In a Family Way

The revelation of a NIS 250-million embezzlement at the Trade Bank in 2002, triggered an extensive global investigation, one that centered around two Israeli brothers and their underground network.

Trade Bank clerk Etti Alon reported to a Tel Aviv police station in April 2002 and announced that she wished to confess to the embezzlement of NIS 250 million of the bank's money. In so doing, she triggered a big bang in the Israeli underworld that has reached as far as the United States District Court for Central California.

This is the story of the crime organization headed by Itzhak and Meir Abergil, who, according to the indictment filed on July 13 at federal court in Los Angeles, ran a flourishing money-laundering business in the U.S. From 2002 to 2006, that business is said to have processed tens of millions of dollars of funds embezzled from the Trade Bank, money that was then given out as loans to Israeli businesspeople by means of a network that has been accused of money laundering, extortion and operating a crime ring.

The network was dealt a severe blow in 2004, when the American authorities arrested Jerusalem crime boss Gabi Ben Harosh. After two years under house arrest in Los Angeles, Ben Harosh spilled the beans about the syndicate he had set up with his good fried Itzhak Abergil, with whom he had shared a prison cell in Israel for a number of years.

Before Ben Harosh's arrest, the kingpins of gambling and the gray market had flitted around the world, turning over millions of shekels and purchasing properties left, right and center. But from the moment the money-flow ceased, they began demanding the immediate repayment of debts, wiping out rivals, investing in labs manufacturing the drug ecstasy and even cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation when it suited their needs.

In addition to financial offenses, the indictment charges Abergil's organization with operating an ecstasy-distribution network that used firearms and partook of turf wars in Los Angeles - inter alia against one of its own members, a Jerusalem criminal named Sami Atias, who was murdered in 2003 after being suspected of embezzling dozens of kilograms of ecstasy pills.

The L.A. connection

On the night of July 22, 2002, the Los Angeles police carried out a well-planned operation to bust a business meeting of three groups of ecstasy dealers. They confiscated 400,000 tablets of the drug, valued at $5 million, from the first group, whose members included brothers Sami and Neri Atias, Kobi Amsalem and a citizen of Portugal. The second group included two Israelis - Rafi Shotland and Mordecai Amedi - along with citizens of Ukraine, Kuwait, Canada and the U.S., who had a "smaller" quantity of drugs in their possession - about 39,000 tablets. The third group included two Americans and two Israelis - Tal Brisman and Moshe Matzri - who were carrying automatic weapons and apparently served as bodyguards.

The police surprised the groups in the midst of a drug and money exchange. Although the bust did not capture headlines in the U.S., the LAPD had already identified an Israeli named Moshe Malul as the person behind the distribution of millions of ecstasy tablets in Southern California and Itzhak Abergil as a "friend" responsible for the ecstasy shipments from Belgium and Holland.

A year later, on August 31, 2003, at 10:30 P.M., Sami Atias was shot at close range as he was getting into his Mitsubishi on L.A.'s Ventura Boulevard. The recent indictment revealed that Abergil, in cooperation with brothers Moshe and Eyal Malul, headed an ecstasy ring to which the murdered Atias had also belonged.

According to the indictment, "the Malul brothers" were a group of criminals who specialized in the import and distribution of drugs. To protect their drug business, they also engaged in violent crime and murder. They joined up with an L.A. street gang called the Vineland Boys, who were led by a criminal named Luis Sandoval. The gang was tasked with protecting Malul's drug dealers, inspiring fear and, if necessary, attacking and even killing.

The indictment also notes that, "The Abergil family was among the most powerful crime families in Israel. The Abergil family conducted drug trafficking, murder, attempted murder, money laundering, extortion and other crimes in California, other parts of the United States, Israel, Europe and elsewhere." It goes on to say that, "Members and associates of the Malul brothers and Itzhak Abergil ... joined forces to conduct drug trafficking and other crimes through the DTO [drug trafficking organization] ... Defendant Itzhak Abergil maintained and expanded his power and influence over criminal activities in Israel and around the world through the use of alliances with other criminal organizations based in Israel and elsewhere, including the Malul brothers, to further the power and influence of the Abergil family.

