Now was the time, she decided. Before the cancer got her.

Vahide Bayrak, widow of the former chief of the 35,000-strong Kurdish Heylani Kebir tribe in eastern Turkey, called her oldest son, Sait Ali, into her room. It was July 2005, and she didn’t think she had long left.

Vahide sat quietly in her armchair for a moment, then began speaking, slowly. “How old are you?” she asked her son.

“Thirty-eight,” Sait Ali replied, wondering why his mother had sat him down, and what his age had to do with anything.

“I’ve been holding onto something,” she said, weighing her words, “a secret I was told not supposed to reveal until you reach the age of 40. But I’m sick, and I have to tell you before anything happens. You are mature enough now, my son, and you know your responsibilities.”

The story she was about to reveal would leave her son shocked. It would lead to a years-long struggle against a powerful bank, to an alleged cover-up, and possibly even to gruesome murders.

And it would give Sait Ali Bayrak a new purpose in life — to find his tribe’s purported fortune, and to bring it back home.

Protecting the treasure

It was 1980, recounted Vahide. The Turkish army was gearing up for its third coup against the elected government. Kenan Evren, the general whom the coup would sweep to the Turkish presidency, reached out to Sait Ali’s father, Hasan Bayrak, a well-connected Kurdish businessman and head of the Heylani Kebir tribe. Passing his message through an English Christian missionary named David Hoja, Evren warned Bayrak that the military would soon make its move.

Hoja told Bayrak that the army knew about the fortune his family had amassed over the generations as leaders of the tribe, and there was a real possibility it would be seized by the military. Bayrak’s fortune went back to Ottoman times, when his father had been one of the empire’s senior tax officials in the region.

He made up his mind. With Hoja’s help, Bayrak arranged for the fortune to be shipped out of Turkey to the ostensible safety of a Swiss bank.

Hoja was something of an enigma. Many in Turkey mistook him, with his long beard, for an imam. Hoja served for decades in Kurdish regions of Turkey and spoke Zaza and Kurdish fluently. But, like many people in this story, there may have been more to him than met the eye. Some believe Hoja was a British intelligence agent helping facilitate the military coup. The Bayrak family has not seen him since 2003, and they do not know whether he is still alive.

Sait Ali Bayrak receiving a peace medal from Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, 2003 (Photo courtesy of Sait Ali Bayrak)

Sait Ali Bayrak receiving a peace medal from Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, 2003 (Photo courtesy of Sait Ali Bayrak)

According to the story Vahide told her son, Bayrak loaded up six tons of Ottoman gold coins, jewelry and ancient books, worth up to $2 billion today, onto a convoy of trucks and sent them across Turkey to Istanbul. From there, the treasure was transferred onto a ship, where it would end up in Credit Suisse Bank in Zurich, one of the two largest banks in Switzerland, safe from the Turkish generals.

For the next two decades, Hasan Bayrak let the fortune lie. But as he sensed his death approaching in 1999, he instructed Vahide to tell their oldest son, Sait Ali, about the gold when he reached the age of 40 and had moved on from his playboy lifestyle.

After his father Hasan died on May 13, 1999, Sait Ali came into his own. He became a peacemaker in the Elazig region of eastern Turkey, ending a blood feud that had taken hundreds of lives. His efforts brought with them recognition from leading religious figures across the globe. The Vatican awarded him the Golden Peace Medal in 2002, and Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, flew to Turkey in 2003 to give him a peace award.

And now, after his mother’s 2005 conversation with him, Sait Ali knew his father’s secret and was determined to retrieve the gold. What he didn’t realize was that nearly a decade after his discovery, he would still be battling for access to his family’s fortune, one Credit Suisse claims it has never heard of.

Hasan Bayrak’s photograph

Sait Ali Bayrak’s first move was to head directly to Zurich to speak with employees of the bank itself. As optimistic as he was naïve, Bayrak simply walked up to a bank teller one morning in August 2005, with nary a lawyer in tow.

Bayrak was ushered into a conference room on the third floor, where three bank executives and a Turkish translator awaited him. They were initially warm, offering their condolences on the death of his father. They asked for a death certificate, and Bayrak told them he had not brought it with him. The Credit Suisse executives informed him he would have to retrieve it from Turkey and have it translated into German.

The oldest of the executives then placed a file on the table. Bayrak claims he saw a picture of his father Hasan in the bank’s file, along with a copy of his passport.

They began questioning Bayrak.

