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Wednesday, April 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Charges filed in killing during church service

The Associated Press

DETROIT — A not-guilty plea was entered yesterday on behalf of a gunman accused of shooting a former friend nine times during a church service in an apparent vendetta killing between two Albanian-American families.

Gjon Pepaj, 38, was charged with premeditated murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter and weapons violations. Appearing confused, Pepaj said "no" several times when asked if he understood his rights. He was not represented by an attorney at the arraignment and was denied bond.

Assistant Prosecutor Kelly Chard argued that Pepaj admitted to shooting Gjek Sufaj, 38, and said that he bought a gun six years ago that he failed to register and carried at all times.

Additionally, the defendant arrived in the United States in 1991 on a work visa, was not a U.S. citizen and posed both a flight risk and a danger to the community, Chard said.

Prosecutors say Pepaj sat through Mass at St. Paul Albanian Catholic Church with his two children Sunday before shooting Sufaj in the head and back. Police said Pepaj opened fire on Sufaj just as the priest was preparing to distribute communion.

After firing several bullets into Sufaj's body, the gunman yelled, "I done what I was supposed to do," police said.

Oakland County authorities said yesterday that the shooting was just the latest of a series of violent events dating back at least a decade, although it's not clear exactly how the cases relate.

In 1992, prosecutors say, a relative of Pepaj's was beaten to death and his body was dumped in a river in Sterling Heights, Mich.

In 1993, Oakland County authorities said, a man was accused of sexually assaulting Valentina Pepaj, Gjon Pepaj's wife.

Valentina Pepaj later killed the man she accused of attacking her, and in 1994 was convicted of manslaughter and weapons charges, authorities said. She was paroled in August 1997, according to Department of Corrections records.

Church officials said neither Pepaj nor Sufaj was a member of the congregation at the church where Sunday's shooting took place.

Two handguns and at least eight spent cartridges were found. Pepaj had a spare clip, police said.

Sufaj's family has refused to comment.

Sunday's attack brought an unwanted spotlight to what community members said was a practice thought abandoned.

"We were supposed to leave these feuds behind. We left them in Albania a long time ago," said Luigi Gjokaj, 42, who witnessed the shooting.

Vendetta killing "is not socially accepted," said Valbona Sherifi, an official with the National Albanian American Council in Washington. The suspect "was just a criminal."

Sherifi disputed the possibility that the attack sprang from a tradition of blood feuds in Albania.

"I would not call it an indicator of the Albanian community," Sherifi said. "A murder in a church is out of all sacred, religious and accepted values."

Others in the Albanian community say such feuds continue. Michigan is home to the second-largest Albanian community in the United States, according to the latest U.S. Census figures.

Such incidents died down during Albania's communist regime because citizens feared the nation's laws, said historian and author Peter Prifti, who lives in San Diego.

"The regime, however, did not change the mentality of the people who practiced this," he said, noting that the collapse of communism brought about a resurgence in so-called "honor" crimes.

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