UC-9 sings

The indictment describes how Abergil conspired "with the defendant Malul and others to murder a drug dealer, Sami Atias, in Los Angeles in retaliation for Sami Atias attempting to steal MDMA [ecstasy] from the Malul brothers" and "extort money from others [Neri Atias, Kobi Amsalem and Tal Brisman] involved in the theft of MDMA belonging to the Malul brothers." At this stage, it is charged, the assassination of Sami Atias was delegated to Sandoval and his gang, in return for payment.

The indictment also mentions an incident in 2000, when a huge shipment of ecstasy from Holland was sent to Los Angeles, to an unnamed co-conspirator referred to as "UC-9" (he has not been indicted). According to the document, Moshe Malul sent one million tablets of the drug from Holland to L.A. in April 2001. In June 2002, Malul, UC-9 and another individual were supposed to receive a shipment of 76 kilos of ecstasy from Belgium. It was in the middle of June that the shipment from which Atias had stolen arrived in California. The following December, UC-9 and Malul met in Israel and decided on the murder.

In 2003 Malul returned to the U.S., and UC-9 went to meet Itzhak Abergil in Malaga, Spain. The indictment claims that Abergil arranged for UC-9 to continue the syndicate's drug trafficking activity and offered him help in murdering Atias. The manhunt for Atias began in August 2003; it involved Malul and Sandoval - who are named in the indictment - as well as four other unnamed members of the Vineland Boys. They located Atias at the Cafe Bazel in Encino, California. Two of them waited in the parking lot while the third shot him.

Three days later, the indictment continues, Sandoval and three members of his gang met with Moshe Malul and were paid for the murder. Several days later, Abergil told UC-9 in a phone call that he had disseminated a reassuring message in the Los Angeles area to the effect that Atias' assassination did not constitute an attack on the drug trafficking organization. It appears that thereafter Abergil went back to business as usual; in a phone call from Spain, he "spoke to an unindicted co-conspirator ['UC-16'] about getting drug proceeds from defendant Malul, in California."

However, in a conversation dated November 13, 2003, Abergil said that he "does not want to 'lead the sheep to slaughter,' and that he does not have the energy to go back to prison."

Global investigation

The Trade Bank money was "pushed" as loans to Israeli businesspeople in the United States, who were later extorted to give up their businesses if they failed to pay up. Meir Abergil, whom the indictment describes as the person in charge of finances, collected the money that was exacted and later laundered and invested it. Gabi Ben Harosh ran the lending bank in the United States and updated Meir and Itzhak Abergil on its balance. Sasson Barashi of Jerusalem and Hai Vaknin of Los Angeles (who has been tried and sentenced to 10 years in the U.S.) identified borrowers and businesses and also saw to collection of the money. Defendant Yoram Elal, who has fled to Brazil, was the chief bagman and the special-operations person.

The activities have been documented in hundreds of surveillance reports, photographs and phone calls, which were recorded by police departments all over the world and are detailed in the indictment. It appears that the two bosses and their people, who were careful not to talk on the phone in Israel, felt much more at ease when they were abroad. In April 2003, Abergil instructed Barashi over the phone to inform businessman Eli Hadad that he had to pay up immediately. The following day Abergil, Elal, Barashi and others met; later that same day Barashi, Vaknin and Hadad entered a branch of the Sun Trust Bank in Florida. "Hadad will pay back every shekel you gave him - he has mortgaged his house," Barashi told Ben Harosh.

Attorneys Sharon Nahari and Sasi Gez, who are representing Itzhak Abergil, have said that, "He has not been asked to give a version of the case as a whole. But with respect to the murder charge, he categorically denies having committed the crime. He does not know the victim and has never met with him." With respect to Meir Abergil, attorneys Sharon Nahari and Avigdor Feldman, who has joined the defense team, say that, "Meir Abergil has not committed any crime. This will be proven in the near future."

The indictment states that in May 2006, two members of the Israeli drug ring in Los Angeles tried to kill UC-9 in Japan. Israeli underworld sources claim that the Israeli criminal who survived such an assassination attempt is Kobi Amsalem, a member of Malul's organization who was very close to Abergil. Incidentally, the relationship between UC-9 and the FBI was formed a short while after the attempted murder.

Attorney Yarom Halevy, who is representing Moshe Malul, has said that, "His arrest came like a clap of thunder on a clear day. He hasn't the faintest idea as to how he is connected to the charges brought against him. Of course he is waiting to receive the evidence and understand who has falsely accused him and how the conspiracy against him came about. His acquaintanceship with Abergil is very superficial."