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Dozen Indicted in Alleged Ecstasy Ring

Courts: An Israeli nicknamed 'Fat Man' is accused of heading operation that smuggled pills into the U.S.

August 15, 2001|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Israeli man suspected of running the largest Ecstasy smuggling network in the world was indicted by a Los Angeles federal grand jury Tuesday, along with 11 alleged associates.

Currently in custody in Spain, Oded Tuito has been described by federal investigators as the most prolific Ecstasy trafficker based in Europe.

Using a stable of young female couriers, authorities said, Tuito's organization smuggled millions of the illegal pills on flights from major European cities to Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami.

An estimated 100,000 tablets reached Los Angeles each month, according to federal agents.

Tuito, known to his friends as "Fat Man" or "Uncle," was charged with a host of offenses, including running a continuing criminal enterprise, punishable by 20 years to life in prison.

Federal grand juries in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Pittsburgh have indicted him on similar charges.

Two weeks ago, federal, state and local law officers arrested eight of Tuito's alleged subordinates in the Los Angeles area. They were named in Tuesday's indictment.

Another defendant is also under arrest in Spain and two others are fugitives.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Thomas P. Sleisenger, who brought the case to the grand jury in Los Angeles, said efforts are underway to extradite Tuito to the United States for trial.

The 40-year-old Tuito, who has lived in California, New York and Europe, managed to beat a previous extradition attempt by U.S. authorities.

In January 2000, French police arrested him outside Nice on a provisional U.S. warrant. But Tuito persuaded a French civil court to grant him a certificate of French nationality based on the fact that his father had lived in Algeria when it was a French colony. A U.S. treaty with France does not provide for extradition of French nationals to the United States.

As a result, a French court dismissed the American extradition request and set Tuito free in October.

"I don't think we're going to have that problem in Spain," Sleisenger said Tuesday.

Sleisenger said the United States will also ask Spain to extradite Michel Elkaiam, an Israeli who, according to investigators, took control of the Ecstasy distribution network after Tuito's arrest in Barcelona in May. Elkaiam was arrested there July 29. He was among those indicted in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

Also indicted were Jacob Levi of Sherman Oaks; Efraim Zafrani of Van Nuys; Avraham Zafrani of New York City; Itay Aviv of Van Nuys; Victor Morjosef of North Hollywood; Ira Shmuely of Santa Monica; Moshe Ben Shitrit of Sherman Oaks; Kfir Bezek of Sherman Oaks; Rachel Lachmi of Los Angeles; and Shimon Keslassy of North Hollywood.

Ben Shitrit and Avraham Zafrani are fugitives, Sleisenger said.

While Tuito and his chief lieutenant, Elkaiam, ran the network from Europe, the indictment said, Levi, Ben Shitrit, Keslassy and the Zafrani brothers orchestrated the receipt of Ecstasy shipments in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami.

Aviv, Bezek, Lachmi, Morjosef and Shmuely then joined them in selling the drugs to wholesalers around the country, according to the indictment.

At a bail hearing late Tuesday, Levi's lawyer, Ronald Richards, said his client is a legitimate building contractor "who possibly did a couple of deals" involving Ecstasy, but he denied that Levi figured in any international drug ring.

Levi, who is charged with running a continuing criminal enterprise, was denied bond by a federal magistrate.

The investigation of the Tuito organization was launched more than two years ago by law enforcement authorities in the United States, Europe and Israel.

Tuito's organization allegedly recruited dozens of young women, principally from California, Nevada, New York, Florida and Israel, to work as couriers. The group had a preference for hiring dancers and waitresses at topless nightclubs, according to officials.

More recently, they said, the ring began shipping Ecstasy in larger quantities by stuffing the pills into hollow picture frames.

Ecstasy, known scientifically as MDMA, is a stimulant and a hallucinogen that induces a high lasting up to six hours. It began showing up in the 1990s at all-night, teenage rave parties, rapidly gaining popularity among American youths.

An Ecstasy tablet costs about 50 cents to manufacture in underground labs in Europe, where the drug's precursor chemicals are easy to buy. In the United States, a pill can cost as much as $25 on the street.

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