It’s been half a century since Las Vegas, that glittering Mecca of excess and indulgence in the Nevada desert, was last in the thrall of big-time Jewish mobsters. Even then, the godfathers — men like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky — were U.S. born and as distinctly American as Vegas itself.
But recently, authorities say, a new strain of Jewish mobster has started to do business there — a breed as tough and prickly as an Israeli cactus, with roots that stretch though South Africa, Eastern Europe, Jerusalem and the suburbs of Tel Aviv.
Law enforcement officials told the Forward that the Israeli syndicate — including associates of the violent and bloody Jerusalem Network — recently has infiltrated the city’s underworld and nearly cornered a niche in the city’s illicit drug trade, establishing an almost unchallenged monopoly over the sale and distribution of the party drug Ecstasy.
“Just like the Mexican mafia out here is responsible for a good deal of the methamphetamine distribution, the Israeli guys seem to be kind of out in front of the Ecstasy trade,” said Sergeant Scott Killebrew of the Las Vegas police department’s intelligence unit.
Killebrew contends that the Israeli mobsters — among them men alleged to be key lieutenants to Itzhak Abergil, reputed boss of the Jerusalem Network — not only dominate Ecstasy importation in Las Vegas, but have cultivated strong ties with the owners of many popular late-night hot spots in the city, giving them a powerful distribution network.
“We have information that these guys… are responsible for Ecstasy import into Las Vegas,” Killebrew said. “Some of our sources have told us that they have connections in the late-night club scene, which is where this stuff is readily available… and used.”
What’s more, although Israeli mobsters dabble in other crimes, including extortion, money laundering, real-estate fraud and insurance fraud, they largely have contented themselves with what is essentially a boutique business in the world of organized crime.
It is, said Killebrew and others, a mutually beneficial arrangement between the drug dealers and the club owners — promoters, they call themselves. “They try to separate themselves a little bit, but the promoters are actually kind of involved,” Killebrew said. “Some of these promoters… are able to produce a great crowd at an after-hours party because… this stuff is readily available and a crowd is going to be more apt to come to that joint.”
It is also an arrangement that has produced little friction between Israeli mobsters and other factions of the Las Vegas underworld. Because Vegas lures partiers from all over the world with the promise of seemingly unbridled hedonism (consider the town’s slogan, “Vegas: What Happens Here Stays Here” ), shadowy businessmen who specialize in vice can count on an almost endless flow of customers. “The market is certainly big enough” so that mobsters don’t have to compete with each other for clients, Killebrew said.
As in almost all businesses, success breeds success. Because the Israeli mob has become so dominant, Killebrew said, there is little chance that anyone else will try to step into the Ecstasy trade. “I mean, the potential for problems is there,” Killebrew said, “but without a network of distribution in a club, you really have no… ability to distribute. You’re just one guy.”
Recently, however, authorities have begun to move against the alleged activities of the Jerusalem Network in Las Vegas.
Although agents for the drug task force have not charged any of the suspected Israeli mobsters with narcotics trafficking, in April federal prosecutors in Los Angeles quietly unsealed an indictment charging five reputed members of the Jerusalem Network with a raft of crimes, including money laundering and extortion.
Among those named was 39-year-old Gabriel Ben Harosh, a man alleged to have close ties to Abergil, the reputed Israeli mob boss who is alleged to be one of the driving forces in a bloody gang war between two Israeli crime families — a war that has claimed victims in Israel, South Africa and elsewhere.
Although his Las Vegas lawyer, David Chesnoff, describes the Moroccan-born Ben Harosh, who is being held in Toronto and is awaiting extradition, as “a legitimate businessman [who is] looking forward to his day in court,” federal investigators in a sworn affidavit insist that he is a “a high-ranking member of an Israeli organized crime syndicate.”
Also named in the indictment is Hai Waknine, a 32-year-old Israeli who, according to published reports, has a reputation around the Las Vegas tables as a high roller with a penchant for pretty young prostitutes. Authorities contend in the indictment that Ben Harosh, Waknine, Yoram El-Al and Thanh Nguyen, along with Sasson Barashy, a 47-year-old who is in custody in Israel and is reputed to be a longtime associate of the Jerusalem Network, were in almost constant touch with overseas contacts, many of them reputed members of the Israeli mafia. Authorities also are seeking Waknine’s brother, Assaf.
Using wiretaps and surveillance, investigators say they collected evidence showing that members of the gang used threats and intimidation to extort money from, among others, a luxury car dealer in Beverly Hills, Calif., at one point threatening the man with grievous bodily harm if he didn’t surrender his lavish home to settle a debt. The authorities also allege that the gang used banks and lawyers in Los Angeles, Miami and Spain to launder money, which, authorities charge, was used in part to finance drug deals.
Throughout the 14-month investigation, Ben Harosh, the Waknines, and Barashy reportedly did little to lower their profile in Las Vegas. In fact, according to published reports, in April 2003, Hai Waknine and Barashy hosted a lavish Passover Seder at Bally’s hotel and casino in Las Vegas.
In an interview in June, Chesnoff, who also practices in Los Angeles and worked as part of the defense team for disgraced domestic diva Martha Stewart, insisted that the charges against Ben Harosh are without merit.
“He’s going to defend it vigorously,” Chesnoff said. “There’s absolutely no truth to the allegations… I’m very confident that we’re going to be fully exonerated.”
The trial is set to begin in January.
For his part, Killebrew said he would wait to see whether a jury finds Ben Harosh and his alleged associates guilty before assessing the impact that the charges might have on the Israeli mob’s presence in Vegas.
“These guys haven’t been tried, and I don’t want to make any judgments,” Killebrew said. “I just believe, I believe that they’re responsible for a good portion of the drug trade that happens here.”
All the same, he is hopeful that the “these recent indictments will… curtail the problem for a while.”
The best that authorities can hope for, he said, is that the newfound pressure on the Israeli mob in Las Vegas might drive them out of town. “They might go someplace else,” he said, or, “they might be more cautious.”