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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

Erez's couriers typically smuggled 30,000 to 45,000 Ecstasy pills into the country in each trip, putting them in plastic bags and then in dozens of pairs of white athletic socks. At any one time, three couriers a week were traveling between the Netherlands and the United States with suitcases full of socks, each sock containing up to 1,000 of the aspirin-sized pills stamped with logos of elephants, Superman or the Chinese yin and yang symbol.

The bags were checked through, and unless they were hand-searched, the smugglers were home free.

Or so they thought. Almost from the get-go, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs Service and the New York City Police Department were on Erez's tail.

"We received information from a confidential source that Sean Erez was getting ready to leave jail [on a 1998 drug conviction] and that it was his intention to travel to the Netherlands to set up his network," said the DEA's Gagne.

So, in what U.S. officials say was a successful new partnership, they began working closely with Dutch investigators, sharing witnesses and evidence, particularly evidence gleaned by listening in on Erez's phone conversations in the Netherlands, where wiretaps are easier to obtain than in the United States, Lacewell said.

They heard how Hasidic couriers would arrive at airports in Brussels or Amsterdam and be given a pager or number and a name such as "Mutty" or "Chaim" to call. They would then go to a hotel, where one of Erez's people would meet them, and often hand over a suitcase full of drugs.

The couriers would take the suitcase to New York, or occasionally Miami, and wait for someone to identify himself using a password such as "Goombah" or "Adidas." Then they'd pass along drugs. Sometimes, they'd also run drug profits back to Europe.

Court documents show that the couriers often were deliberately incurious about the illegal load they were carrying. One smuggler asked his contact why the suitcase was so heavy. "A lot of shoes had been packed," he was told. The discussion stopped there.

The wiretaps also offer a glimpse into an organization that could run to the almost laughably amateur. Those sent to receive the drugs at airports sometimes ran late and missed their arriving contacts. One 18-year-old courier waited to take flights on which he could get student discounts. Wiretapped phone conversations reveal Erez and his lieutenants obsessed with finding cheap plane, train and bus fares as they attempted to sidestep airports and cities they deemed "hot."

Still, Erez, a dark-haired domineering man whom Gagne describes as "a very good businessman with an outgoing personality," did a remarkable job of setting up a large drug-smuggling operation in such a short time, Gagne said.

He gave his young recruiters Roth (also known as Moshe and Mutty) and Levita (a.k.a. Mo and Shimi) not just trips to Europe, but a fantasy lifestyle in which they shed their somber Hasidic clothing and reveled in posh hotels and nightclubs. "It was a kind of an Oliver Twist story," said Chris Franzblau, the lawyer for Roth. "Erez was Fagin."

Erez (also know as Opher, Shmule and Chaim) encouraged Levita and Roth to enjoy the finer things in life, including their own product--Ecstasy. In the court affidavit, Erez tells Roth that "you got to start trying the little things; you'll have a better time."

For five months, the operation seemed to thrive, but in March 1999, it began to fall apart. Two couriers arriving at JFK airport were arrested with 30,000 pills. A month later, Hasidic newlyweds were arrested at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris with 78,000 Ecstasy tablets.

When the first couriers failed to arrive in Miami, wiretaps show, Erez and his people scrambled to figure out where they went. Did they double-cross Erez and steal the drugs? Or were they caught?

As Roth noted over a wiretapped phone, "Something's not good."

At the same time the Paris couriers were arrested, a young Hasidic woman on her way back from Brussels was nabbed at Dorval International Airport in Montreal with 45,000 pills in her suitcase. She said she had planned to take a bus from Montreal to Brooklyn but had waited a day so she did not have to travel on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

With those arrests, Erez advised Levita and Roth to flee the U.S. Levita flew to Amsterdam, Roth to Israel. Two months later, in June, the trap closed. Erez and his girlfriend, Dina Reicherter, were arrested at the Amsterdam airport on their way to a vacation in the French Rivera. Levita was also grabbed, as were Erez's distributors in New York and Miami.

Roth and Levita agreed to return to the U.S., where they pleaded guilty to smuggling and helped prosecutors build their case against Erez, who fought extradition. He and Reicherter were finally sent back to the U.S. in February of this year.

Altogether, 18 people pleaded guilty to importing or conspiracy to import Ecstasy. None of those arrested contested the charges.

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