Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Israel’s first national poet, defined Zionism’s aspiration to make the Jews a normal people via statehood: “We will be a normal state only when we have the first Jewish prostitute, the first Hebrew thief, and the first Hebrew policeman.”
But in the 21st century, it’s not enough to be a local thief; you have to go global. And the upcoming Los Angeles trial of Itzhak and Meir Abergil promises to update Israel’s “normalization” when it comes to crime in a way that befits the times.
The Abergil brothers, whom federal prosecutors label one of “the most powerful crime families in Israel,” face an indictment that alleges a trail of drug dealing, murder, money laundering, racketeering and extortion, as they hopscotched from Belgium to Thailand, from Jerusalem to Miami, to Malaga in Spain, and myriad locations around the globe, including, of course, Los Angeles.
Now, interpreters fluent in Hebrew are working overtime in preparation for a trial set for November 8 in the Los Angeles Federal District Court in a case that prosecutors say involves a crime group with a “propensity for violence in Israel and around the world.”
It’s a trial with a long legal prologue. The Justice Department’s 77-page, 32-count indictment of Itzhak Abergil, 38; Meir Abergil, 53, and three associates was issued in 2008, and set off a two-year fight by the defendants against extradition from Israel. They finally arrived in L.A. on January 13, in shackles, aboard an American government aircraft. The five Israelis are being held in the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles, where they await their day in court, armed with an array of L.A.’s top criminal defense attorneys. All five are receiving kosher meals and the religious services of a rabbi connected with the prison chaplain’s office, according to MDC Los Angeles.
The trial of the Abergil brothers promises to be exceptional in its wide-angle complexity, presenting a picture of globalized crime today. The government’s case is based partially on linking the notorious 2001 embezzlement of millions of shekels from the Tel Aviv Trade Bank by a bizarre brother-sister team to the harrowing experiences of two American businessmen, allegedly squeezed by the defendants via a loan-sharking scheme. One, an Orange County luxury auto dealer, was forced to sell off his stock of $300,000 Lamborghinis for $60,000 apiece in order to repay the loans under dire threats to himself and his family, according to prosecutors.
Another facet of the case hinges on the defendants’ alleged investment of much of those embezzled funds in the manufacture and importation of vast amounts of the drug MDMA, known to rave partiers as Ecstasy, via smuggling networks stretching from laboratories in the Netherlands to L.A., Las Vegas and as far away as Japan and China.
The indictment’s bloodiest count involves the 2003 murder-for-hire of Sami Atias, a Jerusalem native living in L.A. who allegedly took delivery of a shipment of 76 kilos of Ecstasy pills for distribution and neglected to pay for it. The government charges that the rub-out in an Encino parking lot was carried out by members of the San Fernando Valley Latino gang Vineland Boyz who the U.S. attorney will attempt to prove beyond a reasonable doubt were foot soldiers for the Israeli mob that were acting on orders from Itzhak Abergil. The gang’s leader, Luis Sandoval, is also named in the indictment. Both Sandoval and Abergil face life in prison if convicted on this charge.
The Abergil brothers and co-defendants Moshe Malul, Israel Osifa and Sasson Barashy have pleaded not guilty. Initially apprehended by Israeli police two years ago and held on charges of blackmailing Beersheba businessmen, Meir and Itzhak Abergil were motioning for release on bail when the U.S. Justice Department quickly stepped in with a request for extradition. The feds sought the incarcerated Israelis on a multi-count indictment filed in Federal District Court in July 2008. Since 1999, Israel has had an agreement with the United States that extraditions of Israeli citizens for criminal proceedings in America may be permitted as long as sentences are served in Israeli prisons.
