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L.A.-Based Drug Ring Broken Up, U.S. Says

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Customs agents say they have broken up a Los Angeles-based smuggling ring that imported millions of dollars worth of Ecstasy, the illicit party drug increasingly popular among teenagers.

In the last several months, 25 suspects have been arrested, including the ring’s alleged mastermind, an Israeli emigre who has lived in Southern California for the last 15 years.

Jacob “Koki” Orgad, 44, faces trial next month on federal charges of running a criminal enterprise and conspiring to import and distribute illegal drugs.

“This guy was a real player,” said Fred Walsh, assistant special agent in charge of the Customs Service’s Los Angeles field office. “He had one of the best organized operations we’ve encountered, and his people seemed to have a presence in every major city where Ecstasy is the rage.”

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Orgad, who once ran a pager service in Los Angeles, has been held without bail as a flight risk since his arrest in April.

He has no prior arrests. In the early 1990s, he traveled in the same social circles as Heidi Fleiss, the former “madam to the stars” who supplied call girls to Hollywood executives and other high rollers.

Orgad’s lawyer, Ronald Richards, insisted Tuesday that his client is not guilty.

“The government’s case is based entirely on the false testimony of convicted drug dealers or couriers who were caught red-handed,” Richards said. “No drugs or guns were found when they searched my client’s home. And there are no surreptitious tape recordings of him taking part in any crime. He’s being wrongly accused.”

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A 23-count indictment returned against Orgad and 13 alleged accomplices said the ring employed 30 to 50 couriers who posed as tourists or business executives, to smuggle the drugs into the country from Paris.

The couriers included cocktail waitresses, dancers and strippers recruited in Las Vegas and elsewhere, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Julie Shemitz, who is prosecuting the case.

The ring also enlisted couples with blue-collar backgrounds, figuring that customs inspectors would never suspect that they were smuggling drugs in their false-bottom luggage, authorities said.

In one attempt to evade detection, a Texas couple working for the ring brought a mentally handicapped teenager with them on a smuggling trip. The two were arrested, however, when they arrived in Houston carrying 200,000 Ecstasy pills hidden in their luggage.

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Typically, a customs agent said, each courier was given a paid vacation to France plus $10,000 to $15,000 cash, in exchange for bringing home a load of Ecstasy.

The federal indictment said Orgad’s lieutenants gave couriers detailed instructions on what to wear and how to behave on their flights.

Before leaving the United States, for example, each courier was taken on a shopping trip and outfitted with clothes to match their cover stories.

The couriers were then photographed in their new clothes so other ring members could recognize them when they arrived in Europe.

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A customs official said Orgad’s ring had been operating about two years before it was first detected.

That occurred last July when customs inspectors at Los Angeles International Airport intercepted two female couriers arriving on a flight from Paris with 140,000 Ecstasy pills in their luggage and in boxes of toys they were carrying.

Evidence in their belongings led investigators to higher-level members of the ring in Los Angeles. In the ensuing months other couriers were arrested in New York, Miami and Houston.

“This investigation began at the bottom of the organization and ended at the top,” said U.S. Customs Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly.

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In addition to the arrests in the United States, French law enforcement authorities arrested and charged two people accused of being Orgad’s top associates, David Levy and Melissa Schwartz. The French intend to try them there.

Two others indicted in the case eluded capture. One defendant, identified only as Andre, is a Dutch chemist who allegedly produced Ecstasy for the ring. Authorities said senior members of the ring frequently traveled to Amsterdam or Brussels to pick up drugs from him.

A U.S. customs official said the Netherlands has been the worldwide center of Ecstasy production. A recent crackdown by Dutch police has forced lab operators to shift some production to other European countries, including Belgium and Poland, the official said.

Another indicted defendant, Matthew Carlton, fled to Australia before he could be arrested. But Shemitz said he was found dead there recently of an apparently self-administered drug overdose.

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The Customs Service investigation, code-named Operation Paris Express, has resulted in the seizure of nearly 650,000 Ecstasy tablets with a retail value of about $20 million.

All told, investigators speculate that the ring smuggled more than 9 million tablets into the country for distribution on the West and East coasts.

Demand for Ecstasy has surged among young people in the United States. It is especially popular among teenagers who frequent nightclubs and all-night techno-dance parties known as raves.

Drug enforcement officials say huge profits are being made by Ecstasy traffickers. The tablets cost just a few pennies each to make. By the time they reach a nightclub in the United States, they can be sold for $20 to $40 apiece.

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The Customs Service recently established an Ecstasy Task Force at its Washington headquarters to coordinate anti-smuggling efforts. In the first five months of the current fiscal year, customs inspectors seized nearly 4 million doses of the drug. That was 1 million more than the agency intercepted in the entire previous year.


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