As Ivan Vaclavik tells it, he is a man without a country, an emigre from the former communist-ruled Czechoslovakia who can never be deported no matter how badly he behaves in his adopted United States. His homeland, he points out, no longer exists, washed away in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Vaclavik has certainly put his theory to the test. Since 1976, when the United States first ordered him deported, he has been charged with more than 100 crimes in Massachusetts, from petty shoplifting to felony theft, and has been imprisoned at least three times. Highlights of his criminal career include assaulting a complete stranger at a Starbucks on Beacon Hill in 2005, breaking into the Charles Hotel in 2007, and accosting an 11-year-old girl near a hotel pool in Waltham in 2009. “Come in here and see your daddy,” he told the frightened child.
Vaclavik has also left a trail of nasty disputes with roommates, landlords, and neighbors, including one woman who took out a restraining order against him after he allegedly tried to enter her bedroom clad only in his underwear.
This long-running spree of crime has led US immigration officials to try, at least three times in the past 12 years, to detain and deport Vaclavik. But each time he has challenged the effort with a lawsuit — and each time immigration has backed off and set him free.
“If you’re not going to enforce immigration laws, then people can get away with this stuff and there’s no recourse,” said Chris Pedersen, the owner of Charles Street Liquors in Boston, one of Vaclavik’s many shoplifting victims who did not realize Vaclavik had been ordered deported but never left. “Sometimes you’ve got to stand up and be counted at some point and say I’m not going to tolerate this anymore.”
The story of Ivan Vaclavik speaks volumes about how, even in a time of near-record deportations from this country, the federal immigration system continues to return some of the most undesirable illegal immigrants to US streets to resume their criminal ways.
US immigration officials reject Vaclavik’s claim that he can’t be deported, but the Czech Republic that replaced Czechoslovakia in 1993 certainly has not appeared eager to have him back. Czech officials say they’re still verifying whether he is really a citizen, though Immigration and Customs Enforcement has contacted them repeatedly about deporting him over the past 12 years.
But rather than clash openly with the Czechs over Vaclavik, US immigration officials did what they have done with more than 8,500 other convicted criminals here illegally since 2008 — they let him go. Each time Vaclavik sued to get out of detention, immigration officials let him go before a judge could even rule on his claim that he cannot be deported because his homeland no longer exists.
Cases such as Vaclavik’s generally get little public notice because US immigration officials refuse to identify the immigrants they release or deport, saying it would violate the immigrants’ privacy. Usually, it’s only when illegal immigrants commit sensational crimes — such as a Chinese citizen who stalked and eviscerated a New York woman in 2010 — that the public learns of the missed opportunities to deport the perpetrator.
The Globe reported last month that immigration’s reluctance to release even basic information about detainees jeopardizes public safety, prompting the newspaper to file a lawsuit against US immigration officials to disclose the names of criminals who have been released after their home countries would not take them back. Currently, immigration officials notify few crime victims when a criminal is released instead of deported, leaving them unable to protect themselves.
Vaclavik came to America for a legal three-week stay in 1974 and never left, according to Ross Feinstein, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Immigration agents have repeatedly tried to deport him, starting in 1976, but they always released him instead, most recently because the Czech Republic did not provide the necessary travel documents. The Supreme Court has ruled that immigrants generally cannot be detained for more than six months while awaiting deportation.
“Given that ICE was unable to obtain the necessary documentation from the Czech Republic to carry out his removal, Mr. Vaclavik has been released from ICE custody on numerous occasions based upon the Supreme Court’s ruling,” Feinstein said in a statement.
Nations that refuse to take criminals back suffer few consequences. Theoretically, the State Department can punish a country by refusing to allow its citizens to visit the United States. But the agency has denied visas to countries that don’t repatriate their deported citizens only once since 2001, to tiny Guyana in South America. Members of Congress have submitted legislation that would force the department to take more action, but no such bill has ever been enacted. Department spokesman Ken Chavez would not comment on Vaclavik’s case.
Vaclavik, a diminutive, silver-haired man of 65, declined a request for an interview, and little of his personal story is known except that he came herein his 20s and grew old alone, often renting cheap rooms in houses where he frequently battled with his neighbors. He calls himself an architect, but has never had a license in Massachusetts and neighbors say they’ve never known him to have a job, so it’s unclear how he paid the rent and drove an Audi, which he registered for years in New Hampshire. In court, he has sometimes claimed to need public assistance to pay for a lawyer.
Neighbors say Vaclavik can be charming and persuasive, and is so well-versed in English and the American justice system that he sometimes writes his own legal motions. He has been particularly effective in suing US immigration officials to get out of jail, arguing that he became “stateless” after Czechoslovakia split in 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He said he “loved America” and came here after the Soviet invasion of his home country in 1968, according to a lawsuit he filed to get out of immigration detention in 2003.
“They already know I cannot be deported,” he wrote in the 2003 lawsuit.
But Vaclavik’s hometown, Prague, is very much on the map — it is the capital and largest city in the Czech Republic — and even Czech officials say they recognize the citizenship of people who lived there before the split. They just aren’t sure yet about Vaclavik.
