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Racketeer loses his swagger

Hai Waknine parlayed a violent reputation into a small fortune. Wiretaps did what intimidated witnesses couldn't: send him meekly to prison.

December 29, 2006|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

HAI Waknine shambled into the Beverly Hills Lamborghini showroom.

The owner, Victor Keuylian, sensed trouble. Keuylian and his son were late on paying off a $950,000 loan that Waknine had brokered with an Israeli businessman.

"What do you want, Hai?" he asked, according to a later telephone conversation recounting the incident that was caught on a federal wiretap.

Waknine pointed to a $175,000 Ferrari in the luxury European car dealership.

"I want this one over here. I want to take this car and use it for half a day."

"Hai, the cars over here are for sale," Keuylian said. "Nobody's supposed to drive them."

"No, I want this car. Get the car out."

Reluctantly, Keuylian let him take it, and got it back later with 100 more miles on the odometer. Waknine was unappeased.

Two days later he left a message on the home answering machine of Keuylian's son, Viken: "Vic, if you don't have the money tonight, it's going to double tomorrow.... Tomorrow we are coming to your shop, and we are going to take $2 million."

Keuylian called the police. As it turned out, the police were already listening on wiretaps.

Los Angeles police had been pursuing Waknine for 14 years, since he was a student at Grant High School in the San Fernando Valley. At various times, they charged him with threatening witnesses, kidnapping for ransom, assault with a firearm and grand theft auto.

All the investigations collapsed when witnesses refused to testify or left the country, and Waknine grew wealthier every year. He owned a 3,154-square-foot town house on the sand in Marina del Rey, a brand-new home in the Hollywood Hills, a vacation house on Acapulco Bay and investment properties around Southern California, Las Vegas and Miami.

But in 2003, at the time of Keuylian's call, organized crime detectives thought they had a good case building. Working with federal drug agents and foreign police who were investigating Israeli organized crime and Ecstasy trafficking, they had wiretaps on phones in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, Mexico, Spain, Belgium and Israel.

From the wires and informants they began amassing fresh evidence of Waknine's connections to an Israeli crime syndicate called the Jerusalem Group and his alleged involvement in drug trafficking, money laundering and extortion, according to court documents. And this time, none of it depended on skittish witnesses.

"Yesterday, I got all kinds of threats at my office in California: 'I will kill your wife, I will kill your son, I will kill you,' " Keuylian complained about Waknine to another Israeli involved in the deal over a wiretap in April 2003.

In another wiretap, he described Waknine's foray into the showroom.

"If he wants to be a jerk with me," he said. "I'm more than ready to be a jerk with him.... This lowlife immoral person, Hai, came over and threatened me and all of my family."

Waknine first came to the attention of authorities as a student at Grant High in March 1989. A popular teacher named Hal Arthur was shot to death outside his Sherman Oaks home, and at least 10 students suspected Waknine; he had a bellicose reputation and, they thought, a beef with the teacher.

He was 16 at the time, a pudgy upper-middle-class Van Nuys kid, born in Israel, who wore jewelry and fancy clothes and drove a BMW. One of the students told police that Waknine took karate lessons from an instructor who taught him "how to shoot guns and kill people."

Detectives questioned Waknine for six hours but let him go after he passed a polygraph test. "There is no evidence to connect the kid to this case," Det. Mel Arnold told the news media.

The killing remains unsolved. But organized crime detectives who have followed Waknine for years say the incident gave him an ominous reputation he would later play to his advantage.

Waknine dropped out of high school and became a full-time "wheeler-dealer," in the words of his younger brother, Assaf Waknine, interviewed by telephone. "He'd buy five cars here, sell five cars there."

In the mid-1990s, Waknine brokered a business arrangement between a wealthy uncle and a real estate investor named Judah Hertz, whose holdings included the International Jewelry Center on South Hill Street, across from Pershing Square. Waknine rented several offices in the building and opened a postal business called Global Parcel Service on the bottom floor.

Around this time, according to police, several of his friends were becoming the country's biggest importers of the club drug Ecstasy. They flaunted their Italian cars and Versace suits in the hippest clubs of Beverly Hills and Hollywood.

One of his friends, Jacob "Cookie" Orgad, an Israeli who was also in business with Hertz, had taken over a Las Vegas-based network that transported cocaine from California to the East Coast for Pablo Escobar's Colombian cartel, according to a report by Nevada gaming investigators.

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