“The first question they asked me was, ‘What will you do with this money?’” Bayrak told The Times of Israel in a phone interview from Elazig, Turkey. “I said I would get my money, go back to Turkey, use it in my land. My people are not educated; it’s very hard to get education because of the economy. It’s underdeveloped. I was thinking how to try to help people here.”

The bank officials’ demeanor changed immediately, Bayrak said. They started interrogating him on how his family amassed the fortune and asking for additional documentation.

“The manager said, ‘You didn’t have this money for 10 years. If someone doesn’t touch their money for 10 years, we don’t have responsibility for this money,’” Bayrak recounted.

According to the Swiss banking ombudsman’s office, accounts are considered dormant if there have been no transactions or communication between the bank and account holder for 10 years, although family members and heirs can still access the funds after that period.

From there, according to Bayrak, Credit Suisse’s behavior turned even more suspicious. At 12:30 p.m., the bank officials told him they needed to clarify several things and asked him to return at 2:00 p.m. He left all his documents — which he claims included a Credit Suisse document with the account information and password on it — in the room, except for his passport. But when Bayrak returned to the bank, he was informed that the meeting was canceled. He called the translator to ask for clarification, and she told him that he must first show the death certificate and submit a formal request for custody transfer before the bank could move forward.

Bayrak then asked that his forms be returned, but the translator informed him that they had been added to the bank’s file and that he had no cause for worry. When he demanded their return, she hung up and would not answer subsequent calls.

Back in Turkey, Bayrak turned to his own Christian missionary friend, a German named Tilmann Geske. Geske drafted a letter to Credit Suisse officials, who responded in September 2005, saying that information on the accounts of deceased persons could only be provided to legal heirs or their representatives. Three months later, Credit Suisse’s legal department wrote to Bayrak telling him that they had no accounts under Hasan Bayrak’s name or matching the account number he had provided to them.

Bayrak would return to the bank again in February 2006 and in January 2007, according to Sait Ali, providing the requested documents, but Credit Suisse refused to release any more information on the account or return his original papers.

Sait Ali was frustrated, confused, but determined. Then things turned frightening.

Why was Tilmann Geske butchered?

On April 18, 2007, Bayrak’s friend Geske, 46, gave his wife and three children a kiss as he headed out the door for a morning Bible study session at the Zirve Publishing House in Malatya, eastern Turkey. He was joined there by two Turkish converts to Christianity, Pastor Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel. The three Christians had scheduled a study session at the Bible publishing company with five young Turks who had shown some initial interest in Christianity.

The session kicked off at 10 a.m., with Aydin reading a passage from the Bible.

When he closed his Bible, the horror began, so gruesome it could have been pulled from the most wrenching passages of the book Aydin was holding. Wielding guns and bread knives, the Turkish guests tied the three Christians to their chairs.

They had also brought towels with them. For the blood.

Over the next three hours, the attackers slowly dismembered Geske, Aydin, and Yuksel alive, slicing off fingers, disemboweling them, and cutting up body parts in front of their victims. Finally, they slit their victims’ throats from ear to ear, nearly decapitating them.

The episode, which was filmed in its entirety on the attackers’ cellphones, was treated as an anti-Christian crime, certainly not unheard of in Turkey. Five Catholic priests, out of a total of 60 in the country, were shot or stabbed between 2006 and 2010.

“We did it for our country,” read notes found on Geske’s killers. “They are trying to take our country away, take our religion away.”

The main suspect in the Zirve killings, Yunus Emre Günaydin, testified in court in 2008 that a journalist “told me that Christianity and the missionary work done in its name had the goal of destroying the motherland. I asked him if someone should not stop this. He told me to then get up and stop this. I asked him how it could be done. He said they would provide us with the state support.”

But the case got murkier. In 2012, a new indictment said that a clandestine group within the Turkey military had ordered the killings of Geske, Aydin, and Yuksel in order to sow chaos in Turkey, though that claim may well have been part of the government’s campaign to weaken the military and prosecute its leaders.

Bayrak holds his own suspicions. According to him, Geske received death threats after he started helping Bayrak communicate with Credit Suisse. “We have thousands of missionaries here,” noted Bayrak. “Why did they kill Tilmann Geske? He was very peaceful; people liked him.”

“I am sure Tilmann Geske was murdered because he helped me.”

On its own, the claim doesn’t seem especially plausible. But then there is the matter of a beloved priest falling in front of a moving train.

