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‘Beautiful Things’: Drug Sting Nabs Chasidic Kingpin

Natan Banda seemed perfectly at ease as he slid his car into a parking space on a shadowy Washington Heights side street last July and shut off the engine. The 31-year-old businessman with addresses in the chasidic communities of Kiryas Joel and Williamsburg didn’t even bother to turn around and look at the man who walked to the rear of his sedan, carrying a large suitcase in one hand and a cell phone in the other, authorities say. He simply pressed the button beside the drivers seat and popped the trunk, seeming to pay no attention as the man hefted the large valise into the luggage compartment, and slammed the trunk lid shut.

He didn’t need to ask what was in it, authorities say. He already knew: It was a suitcase full of “beautiful things.”

That’s the phrase Banda used to describe the crisp new bills in large denominations, which were funneled to him by cocaine and Ecstasy dealers, authorities say.

Banda might have been a little more edgy on that July afternoon when he collected what investigators now say was about $1 million — if he had known that right across the street, federal agents were watching him.

They had been for almost seven months.

On Monday federal prosecutors ended their 15-month probe with the announcement that Banda and 14 other men had been arrested in connection with an international money-laundering scheme that handled tens of millions of dollars in proceeds from illicit drug sales. The operation, masterminded by Banda, according to a 58-page document unsealed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, had branch offices in Florida, Texas, the Netherlands and Columbia. In addition to Banda, the complaint names Nathan Weiss; Zakay, Ezra and Eitan Sasson; Menachem Klein; Isaac “Eddy” Hoffman; Saye Fish; Shlomo Hirsch Ekstein; Abraham Gluck; Manuel Mercedes, and Nelson Rojas.

Banda and his alleged conspirators were arraigned Monday before U.S. Magistrate Robert Levy on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to distribute narcotics. Bail information was not immediately available.

According to court documents, federal investigators first opened their file on Banda and his alleged cohorts early last year after they received a tip from a confidential informant. The informant, who pleaded guilty earlier to charges of dealing the hallucinogenic club drug Ecstasy and had since “provided reliable information that led to the conviction of several narcotics defendants,” told federal prosecutors that as early as October 1999 he had been at a meeting at a restaurant in Manhattan, near 15th Street and First Avenue, at which Banda had allegedly agreed to launder $900,000 in drug profits.

Additional information turned up from police in the Netherlands. In November 2001 they had broken up an Ecstasy smuggling ring after police in Hamburg, Germany, confiscated 1.5 million Ecstasy tablets. Following his arrest, a suspect in that case, Manchem Mendel Cohen, told Dutch authorities that he had worked closely with Banda, and his company, the Florida-based electronics exporter National Electronics, Inc., to launder $300,000 in drug ring profits.

According to Cohen, the money took a circuitous route, traveling from Europe to Israel and back to Europe, always through a small overnight shipping company and usually in small packages, which the co-conspirators referred to as “jewelry.”

Agents of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration quickly determined that Banda and his co-conspirators used two cellular phones to handle virtually all of their drug transactions. The agents obtained a federal warrant to tap the phones and, beginning in late winter of 2002, they began eavesdropping on the ring members, according to court documents.

Unaware that they were being spied on, the alleged money launderers spoke freely. From one conversation, authorities learned that Banda had a preference for larger bills, which he called “beautiful things.” The smaller “ugly little ones,” he complained, were bulkier and harder to ship.

In another conversation, accused conspirator Nathan Weiss was heard to ask Banda whether a particular deposit had arrived. When Weiss was told it had, he allegedly responded, “Praise the Lord! It’s a great thing.”

By the middle of June 2002, investigators had placed Banda and other members of the ring under surveillance. Banda became suspicious.

At one point, while traveling from Brooklyn Heights to Williamsburg, Banda spotted a car that seemed to be following him. Suspecting that it might contain a federal agent, he telephoned an official at the local branch of the Shomrim, the chasidic neighborhood watch. It may be a measure of how effective the Shomrim is that the official — who is not named in the complaint — told Banda that he “already knew the whole story about you being followed.”

Banda recited the license plate number of the car that had been tailing him, and asked the Shomrim official to find out whether it was “from a precinct, IRS, FBI or another agency.”

The Shomrim official refused, court papers said.

For the next several days, Banda allegedly tried to alter his routine, according to the court papers, hoping, as he was later heard telling a cohort, that the police would “forget” about him. In the meantime, authorities said, the red and blue phones kept ringing. Over the next month, authorities allege, Banda and his ring picked up and laundered more than $1.5 million dollars.

One of the biggest transfers came July 12, authorities allege, when Banda drove to Washington Heights, an upper Manhattan neighborhood that, according to the complaint, “cocaine and heroin dealers frequently use to conduct their business.” As investigators watched from a discreet distance, Banda allegedly held a brief meeting with a man who approached him, and then drove off. Five minutes later, investigators watched as Banda pulled his car into a shadowy parking spot a few blocks from the meeting place and waited silently as a man approached carrying a cell phone and suitcase. Banda never turned around to look at the man, authorities said, he just popped open the trunk and seem to pay almost no attention as the man hefted the luggage into the trunk.

According to authorities, the suitcase contained $1 million in large bills — beautiful things.

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