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The Rise and Fall of an Unlikely Drug-Smuggling Ring

Many young Hasidim were lured away from the shelter of their yeshivas to transport what they were told were diamonds.

October 19, 2001|ALINA TUGEND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The offer was spread in quiet conversations among young Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn and Monsey, N.Y. They'd get $1,500 and a round-trip ticket to Europe if they were willing to carry back suitcases full of diamonds.

About a dozen said yes.

But it wasn't diamonds they were smuggling. It was Ecstasy. And these Hasidic Jews--most of whom still prayed morning, noon and night, and some who wouldn't travel carrying their contraband load on Saturday because it was the Sabbath--helped bring almost a million tablets of the illegal drug into the U.S. in less than a year.

The operation, while it lasted, was one of the biggest Ecstasy-smuggling rings in the country, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Linda Lacewell, who is prosecuting the case as it winds to a close in Brooklyn's U.S. District Court. And the federal judge who has overseen the case for the last two years calls it "the most painful" in his 20 years on the bench.

Next month the ringleader, Sean Erez, an Israeli Canadian who had made his home in New York and Amsterdam, will be sentenced in the final chapter of this multi-country saga, which involved both sophisticated drug-smuggling operations and bungling worthy of Hollywood farce.

It began almost exactly three years ago, in October 1998, when Erez, a 31-year-old convicted drug felon, moved to Amsterdam to set up an Ecstasy distribution network.

Why Amsterdam? Because, as a senior Dutch official has said, "Holland is to synthetic drugs what Colombia is to cocaine." Ecstasy, which is illegal in both the U.S. and the Netherlands, is sold in pill or capsule form and consists of amphetamines and MDMA, a hallucinogen to make users feel high for hours. It is mass-produced in Dutch laboratories in vast quantities for 50 cents to $2 per pill and at the markup price of up to $25 in U.S. nightclubs, where it also is known as the "hug drug" because it gives users a sense of well-being and euphoria.

Despite the side effects, which include depression, sleep disorders and memory loss, demand for the drug has escalated dramatically over the last five years, more than for any other controlled substance, according to DEA special agent Robert Gagne.

This ripe market was the perfect opportunity for Erez, a low-level drug dealer who was "going entrepreneurial," said Gagne, who is based in New York and was involved in the Erez investigation from the beginning. The trick, of course, would be to get the pills past customs officials. In February 1999, Erez and a few of his colleagues came up with an ingenious idea: Recruit sheltered young Orthodox Jews, who had spent most of their lives in religious schools called yeshivas, to serve as drug couriers.

Erez had a perfect in: an Orthodox Jewish associate, Shimon Levita, who was then 17 years old--and willing to sell the plan to his friends.

The two were confident they would find takers. After all, there were bound to be some rebels in the tight-knit Hasidic community, which insulates itself as much as possible from the modern-day world, prohibiting or strictly limiting television, radio and movies, and requiring very modest dress for both men and women.

Levita was promised $2,000 for every courier he brought in. He soon roped in Simcha Roth, then 18, who helped bring on board others at his yeshiva. Each of the yeshiva boys who joined the ring was offered a $200 commission for recruiting a friend.

"The brilliance of this conspiracy was the cover story," Lacewell said. While diamond smuggling is also illegal, it lacked the stigma that goes with the drug trade--and has a history in the community, where there are tales of Jews, forced to flee anti-Semitism in Europe, who hid diamonds and gold in their clothes to help them survive in new lands.

Court documents note that those who later cooperated with authorities acknowledged that "there were warning signs along the way that they were smuggling drugs, [but] they generally closed their eyes to the fact."

"Even though they knew it was drugs, they could tell themselves it was diamonds. I think if you told them 'you get $1,500 for bringing in a bag of drugs,' they probably wouldn't do it."

And Lacewell added, "I should say this--there were plenty of young people who refused" to run the "diamonds."

Those who did join up, most of them ages 18 to 20, helped turn Erez into a big-time operator. In the year before he set up shop, the period from October 1997 to October 1998, drug authorities at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport seized about 375,000 Ecstasy pills. From October 1998 to July 1999--at the height of Erez's operation--more than 1 million pills were found, which at retail could bring in as much as $25 million.

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