Monsignor Georges Marovitch was the Vatican’s ambassador to Turkey. He was close to the Bayrak family, and Sait Ali saw him as a father figure. Bayrak’s father, Hasan, had received a peace medal from the Vatican, and he visited the embassy often.

By 2006, a year before his grisly murder, Geske had wanted out of the whole affair and asked Bayrak to turn elsewhere for help. His brother turned to Marovitch, who connected the Bayraks with lawyers who could help them pursue their claims against Credit Suisse.

In July 2007, three months after Geske was killed, Marovitch was in Rome on a holiday. Somehow, moments before the train pulled into the station, he ended up on the tracks. Many, including Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper, claimed he was pushed. Bayrak’s current lawyer, Pascal Koch, told The Times of Israel unequivocally that Marovitch was pushed.

Msgr. George Marovitch's funeral (Screen capture Sat7Turk)

Msgr. George Marovitch’s funeral (Screen capture Sat 7Turk)

Marovitch suffered grave injuries, temporarily losing the power of speech. As he recovered in Istanbul, Bayrak went to visit the nuncio, who, he claims, warned him about the dangers involved in pursuing the claims against the bank. Marovitch recovered partially. He died in 2012.

Bayrak finally decided it was time to hire a lawyer. He turned to Emanuele Verda, recommended by Marovitch. Verda told Bayrak that he had made a serious mistake in telling the bank that he intended to take the money back to Turkey and should have just said he wanted to transfer the money to a new account in Switzerland. After meeting Credit Suisse officials, Verda informed his client that the bank suggested that he take up residence in Switzerland, and in a year’s time, the sides would convene to quietly resolve the matter. Bayrak asked for written confirmation of the deal, but Credit Suisse would only give an informal, oral guarantee.

Verda seemed to be making some progress, but then the lawyer’s behavior changed precipitously. According to Bayrak, Verda seemed to be hiding information. His work ground to a halt, and he stopped sharing the bank’s correspondence with his client. He avoided Bayrak’s calls and gave evasive answers when he finally did respond.

Did Credit Suisse pay him to switch sides and drag out the proceedings? “I believe that,” Bayrak said. He cut Verda loose in 2009.

Other suspicious characters began to show up in Bayrak’s life. People claiming to be ex-Credit Suisse employees reached out to him on their own, telling Bayrak that they knew how to get him his money. Though Bayrak cautiously cooperated with them, they all turned out to be useless. Bayrak suspects that they, too, were sent by the bank to stall for time.

No comment, no account

Credit Suisse declined to answer questions regarding Bayrak’s claims.

“The fact is that we cannot comment on this, since Credit Suisse is not allowed to comment on any specific client situation through the media due to the Swiss bank secrecy,” said Charlotte Nelson, who works for the bank’s media relations department, in an email.

Between 2005 and 2012, bank officials sent letters to Bayrak explaining that there were no accounts associated with him or his father. One added that because of privacy laws, the bank could not search for ties between its accounts and Bayrak’s tribe.

The final letter, sent on July 27, 2012, re-emphasized the absence of a Credit Suisse account registered to Hasan Bayrak.

Credit Suisse, Paradeplatz, Zurich, Switzerland (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Roland zh CC BY-SA 3.0)

Credit Suisse, Paradeplatz, Zurich, Switzerland (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Roland zh CC BY-SA 3.0)

“Please note that since you have not been able to provide us with any concrete details showing for what reason you assume that Credit Suisse Ltd. might hold assets in the name of Hasan Bayrak, we see no ground for further discussions in the matter at hand,” states the letter, which was signed by Martin Rothen and Jens Hofstetter of the bank’s legal department. “Further, we reserve the right to leave similar general requests unanswered.”

Bayrak claims the documents he brought with him to the bank in 2005 contained the account number (which he provided to The Times of Israel) on Credit Suisse stationery, but he acknowledges that he currently has no proof that the gold exists or that Credit Suisse is holding it.

Because of Bayrak’s lack of banking knowledge and the fact that some of the documents were not written in Turkish, he is not entirely certain what other information they contained; they might include the key he is looking for that would allow him to access the account, said Pascal Koch, a Switzerland-based lawyer who has represented Bayrak for two years.

Koch said he believes the bank’s actions — having three directors speak with Bayrak, and its change in attitude when he proposed removing the money from Switzerland — indicate it knew who he was and that there was an account.

“At this point, we don’t have any official proof the money was Mr. Bayrak’s money,” Koch said. “We don’t have official proof this was really transferred to Switzerland. We don’t have proof Credit Suisse is the bank with this money. But just because of the reaction and the treatment and so on, Credit Suisse isn’t acting like they have no idea of this. They have some idea of this case; that is clear.”

