This will tell the story of how three of our four Vision Express stores in Lithuania were simultaneously bathed in grenades one Monday morning at 1am and how the Mafia group who did the deed eventually apologized and paid for damage repair.
When the USSR folded back into its constituent states in 1991, I was already there as President of Dean Butler’s Eastern Holdings and working with Russian and Latvian partners to open United States style eyewear stores in the FSU. By 1994, we had opened up a market-dominating store in Saint Petersburg and four other units in Riga, Latvia. We decided it was time to expand into another Baltic nation and chose Lithuania. And, because of its proximity to Riga, we chose Panevezys for our entry city in the nation. We arranged our first location through an unusual deal with a Penevezys resident, Vygantas Marcinkevicius.
Vygantas Marcinkevicius was not immediately impressive. For a Lithuanian, he was rather short, rather slight and rather timid in appearance. He could have filled the role of Mr. Peepers if he’d been around in the mid-50s and Wally Cox had been booked elsewhere. He was a sensitive man and an intelligent one and had classic training. In fact, during the Soviet occupation of his country, he was a highly respected conductor of the Panevezys Symphony Orchestra.
But, the sudden independence of Lithuania in 1990 changed Vygantas. For the first time in his life, he could hope and dream and anticipate using his brain for some reward other than a pat on the head from the government. Vygantas embraced the market economy. Early on, he realized that property offered keys to the kingdom of personal wealth. Until the day of national independence all property belonged to the State, The next day, all property was up for grabs.
Vygantas had all the desire to grab but none of the green to buy.
So he “strategized”. He planned to be in the travel business because after 50 years of lock up, Lithuanians would take their market economy earnings into seeing the world, especially the western world. Obviously, he needed an office and he could not afford it on his own. Then, he heard two things and put the two together. First, he heard the government was selling a building very conveniently located across the street from the International Bus Stop in Panevezys. Second, he heard that Vision Express, the big UK company that already had opened four stores in Latvia was seeking to open in Lithuania. Panevezys was a likely first city since it was the nearest Lithuanian city to Riga, capital of Latvia and the city where Vision Express Baltic headquarters was located.
Through an optician in Lithuania, Vygantas contacted our lead optician in Riga. This led to Vygantas coming to Riga and presenting his case to me. He had a plan. If we could advance him money equal to our first year’s rent, he, as a citizen of Lithuania, could buy the building at a price equal to that and lease the property back to us rent free for the first year. We would have the dominant first floor unit in the building, he would have a small travel office near the rear and he would rent the balance of the building as its landlord.
Having been in Russia and Latvia for nearly two years at the time, I was quite used to unbelievable financial arrangements on property. Without too much hesitation, I made the deal. The store that resulted was large, impressively located on a rise in the road, dominated the horizon and was located across from a major depot for Baltic travelers which gave us the wide exposure I sought.
But. property business with Vygantas did not stop in Panevezys.Once we had established our store and a large warehouse (large enough to serve 5 stores or more) in Panevezys, I told Vygantas we were planning to investigate Vilnius and Kaunas for additional store properties.He was not able to help us in Vilnius but he assured us that he had contacts with a number of properties of high commercial potential in Kaunas.We arranged a trip together to tour his contacts’ properties in Kaunas.One of these floored me. It was a two-story, 500 square meter (over 5,100 sq ft) building located on Laisves Aleja (Freedom Boulevard), a historic 1.5 mile long 80-foot wide pedestrian mall that was the primary shopping center of Kaunas and it was positioned in absolute prime location on the mall, opposite the bus depot where people from all over Lithuania debarked to visit the popular shopping promenade of Kaunas. At the opposite end of the mall. the Orthodox cathedral of Saint Michael Archangel looked over the entire stretch of the Promenade to the bus depot. Like all common properties in this part of the world, the building and its store area had no history of repair or maintenance but the price of labor was low and the property fulfilled the three requirements of successful retailing: location, location and location.I wanted it.It turns out, however, that getting it was a bit more complicated than completing a title search.Turns out, his friends don’t own property but can get people to sell to them at a very good price. Does that mean we get a very good price? Not necessarily, because Vygantas friends had a firm mark-up policy that reflected 5 to 10 times their cost.In this case, we were given a payment requirement of $350,000 US. Cash. Turns out they were going to record a purchase price for us of $40,000 which was a typical price for property (if you could buy it) in Lithuania at the time ($8 to $10 per square foot). Since whomever was selling was dealing with property gifted to them at the time of dissolving Lithuanian State ownership, the deal was not bad for them. But, the real value was what the middleman was getting (about $70/sf), especially for such a prime location.However, there could be taxes and that would never do. So his friends and he worked out a deal.At the time, every Lithuanian citizen was given the right to sell one property tax free. This was to help the new economy to encourage trade and to support those who had old property, which they may never use, to put it into the real estate action.Therefore, since Vygantas had not sold any property, he could buy and sell this one tax free.It worked like this. I paid Vygantas $40,000 advance, which he used to fulfill the obligation to the property owner (which may have been the State, I was never told). Then, he opened a bank account in Kaunas, and I had our bank