JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A local Albanian-born business owner who was behind bars in Baker County for nearly two years without being charged with a crime has been released on bond.
Gjovalin "Joe" Gjergji, 28, who co-owns a restaurant in San Marco and has permanent U.S. residency, was picked up by federal agents in December 2014 and was detained without bond at a federal facility in Baker County for 19½ months.
Gjergji said he was wrongly labeled and unfairly held by the government.
He wasn’t charged with a crime at the time and was being detained on a federal immigration hold, after Congress decided to round up immigrants who commit violent crimes. Years ago, he pleaded guilty to selling a gun to a convicted felon in 2007, when he was 18. No one was hurt.
He was convicted and serviced three years of probation, complying with all the conditions.
“Joe admitted what he did, testified truthfully at his trial and paid the price for that,” Gjergji's attorney, David Vedder, said in May.
But in 2014, he was picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and labeled by the government as an "aggravated felon,” meaning he could have been deported to his home country of Albania for that crime.
“It was horrible. It was horrible to process what I went through,” Gjergji said.
A federal immigration judge in Orlando let him out on bond last week after more than 19 months in detention.
During that time, he was allowed to see his wife and baby girl only through a monitor.
“I went outside and sat in the grass in the parking lot,” Gjergji said. “I just looked at the sky, and I'm thinking, like, ‘Wow, thank God I am home.’ I couldn't believe it.”
ICE released a statement about the case development:
Gjovalin Gjergji, an Albanian national, was released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody on July 25, in accordance with a decision from an immigration judge.”
The government is still appealing his immigration case, which means it could still try to deport him.
“It was unfair. It was really unfair how I was treated,” Gjergji said.
But he said he is focusing on the positives now and is thankful for a second chance.
“(I want to) spend time with my wife, my daughter, my family, and then get back to work,” Gjergji said.
He's back working at the restaurant his family owns. He said he has huge attorney bills to repay, but that you can’t put a price on freedom.