If, as estimated, the treasure is worth up to $2 billion today, it could draw as much as $20 million a year for the bank in fees. Koch believes the bank officials noted the possibility of those yearly fees slipping away and decided not to cooperate with Bayrak.

“The interest in the bank is to make some money,” Koch said. “They knew perfectly well which trust has the money, in their warehouse. That’s why they pulled three presenters together (to meet with Bayrak). They knew it was big-time.”

The high-profile nature of the matter, and the fate of Geske and Marovitch, has led Bayrak to fear for his life and that of his family, Koch said.

“In the world, a lot of people will be killed for quite nothing,” Koch said. “Therefore, when you look at this big case, if it’s as big as Mr. Bayrak thinks, it’s quite tempting to get a slice of the pie. It’s not a very comforting situation for him.”

In 2009, Bayrak met with Russian secret service agents in Zurich — they wanted to help him obtain the money and, in turn, were interested in a piece of it. Many similar people have emerged from the woodwork, the lawyer said.

Between Bayrak’s political position with the tribe in Turkey, his work as a marble and stone entrepreneur, his connections with religious figures around the world and now his claims against Credit Suisse, “there are a lot of flies flying around his light,” Koch said.

The magic key

What might be needed — the key to unlock the funds — is the involvement of a trustee Hasan Bayrak appointed to guard the funds, Koch said. This person could have the missing piece of information, such as a separate account name, that would break through the bank’s firewall, so to speak, and compel Credit Suisse to release the account to Bayrak.

Koch said he is certain the bank officials know the key — but are not telling.

The courts are Bayrak’s next step in attempting to track down the account. But a civil suit is too expensive, Koch said. If Baykrak possessed hard proof that Credit Suisse was holding his money, according to Koch, he could even convince a bank to finance litigation, but without it, that option is unavailable to Bayrak.

“We’re working with criminal law, and that’s not the best weapon, but at least it’s one weapon,” Koch said.

Through his lawyer, Bayrak has filed charges with Zurich’s prosecution authorities, or Staatsanwaltschaft, against both Credit Suisse and the bank employees he claims refused to return his documents. The prosecutors will, he hopes, refer the case to Zurich’s criminal court in the coming weeks.

Focusing his claims on the allegedly stolen or destroyed documents, Koch is hoping the court will find Credit Suisse and its employees guilty of “qualified defalcation,” a term generally used to describe the misappropriation of funds placed in someone’s care.

“The thief didn’t steal the documents, the documents were trusted [to] Credit Suisse for making copies and then not returned,” Koch explained. “This breach of trust is a defalcation, not a burglary.”

Koch’s aim in filing a criminal claim is to identify and punish the person responsible for stealing or destroying Bayrak’s documents, if it is proven someone at Credit Suisse did so.

“The point is that as the client of the Swiss bank, you can’t have your documentation be stolen,” Koch said. “The other point is that his father entrusted a lot of money to the Swiss bank, and his son, who is the legal successor, now is unable to get control of the money.”

Meanwhile, Koch is centering his law firm’s own investigation on tracking down more information about Bayrak’s father’s account. For two years, Koch has overseen the investigation — it’s the largest case he’s worked on, if Bayrak’s estimate of the treasure’s worth is correct.

“My interest to make the goal, not just travel in the midfield,” Koch continued. “I want the goal, which is that Mr. Bayrak gets his money back.”

Koch has only Bayrak’s word to guide him, but he doesn’t think the story is a lie.

“Why should a marble entrepreneur from Turkey waste so much money and time on Swiss attorneys (if his story isn’t true)?” Koch said. “This is more interesting than fiction.”

So he’ll keep investigating and asking questions, even if finding the treasure seems impossible.

The best way for the matter to play out, Koch said, is to locate the holder of the trust, if in fact the treasure exists and there is a trustee who holds the key. He drew a hypothetical picture of a man, “Dr. Mulot,” who lives in Liechtenstein and is waiting on a phone call from Bayrak — years after Hasan Bayrak entrusted a fortune to him with instructions to hand it over to his son.

Playing out the imaginary conversation, Koch predicted the fictional Dr. Mulot would say to Bayrak, “I have waited my whole life for this interaction.”

Two days later, he continued, Bayrak would have the money.

“We just have to find this bloody Dr. Mulot in Liechtenstein.”

