There was a time when Zeljko Savija lived under the radar.
He worked as a truck driver, resided with his wife and two kids and led an otherwise humdrum life in the Town of Tonawanda.
And then came the allegation that turned Savija's life upside down – a federal indictment accusing him of lying about his service in a Serbian police force with ties to war crimes in Bosnia.
A jury Wednesday rejected the government's allegation and instead set the 51-year-old refugee free.
"I think the jury had a gut sense that to convict him would be unfair," said defense lawyer Rodney O. Personius.
When the jury verdict was read, Savija broke down in tears, hugging his son, daughter and daughter-in-law, all of whom were in the courtroom during the trial.
Savija and his family declined to comment because of possible immigration proceedings against them in the future.
"Gratified," said defense lawyer Richard J. Pavich when asked his reaction to the verdict. "And if you knew this family like I know them, you would know why I'm gratified."
The verdict followed a five-day trial that centered around the charge that Savija, a Serbian in Bosnia, lied to immigration officials in order to come to the United States as a refugee 14 years ago.
Investigators acknowledged early on that there was no evidence that Savija was involved in human rights abuses or war crimes, and yet the "ethnic cleansing" that took place in Bosnia during the 1990s was at the heart of his federal court trial.
Relying on Savija's immigration applications and other documents, prosecutors argued that he misled the government about his service in the Special Police Brigade, his status as a refugee and, finally, his employment history.
Charged with using a fraudulent green card to enter the United States, Savija was accused of trying to hide or minimize his involvement with the Serbian-led army and special police as part of a plan to relocate his family here.
"I think we proved all the elements of the crime," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian J. Counihan said after the verdict. "And I think their witnesses also proved those elements beyond a reasonable doubt."
Savija's prosecution is the result of a nationwide investigation targeting Bosnians immigration authorities believe are former soldiers and police officers who lied about their service and are now living here.
At last count, more than 150 have been charged and targeted for deportation.
Throughout the trial before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara, defense lawyers challenged the credibility of the government’s case, suggesting it was "misdirected" and "misguided."
They pointed to the investigation's origin as a probe into war crimes and claimed the immigration fraud prosecution was nothing but an attempt to save face.
Personius said Savija and his family may still face immigration proceedings, but he's hopeful the government will look at the verdict and realize they suffered enough.
"It's my sincere hope that any further action by the immigration authorities will be measured and balanced," he said.
In the criminal case against Savija, the allegation was that he lied on an immigration application by omitting any mention of his service in the Special Police Brigade.
Throughout the trial, Counihan and prosecutor Stephanie O. Lamarque argued that Savija knew his police service might raise a red flag and affect his ability to stay in the United States.
Pavich and Personius have countered by suggesting the question on the application, which asks about military service, not police service, was ambiguous and confusing, especially for a non-English speaking refugee relying on an interpreter.