a sweet girl, smart and sincere,” Ms. Majoli said. “She appeared to have no cares in the world. I can’t believe she is gone. Who would want to kill her?”

Some Croatians suspect that the answer lies in the simmering class resentment that is a legacy of the war here, which left thousands without homes, limbs or jobs. A select few, however, those who had strong ties to the authoritarian government of former President Franjo Tudjman, amassed unimaginable fortunes. The children of these families, including Ms. Hodak, were dubbed the Golden Generation in the Croatian media. Hajrudin Hromadzic, a sociologist at the University of Zagreb, said the Hodak killing reflected a deep socio-economic chasm found across the Balkans.

“You have a small elite of the rich and powerful, and the rest of the population who live down the social hierarchy without any benefits of patronage or wealth,” he said. “Ivana was part of the former, and a likely victim of the latter.”

In February, the police said they had arrested Mr. Slogar, a 61-year-old homeless man with no police record. According to the police, Mr. Slogar, who was fired in 1995 from a tennis club where Mr. Hodak played regularly, bore a grudge against the lawyer because he claimed Mr. Hodak had reneged on the promise of a job.

On Oct. 6, the police say, Mr. Slogar went to town to buy shampoo. He told the police that he came upon Ms. Hodak parking her car and recognized her, having last seen her 14 years before. He followed her to her house, he said, before shooting her.

He was charged with murder, the authorities said, after the pistol used to kill Ms. Hodak was found in the abandoned warehouse where he slept.

Neither Mr. Slogar’s arrest nor his reported confession has convinced the many doubters.

In reaction to the killings in October, the government almost immediately dismissed the chiefs of the police and the judiciary. It also created an office to fight organized crime, which resulted in the arrests of a number of suspects in a mafia crackdown.

Berislav Jelinic, a senior editor at Nacional who says he has received death threats because of his investigations, said organized crime remained widespread, and perhaps inevitable.

“The problem with the mafia here is that we are a small country,” he said. “Criminals, entrepreneurs, politicians, gangsters, old money and new money all hang out in the same places, united by cash, not class.”

Eugene Brcic contributed reporting.
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