“We are trying to determine if he is a Czech citizen or not,” said Ivana Klanova, the Czech Republic’s consul in New York, but she would not elaborate or say why it has taken so long.
Vaclavik is so confident that federal officials will not deport him that, unlike many illegal immigrants, he is not afraid of immigration officials. In fact, he threatened to report his Boston landlords to immigration in 2005 during one of several messy eviction cases he faced. The landlords said Vaclavik pushed the owner’s wife when she tried to stop him from removing a lock from a door.
“Maybe I can have her deported, too,” he wrote, suggesting that both of the landlords were here illegally, according to Boston housing court records. The judge later evicted him.
It didn’t take long before Vaclavik was embroiled in another housing dispute. In 2007, a judge evicted Vaclavik from a Boston home. In December 2006, two women who lived in the house complained to Boston police that Vaclavik, clad in his underwear, would try to force his way into their bedrooms.
One took out a restraining order, saying “I am scared every day.”
Just last month Vaclavik was in Brighton court over a dispute with his current roommate.
Even while feuding with the people who live near him, Vaclavik has also run up an impressive criminal rap sheet, including more than 100 criminal charges over decades. Though much of Vaclavik’s record consists of lesser crimes such as shoplifting or trespassing, he also has convictions for breaking and entering and assault.
He served nine months in jail starting in 1996 for assault and battery with a motor vehicle, the full court records of that case are no longer available, and in 2006 he served three months for assaulting Tim Knoetgen in Starbucks on Beacon Street as Knoetgen and his family sat down to rest while touring Boston.
Knoetgen, a former Massachusetts resident who now lives in Arkansas, said Vaclavik appeared angry and glassy-eyed when they walked in, and later exploded at Knoetgen’s elderly mother.
“When we got there he was screaming, yelling, ranting, and raving,” Knoetgen said in a phone interview. “We thought he was just a lunatic.”
In several instances, police and crime victims said, Vaclavik offered them cash to drop the charges against him. Malden police said in 2003 that Vaclavik offered them $300 after the owner of M&M Liquors snagged him allegedly trying to steal liquor.
Police found more than $500 in liquor in Vaclavik’s trunk and arrested him.
Pedersen, the owner of Charles Street Liquors, said Vaclavik offered him money in court last year to drop the charges against him for shoplifting two $50 bottles of Veuve Clicquot, the most recent charge on his record. “Right there, he said, I’ll pay you a thousand, $1,500, I’ll go away forever,” said Pedersen.
Pedersen, who refused the offer, said his employees are still wary of Vaclavik to this day.
“He scared my employees,” he said. “When someone’s coming in and stealing it upsets you. You don’t know, is that person going to be violent or what is he going to do?”
It’s unclear how hard or how often US officials tried to deport Vaclavik because immigration records, unlike criminal records, generally are not public. Some attempts are public only because immigrants file lawsuits or motions in the regular federal courts to get out of jail.
Immigration officials detained Vaclavik for more than two months in 2008, preparing to deport him. But they released him when Vaclavik filed suit, court records show, just as they had done twice before. Seven months later, in January 2009, an 11-year-old girl told Waltham police that a man stepped in front of her and made a suggestive remark as she walked toward a hotel pool.
Police in nearby Watertown identified Vaclavik days later, parked outside of a health club with 19 bottles of liquor in his trunk — more than one person can legally carry.
Vaclavik was found guilty of accosting a person of the opposite sex in the Waltham case and was sentenced to four months in jail.
It is also unclear how many of Vaclavik’s victims were ever notified that he was detained by immigration and then released. Most contacted by the Globe had never heard of immigration’s victim-notification system, which victims must sign up for in order to receive notice.
The Globe reported last month that ICE releases or deports thousands of criminals such as Vaclavik each year, including more than 200,000 last year, but rarely notifies their victims that they are free. Little more than 300 victims are in ICE’s notification system.
Leslye Orloff, director of the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project at American University Washington College of Law, called on federal officials to better warn victims when criminals are released in the United States. She also said immigration officials should inform judges and prosecutors in criminal courts that deportation is not automatic, so foreigners should not get lighter sentences because they might be deported.
At least one federal judge has already changed his approach to sentencing criminals following the Globe stories describing the way convicted criminals often avoid deportation.
US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock earlier this month sentenced a convicted drug trafficker, Juan Franklin Lara, 33, to two years of supervised probation following his release from a six-month prison term for passport fraud, saying he could not trust that the man would be automatically deported when his sentence is up.
Woodlock said judges have been discouraged in the past from handing out supervised probation sentences when a defendant is expected to be deported, since it would not matter. But last month the Globe reported that an immigrant Woodlock had given a lighter sentence to ended up back in Massachusetts because his country, Cape Verde, would not take him back. The man was charged last year with shooting a New Bedford man.
“Our assumption is you’re going to go back to the Dominican Republic,” Woodlock told Lara. “If you don’t, you’re going to be under supervised release here.”
But, until now, government supervision has done nothing to stem Vaclavik’s penchant for conflict, frustrating many of his prior victims.
“It just kills me that he’s allowed to do this time and again,” said one of Vaclavik’s former acquaintances, who did not want to be identified because she secured a restraining order against him for harassment. “It’s a lifetime career.”