wire transfer $310,000 to his account. This was a considerable amount of money when you consider doctors were receiving $300 a month for their services so there was some concern that things may not go smoothly.Threfore, Ligita Zarina (my Baltic right hand) and I attended the visit to the bank on the scheduled withdrawal day. So did a dozen ominous looking gentlemen, three located at three strategic points within the bank, six around the grounds outside the bank and three drivers, each at the wheel of a high-speed vehicle with its motor running.Vygantas and I went to the teller and passed the proper papers and withdrawal instructions. Within a few minutes, the teller and two assistants delivered cubes of United States twenty-dollar bills, five of them, each containing over 3,000 bills worth some $60,000. We thanked the teller and left without counting while being followed closely by three people from three different locations in the bank. Outside, we walked to the nearest car with motor running, our contact got out and shook my hand and took my packets, Vygantas got into the car with his packets and, in a minute, they were gone. Ligata and I got into our own vehicle, driven by Gunthers, my Baltic bodyguard and left for the hotel where all the papers necessary to complete the transaction were being left by our partners in the transaction. By 1996, we had opened three stores in Lithuania: Panevezys, Kaunas and Vilnius, the capital city. In June, we opened a fourth in the harbor city of Klaipeda (See “That Dirty Daug, Mindaugas”). Vygantas had helped us with two of these but, apparently, he had exaggerated his role and told certain friends he was partner with Jack Byrne in Vision Express. I found this out, shortly after 1am on Monday the 23rd of September. On this night and at the exact same time, the following three acts occured.1. A car with three occupants slowly drove by our Panevezys store and hurled four grenades at the windows and signage.2. Four men ambled along Laisves Aleja (Freedom Boulevard) and on passing Vision Express turned suddenly around, threw four grenades into the windows of our Kaunas store, and raced to a waiting car at the Bus terminal and sped off.3. A single man in heavy leather jacket walked by our Vilnius store, stepped nto the street and hurled two grenads into the windows. In his case, he ran down the block right into the arms of a gendarme located at a permanent police booth at the end of the street.
I was sleeping in my apartment in Riga at the time and was awakened by a call from a rather frantic Lithuania General Manager, Elena Urbonene. No one was hurt, she reported, because of the time of the event and the damage was limited in all three cases to broken picture windows and Vision Express illuminated signs and a few interior cases that had been near the windows. We estimated that all could be repaired in a few days for a few thousand $US. I was surprised at the incident and the coincidence of timing at the three stores, not because I was not used to violence but because I was paying quite handsomely for protection in all three cities. I told Elena to open the stores once the premises were safe to enter and the police no longer required them to be roped off as a crime scene. I was happy one perpertrator had been apprehended and assumed he would be able to identify the sponsor of this triple attack. The next morning, my bodyguard/driver, Guntars, drove me and my right hand and interpreter, Ligita, to Panevezys to meet with Elena and, hopefully, with the police. By the time we arrived in late morning, the early papers were out with front page stories of the terror attacks on Vision Express stores. We quickly learned that the Vilnius grenade thrower had been released because, even though his leather jacket had a half dozen glass chards stuck through it, he “had not been observed throwing the grenades” and therefore evidence was “only circumstantial”. I was not surprised. In the new FSU nations, the police never had the foritude or weaponry to fight the “mafia”. This left the task up to our own contacts, or “krishna” or “roofs” we employed to protect us from the reign of terror they participated in.
I made three calls, one for each city, and found, in each case, my people were already informed and had joined efforts to unearth the facts of this affrontry to them. By late day, the culprit group were identified and had explained their case to their brothers.They were a strong Panevezys group that had helped Vygantas Marcenkevicius obtain the right to buy the building in which Vision Express resides. They did not tell me the name of the group but I knew there were three competing “mafia” clans in Panevezys, “Tulpinis”, “Smikinis” and Zemaiyukas”.Later, they helped him with some temporary funds to support his travel agency in the building. One of the reasons, they were helpful to him was he had said he was, “Jack Byrne’s partner in Vision Express Lithuania.” In the past two month’s he had failed to make his promised protection payments to this group.The debt was in Lits equal to $3000 US. Having warned him to pay up two times, with no response, they determined to punish him to the amount of at least that much damage to three stores. It was simply a fair solution to the problem of slow pay. I then explained to my people that Vygantas had no partnership with me nor any share in Vision Express. When they explained this to the perpertrators, apologies were quickly made and they then showed their sincerity by paying for all the repairs required for to three stores. They would solve their problem with Mr. Marcenkevicius in another way. Of course, that was none of my business so I had my people thank them for the cooperation and went about our business. And, by the next day, our business was booming. Lithuanian citizens from near and afar were coming in to 1) Buy from us 2) bring us cakes and cookies and 3) shake our hands and pat our backs. They were proud that “at last, some company had the guts to stand up to the mafia”. You see, they assumed the bombings were a result of our standing tall against crime. I couldn’t have created a better publicity stunt if I’d done it myself. We did not discuss our own “mafia” associations with them. I never heard about any harm coming to Vygantas so I suspect that he had dug deep into his reserves to pay his “partners” a few times what he owed.