“It’s 90% politics,” asserted Avi Amiram, one of Israel’s most esteemed criminal lawyers, referring to the charges of the United States. Speaking by phone from his home in Jerusalem, Amiram, who has represented Meir Abergil in Israel — most recently in his failed extradition fight — described his client as “a businessman, a family man,” who resides in a moshav with his wife and his four children. Referring to the indictment’s portrait of a ruthless mobster regarded as the financial brains of the outfit, Amiram said: “Meir is real far away from this description. He’s smart, well educated; he makes the judge laugh. If he were tried here [in Israel], he would be acquitted.” In Amiram’s view, the Americans’ case against the Abergil brothers, with Itzhak facing 11 of the 32 counts and Meir only six, is flimsy. “They have no evidence. It’s all wiretaps,” he said.
America’s investigation leading to the indictment coincided with an Israeli crackdown on the country’s six organized crime families, described collectively as “Not Your Grandfather’s Mob” in a 2008 American diplomatic cable from Tel Aviv recently released by WikiLeaks. Having shifted security efforts over the past decade to anti-terrorism, Israeli police were suddenly confronted by a crime wave. The bloody exploits of the Abergils, a large clan originating in Lod, made headlines as the gang competed with the rival Abutbul and Alperon families for the illicit receipts of money from drug smuggling, sex trafficking, kidnapping, extortion and money laundering. Laboratories controlled by these families mixed up batches of Ecstasy in the Netherlands, federal prosecutors say, and the drugs moved through Europe via long-established diamond-trading networks. Turf wars erupted into fatal bombings and vendetta shootings in Europe and Israel that included the assassination in June 2002 of Yaakov Abergil, eldest of the brothers, in front of his family.
The indictment details nearly a decade of intercepted calls by American law enforcement agencies, tracking the Abergil brothers and their multitude of named and unnamed co-conspirators across the globe.
“The intercepted phone calls contained in the indictment will be provided to the defendants in audio form,” a U.S. Justice Department spokesman said in a statement to the Forward. “The defendants will also be provided transcripts in both Hebrew and English.”
“There’s 500,000 pages of discovery,” attorney Anthony Brooklier told the Forward, referring to the voluminous evidence still being turned over by the government at the request of the defendants’ attorneys, including photographs, phone intercept transcripts and other documentation. Hired to represent Meir Abergil, Brooklier has battled on behalf of some of the most infamous names in L.A.’s criminal history, among them Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss and Brooklier’s own father, Dominic, a reputed boss of the West Coast mob, who died in federal prison after his conviction in a 1981 racketeering trial.
Brooklier, whose law partner, Donald Marks, is representing Malul, said that “hundreds” of audio recordings of phone intercepts are also being turned over and collated as the defense teams prepare for the trial. It is expected that Brooklier and Marks will be huddling over the evidence and deciding strategy with other attorneys in the case, including Itzhak Abergil’s lawyer, Victor Sherman. Known as “The Magician” for his ability to win acquittals and minimal sentences for his clients, Sherman’s success stories have included accused bank robbers, drug dealers and Watergate dirty trickster Donald Segretti.
Stephen Demik, a Federal public defender, is representing Barashy. Demik said he has visited his client several times. They communicate through a Hebrew-speaking interpreter who works in the public defender’s office. The fact that his client is apparently not able to afford the same high-priced legal talent as the others won’t be a detriment, Demik hastened to say.
“It’s a big, complicated case to sort through, but we’re diligently preparing the case, and he’ll receive the best representation he can hope for,” Demik told the Forward. “Maybe better.”
Contact Rex Weiner at email@example.com
Rex Weiner is a Brooklyn-born, third-generation journalist who from 1992 to 1997 covered the entertainment industry as a staff reporter for Daily Variety, where his column, Lost and Found, appeared weekly. His articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Observer and LA Weekly, and he contributes regularly to Rolling Stone Italia. His screenwriting credits include “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” (20th Century Fox), and he was one of the first writers of the TV series “Miami Vice.” He is a founding editor of High Times magazine and a co-author of The Woodstock Census (Viking, 1979), one of the key texts analyzing the impact of the ’60s generation on American society. He is currently based in Los Angeles and in the town of Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico, where his fluent Spanish and capacity for tequila come in handy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.