Racketeer loses his swagger

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.

As Ecstasy became popular, Orgad began smuggling the aspirin-size pills, which cost pennies to make and sold for upward of $25, into Los Angeles from Europe, according to police.

Confidential informants told the Drug Enforcement Administration that Ecstasy traffickers used Waknine's postal business to launder millions of dollars. In a single transaction, he allegedly received $11 million to launder, an affidavit by DEA Special Agent Deanne L. Reuter said.

According to Reuter, an informant said Waknine also boasted of using his mother's company, Silhouette Paris in Studio City, "to import MDMA [Ecstasy] in the shoulder pads of women's apparel."

Waknine was living the high life, according to both his brother and two Los Angeles Police Department detectives, who requested anonymity because they are still investigating Israeli organized crime in Los Angeles.

He would play $10,000 hands in Vegas without pause, drop $5,000 on Cristal Champagne and designer vodka at clubs such as Les Deux, Cafe Maurice and Bar One, and party with celebrities and rappers, strippers and Russian blonds.

His hangdog face, nervous tic and rolls of flab did not diminish his violent reputation.

"There was an instance where someone flipped Hai off at a club," said one of the organized crime detectives, who was undercover at the time. "A Japanese guy driving a Ferrari, he wasn't the coolest guy in the world.

"Hai assessed him a $25,000 fine." The guy paid, fearing the consequences of refusing, the detective said.

In the Jewelry District and in Israeli pockets of the San Fernando Valley, Waknine became known as a go-to guy to collect on a loan, resolve a dispute or fix a problem.

In 2000, insurance broker Jimmy Altman learned that firsthand when Waknine called his office in Encino. Altman, it turned out, was somebody's problem.

He was dating a divorcee, and her former husband wasn't happy about it, according to court documents. Waknine asked Altman to meet him at Tempo Restaurant, a hip Israeli hangout on Ventura Boulevard where Waknine regularly held court.

"If I were you, I'd stay away from Tammy," Waknine warned Altman, according to a description of their encounter in the court papers.

Altman dropped the relationship, but days later two bullets spider-cracked the front windows of his home, the court papers said. Waknine called again and demanded $75,000. "If you don't pay me, I'll hurt you."

Altman filed a police report, but stopped cooperating with detectives when Waknine took out a $1-million policy with him.

Yet police were closing in on Waknine's circle.

Assaf, Waknine's brother, had been sent to prison in New York after pleading guilty in 1997 to participating in an elaborate scheme to rack up $125,000 per day on bogus American Express cards.

In 2001, Waknine's friends in the Ecstasy trade went down. Alex Maimon and Louis Ziskin were convicted of smuggling 700 pounds of Ecstasy into Southern California via FedEx. Orgad pleaded guilty to drug charges for hiring strippers and models to carry millions of Ecstasy tablets from Paris to Los Angeles. Tamer Ibrahim was on the run for shipping 1,100 pounds of Ecstasy -- worth more than $40 million -- through LAX hidden in a shipment of colored pencils and notebooks.

Waknine was still untouched.

That same year, Gabriel Benharosh, another alleged member of the Jerusalem Group, fled to the United States. He brought with him cash that an Israeli bank official had embezzled to pay off her brother's gambling debt to the Israeli mob. The embezzlement crashed the bank and caused a scandal in Israel, and Benharosh needed to hide the money.

Waknine introduced him to Keuylian, the Beverly Hills Lamborghini dealer, and Eli Hadad, a Miami real estate developer, to launder the money.

Benharosh lent $520,000 to Hadad in May 2002, and $950,000 to Keuylian in May 2003.

When both borrowers could not pay Benharosh back in time, Waknine went to work.

In August 2003, a wiretap caught Waknine on the phone to Benharosh, talking about Hadad: "On Tuesday I'm taking the house from him, my bro," Waknine said.

"Finally you do what I tell you," Benharosh replied. "I want to hear that he and his wife and kids are on the street, sleeping in the street."

Both men managed to pay Benharosh back. The Keuylians sold some Ferraris; one went to singer Rod Stewart. Hadad took out a third mortgage on his home.

They thought they were done with Waknine. Instead they were subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury.

In April 2004, Waknine, Benharosh and three others were indicted on 16 counts, including conspiracy to commit extortion and conspiracy to commit money laundering, based largely on the extensive wiretaps. A State Department narcotics report described Waknine and Benharosh as a "money laundering cell" and "principal targets" in a crime organization run by an Israeli mobster named Itzhak Abergil, whom the department listed as one of the 40 biggest importers of illegal drugs into the United States.

In December, the grand jury added the more serious offense of racketeering.

Benharosh ultimately cut a deal to testify against Waknine. Assistant U.S. Atty. Thomas P. Sleisenger said the more serious U.S. crimes were committed by Waknine.

"Our interest here in Los Angeles has always been Waknine," he said. "This guy has been the thorn in the side of law enforcement for years."

Waknine's trial began this June in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Manuel Real. Some days the gallery took on the cast of a Hollywood club, filled with blond, shiny-haired women and men in tight black designer T-shirts.

After four days of testimony, Waknine pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering, catching prosecutors by surprise.

He went home to await sentencing, which made detectives and agents who had worked for years to put him in prison nervous. Would he really give up his lavish lifestyle when he probably had money stashed in accounts all over the world?

In August, U.S. marshals hauled Waknine into court in manacles after an informant said he planned to flee to meet his brother Assaf, who had been released from prison, in Mexico. Waknine, who had been free on bond, told officials he was afraid someone was after him.

Real was unmoved. "He should be protected in custody and be here for sentencing. He'll live until that time at least."

His family and friends left the courtroom in tears.

On Sept. 11, Waknine shuffled into the courtroom shackled to other inmates. At the dais, he twitched and tugged at his jail pants to keep them up, before meekly mumbling a plea for leniency.

Without looking up from his paperwork, Real sentenced him to 10 years in federal prison, a year more than prosecutors were asking. Waknine was taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center to begin his sentence. His lawyers filed a notice of intent to appeal the extra year of the sentence.

On Dec. 11, Waknine jangled into court again for a restitution hearing. Prosecutors recommended he pay a total of $406,000 to his victims. Waknine's attorney told the judge he agreed with the government.

"The government is not the one to make the order. I am," Real snapped.

The judge made some calculations and ordered Waknine to pay $646,000.

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°