Swiss banks and Holocaust money

Bayrak’s claim isn’t the first time Swiss banks have been accused of hiding massive fortunes.

In the 1990s, American attorney Stuart Eizenstat led an $8 billion recovery of money and property in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and France for thousands of people, many of whom were Holocaust survivors or families of people killed in the Holocaust. Much of the recovery involved hidden Swiss bank accounts, including at Credit Suisse, that belonged to Holocaust victims.

Stuart Eizenstat (Photo courtesy of Covington & Burling LLP)

Stuart Eizenstat (Photo courtesy of Covington & Burling LLP)

Eizenstat helped set up a claims process for those trying to locate and reclaim their property. Initially, Swiss banks pinpointed 774 Holocaust-era accounts containing $32 million.

“We didn’t take that at face value, given their history,” said Eizenstat, who currently heads the international law practice of Covington & Burling LLP and serves as special adviser on Holocaust issues for US Secretary of State John Kerry.

After an investigation, those involved with the recovery identified 54,000 accounts that could belong to Holocaust victims and their families. Out of those, 21,000 were considered probable Holocaust-era accounts. Because of the fees the banks drew from the accounts, many of them had been emptied.

The Swiss banks eventually agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement, most of which has been distributed to more than 400,000 Holocaust survivors and their families. Along the way, Eizenstat said, major international accounting firms charged the banks $200 million in accounting fees.

Eizenstat is not involved with Bayrak’s claims. Separately, he represents Credit Suisse in encouraging the US Senate to pass protocols that would require international banks to release American clients’ bank account information to the US government. Swiss banks have already agreed to the change, while in the US the legislation has been held up for several years.

This willingness goes hand in hand with recent changes to Swiss banks’ procedures. Although the banks are known for their strict privacy standards, they have become much more transparent since the 1990s, reaching international norms in terms of preventing money laundering, Eizenstat told The Times of Israel.

“They had privacy rules to protect the identities of the customers, and that made them the center for people who may have wished to have their assets hidden, but that’s changed,” he said. “So the sort of traditional notions of Swiss banks are very outdated.”

That hasn’t helped Bayrak, though. He requested a search for his father’s account from the Swiss banking ombudsman’s office, and received a letter in 2006 saying there were no dormant accounts under his father’s name. A second letter from the office in 2010 confirmed the search still hadn’t turned up any result.

Family members trying to track down an account whose holder is deceased typically contact the ombudsman’s office, which searches a database of dormant accounts. Accounts are considered dormant if there have been no transactions or communication between the bank and account holder for 10 years, as the bank explained to Bayrak when he walked through their doors for the first time in 2005.

The office receives about 800 requests for dormant account searches each year, but only 5 or 10 percent of the searches are successful, said Marco Franchetti, the current Swiss banking ombudsman.

Marco Franchetti (Photo courtesy of Swiss banking ombudsman's office)

Marco Franchetti (Photo courtesy of Swiss banking ombudsman’s office)

“Often people are searching for an account, but they have no idea if there really was an account; they just try, and there is nothing,” he said. “Another reason could be the account was closed, and if it was closed, obviously there is often no registered account on the database.”

When a search does find a dormant account, the ombudsman’s office notifies the bank and customer and then is no longer involved.

“I’m not a regulator,” Franchetti said. “How the process continues — did the bank oblige and do the job correctly? — that is under the regulator.”

Regulation comes from FINMA, the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority, which independently oversees Switzerland’s financial institutions.

However, FINMA’s oversight typically runs on a broad scale and rarely touches individual customers’ cases. Those complaints fall under civil law, said Vinzenz Mathys, a spokesman for FINMA.

Still, FINMA will receive a formal notification about Bayrak’s suit against Credit Suisse to allow the regulator to open its own case against the bank, Koch said.

In the fight for as long as it takes

Bayrak’s claim is being followed closely by his friends in Israel, including Zali de Toledo, head of the Turkish Jewish community in the country. She met Bayrak when she was serving at Israel’s embassy in Turkey and helped arrange the peace medal he received from Israel’s chief rabbi.

Israel, home to thousands of Holocaust survivors who fought for years to retrieve family assets hidden in Swiss banks, feels like a second home to Bayrak. He travels to the country often for business and vacation.

Despite the obstacles Bayrak has faced, and the curious circumstances surrounding the deaths of his associates, he is willing to remain in the fight for as long as it takes. But, with no evidence in hand, facing a bank that says it has no record of the account, it might be a long time before Bayrak sees progress in solving the mystery of what happened to his family’s fortune.