JERUSALEM Two brothers reputedly at the head of one of Israel's most powerful organized crime families were en route to the United States Wednesday to face drug trafficking and racketeering charges for their alleged roles in a massive Los Angeles-based Ecstasy ring, authorities said.
Itzhak and Meir Abergil are accused of recruiting members of the Vineland Boyz street gang to distribute tens of thousands of doses of Ecstasy throughout Southern California, and to provide security for the organization, which allegedly included fatally shooting a man who tried to steal a shipment of the drugs. The State Department once listed Itzhak Abergil as one of the 40 biggest importers of illegal drugs into the U.S.
"These are the minds behind things, not the small soldiers, but basically the people giving the orders, the masterminds behind the criminals," an Israeli police spokesman said Wednesday.
The Abergils and several associates were arrested in Israel in 2008 after being indicted by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles. An Israeli court ruled the men "extraditable" in July 2009, but the men appealed. A court rejected their petition last month, paving the way for their extraditions.
Israel for decades had refused to extradite its citizens. But the country amended its laws in 1999 to grant extradition requests to countries that promised to return defendants who are convicted abroad to Israel to serve their sentences. Chief Inspector Micky Rosenfeld, the Israeli police spokesman, said officials had reached such an agreement with respect to the Abergils and their co-defendants.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, said it was not immediately clear when the defendants would arrive. When they do, Mrozek said, they will likely be housed in the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles while awaiting trial.
A 77-page indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles describes the Abergil family as one of the most powerful crime families in Israel and said it derived that power, in part, "because of its propensity for violence in Israel and around the world."
Together with another reputed crime syndicate, the Jerusalem Network, the Abergils allegedly embezzled millions of dollars from a Tel Aviv bank, which authorities called "the largest bank embezzlement scheme in the history of Israel."
The indictment, based in part on informants cooperating with authorities, alleges that the Abergils also engaged in loan sharking and extortion in the United States, among other things. Beginning in 2000, the federal indictment alleges, one of the brothers' co-defendants, Moshe Malul, began selling Ecstasy to members of the Los Angeles-based Vineland Boyz gang. The following year, Malul received a shipment of more than 1 million tablets of Ecstasy, which he enlisted Vineland Boyz members to help sell on the streets, authorities allege.
Malul also arranged for Vineland Boyz members to protect him during negotiations with other drug traffickers in the Los Angeles area, the indictment states. When a man named Sami Atias attempted to steal 76 kilos of Ecstasy in 2002, prosecutors allege, Malul turned to the gang to have Atias killed. Itzhak Abergil offered to help with the slaying during a meeting in Spain, the indictment alleges. But he did not play a direct role in the killing.
Atias was fatally shot in the parking lot of a Los Angeles cafe on Aug. 31, 2008. The shooting took place after Malul and an alleged Vineland Boyz member named Luis Sandoval had been tracking Atias for several days, prosecutors allege. Malul and Sandoval were at the scene when Atias was shot, but another man who was not identified in the indictment pulled the trigger.
In a recent interview on Israeli TV, Meir Abergil offered his thoughts on the American justice system, after having received word that he would be extradited.
"The American system's like this: you enter a plea bargain because if you don't, you get many years (in jail) if convicted, you're afraid," he said. "It's not professional people that decide, it's a jury, ordinary people who can be convinced by the prosecution more than the defense."
Abergil, who is facing life in prison, added, "if they tell me to confess to Kennedy's murder now and walk, I will. I will confess to anything they tell me because I want to be released."
Abergil dismissed claims that he and his brother were the heavyweight criminals they were made out to be. "Who are we? We're peanuts compared to the mafias they have in America. They have the Mexican cartels, the Italians, the Irish mafia, the Colombians. Who are we? Nothing, cockroaches."
Criminal justice experts said the Abergils' alleged enterprise isn't uncommon for the Los Angeles area, which attracts various ethnic groups because of its cultural diversity and agreeable climate.
James J. Wedick, a 35-year-veteran of the FBI who now works as a private consultant, said it's not just ordinary citizens who are drawn to the sunshine of the Golden State.
"Just listening to informants and wiretaps over the years," Wedick said, "Weather does play into whether they want to start here or on the East Coast."
(Sobelman is a news assistant in the Times' Jerusalem Bureau. Saad reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Scott Glover contributed to this report.)
By BATSHEVA SOBELMAN AND NARDINE SAAD - Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011
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