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Mob Figure Sentenced in Racketeering Case

Hai Waknine gets a 10-year term after admitting to extortion in helping an Israeli crime group launder embezzled funds.

September 12, 2006|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

An Israeli-born mob figure known for holding court at the hippest of Westside clubs -- with wads of cash, magnums of Cristal and an array of high-end strippers and Russian blonds -- was sentenced Monday to more than 10 years in prison for racketeering.

Hai Waknine, 34, abruptly pleaded guilty during his trial in June to using extortion and threats of violence to help an Israeli crime group launder nearly $2 million in embezzled funds.

The case against Waknine stemmed from ongoing federal probes into Israeli rings that traffic the club drug Ecstasy and launder the proceeds. Several of Waknine's associates have been convicted of Ecstasy trafficking.

Waknine and his older brother Assaf, who grew up in Van Nuys, have been on the Los Angeles Police Department's radar since they were teenagers.

Detectives questioned Hai Waknine for six hours in the killing of a teacher at Grant High School in the San Fernando Valley in 1989 and have been watching him ever since. The slaying of Hal Arthur remains unsolved.

Waknine was convicted of "second-degree coercion" in New York as part of a kidnapping attempt connected to collection of a debt owed to an L.A. jeweler.

Prosecutors had planned to introduce evidence and testimony that Waknine was widely involved in extortion, particularly within the Israeli community. He kidnapped his targets, aimed handguns at them and threatened their families, according to court documents filed by the U.S. attorney's office. One witness, convicted Ecstasy trafficker Alex Maimon, was expected to testify that "individuals in the jewelry district to whom money was owed, hired Waknine to collect the money using any means necessary."

"That was Waknine's role, a shakedown collections guy," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Thomas P. Sleisenger, who prosecuted the racketeering case. "There are a lot of people in the Israeli community who will sleep better tonight because he is behind bars."

During his sentencing Monday afternoon, Waknine asked for leniency. But citing his extensive criminal history, U.S. District Judge Manuel Real gave him 13 months in prison beyond the 108 months that prosecutors were recommending.

Waknine, standing slump-shouldered at the lectern in chains and a green T-shirt, twitched and shook his head as Real detailed his sentence. His mother sniffled. Behind her, the courtroom was standing-room only with Waknine's friends and family as well as FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents and undercover officers.

The racketeering charge that Waknine pleaded guilty to involved money embezzled from an Israeli bank that members of the Jerusalem Network, an organized crime group, wanted to hide in the United States. Waknine helped them by setting up loans to Eli Hadad, a Miami real estate developer; Yosef Atia, a Miami Ecstasy trafficker; and Viken Keuylian, a Beverly Hills Lamborghini dealer, prosecutors said.

When the debtors could not immediately repay the loans, Waknine extorted them and assessed penalties. Keuylian, for instance, was lent $950,000. Waknine demanded as repayment $2 million even after Keuylian bought him a $175,000 Ferrari 360.

The federal investigation into Ecstasy trafficking and Israeli organized crime in Los Angeles is ongoing.

A regular visitor during Waknine's trial in June was former Ohio State football star Maurice Clarett. When Clarett was arrested on weapons charges in August -- allegedly wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying three loaded handguns and an AK-47-style assault rifle in his car -- he told his attorney he was scared of Waknine.

Law enforcement sources say Waknine had let Clarett live in his beachfront condo in Marina del Rey and drive his choice of luxury cars in return for a cut from the player's professional football contract. When the football contract fell through, the sources say, Waknine began demanding payment.

Waknine's attorney did not return calls seeking comment.

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joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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