Parisians Stare at the Evil Within

Times Staff Writers

She could not stop thinking about Ilan Halimi.

And when Marie-Beatrice thought about the young Jewish man tortured to death by her neighbors during 24 days of squalid captivity in the basement a few floors below her apartment, she could not stop crying.

"I try not to blame myself, but I can't avoid it," said the weary 46-year-old, wrapped in a purple bathrobe after work Friday. "It happened next door, and I can't believe it happened. I would want to tell Ilan that if we'd heard his suffering, we would have reported it. I tell myself that Ilan surely must have thought there was noise, people lived upstairs. And he hoped someone would hear. I imagine him in the boiler room, and I want to ask him to forgive me."

Marie-Beatrice sat alone with her guilt in the aging, 11-story apartment block on Prokofiev Street in this working-class immigrant enclave on the southern edge of Paris. On a table was a summons from the police, who are canvassing neighbors to have them testify about anything they witnessed during Halimi's recent ordeal.

Marie-Beatrice, who asked that her last name not be used out of fear for her safety, said her housing project was relatively calm. But people steer clear of hoodlums and drug dealers who prowl cellars, garages and hallways -- urban no man's lands ruled by fear, silence and machismo.

At the entrance to her building, someone posted an accusatory newspaper headline proclaiming that the neighborhood had refused to see the evil within: "They knew."

Marie-Beatrice's building was a hide-out for a multiethnic gang that called itself the Barbarians. They kidnapped Halimi, a 23-year-old cellphone salesman, authorities say, because he was Jewish and they thought Jews were rich. They subjected his family and a rabbi to hundreds of abusive phone calls and e-mails demanding ransom.

But greed gave way to sadism in the makeshift dungeon guarded by cigarette-smoking youths. Halimi's captors beat, burned, stabbed and poured toxic fluid on him, prosecutors say. One youth snapped at Halimi that he didn't like Jews, and then stubbed out a cigarette on his face.

Halimi died soon after the gang dumped him, bound and naked, beside railroad tracks Feb. 13. No money had changed hands.

Police have made 15 arrests, tracking down the accused ringleader Thursday in the West Africa nation of Ivory Coast. Eleven suspects face charges of conspiracy, kidnapping and murder motivated by anti-Semitism. The case traumatized the Jewish community and was condemned by President Jacques Chirac, political parties across the spectrum and Muslim groups. Tens of thousands of people are expected to march today in Paris in Halimi's memory.

In a society recovering from recent riots in predominantly Muslim areas, the slaying forces new attention on anti-Semitism, which has played a role in French history.

Halimi's family and many others in the Jewish community are convinced that the atrocity was the result of religious hatred. Even among some Jewish leaders, however, questions persist.

Rather than a premeditated anti-Semitic murder, it seems a more complex result of dysfunction in the narrow world of thug culture: a poisonous mentality that designates Jews as enemies along with other "outsiders," according to investigators and other observers.

"They mix everything together; they are against Jews, Americans, France, the West," said Sammy Ghozlan, a retired police chief and activist who tries to combat anti-Semitism. "If they could have gotten their hands on a French cop in the same way, they probably would have done the same thing.... I don't think the violence in this case was the original purpose, it developed progressively."

In contrast with the riots, which mainly targeted property and the police, the killing resembled crimes of gratuitous cruelty that have occurred in the concrete badlands around Paris: gang rapes involving as many as 17 youths, women burned to death by spurned suitors, a visiting photographer beaten to death on the spot.

The Barbarians were driven by a tribal, predatory code that glorifies brutality, authorities say, a subculture nourished on violent films; rap music that curses France and politicians; Islamic fundamentalist literature; and jihadist videos. The photos that the kidnappers sent via e-mail of a bound, battered Halimi with a gun to his head resembled images of hostages and prisoners in Iraq, authorities say.

"There are only two idols in the projects today: [French NBA star] Tony Parker and Abu Musab Zarqawi," the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, said author Stephane Bartome, a former anti-terrorism detective. "And unless you're a really good basketball player, it's easier to emulate Zarqawi."

Although investigators found Islamic fundamentalist and pro-Palestinian literature during one arrest, the suspects are not known extremists, a police intelligence official said. Some gang members were not Muslims. And several deny being anti-Semitic. But they admit setting out to kidnap Jews, prosecutors say. Police are also investigating the gang in extortion attempts on Jewish doctors that featured a hand-grenade attack last year at a medical office in Paris' fashionable Passy Street.

The gang had the swaggering, violent personality of its accused leader: Youssouf Fofana, 26, a shaven-headed son of immigrants from Ivory Coast. Police describe him as a small-time gangster with 13 arrests for crimes that include armed robbery and assault on a law enforcement official. He adopted the nickname Mohamed as well as a moniker in clumsy English: "Brain of Barbarians."

Not only do accomplices accuse Fofana of delivering the fatal stab wounds to Halimi, police say he taunted the victim's mother by phone on the day of her son's funeral.

"I saw Fofana's face and I recognized him," said white-haired Nicole Jibard, 61, sitting in a cheerful, cottage-like office of the project's social center in the concrete plaza where retired state workers mix with immigrant families. "I saw him grow up. These are youths whom you saw every day. Even the little kids are scared. They ask themselves now about these youths who gave them candy sometimes, who said hello to them."

The tactics Fofana used during Halimi's captivity stymied police who are usually skilled at complex investigations. Now they must answer questions about failing to prevent a horrific death.

Fofana traveled to Ivory Coast at least once during the 24 days. Ransom demands were sent from cyber cafes in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and Paris, authorities say. The ransom demand plummeted from more than half a million dollars to about $5,000; a seeming lack of effort to collect any ransom suggests that Fofana was playing a perverse game.

Halimi's mother said that on Feb. 6 police instructed her not to respond to phone calls from the kidnappers. For an agonizing five days, she dutifully let her phone ring unanswered. The police may have been trying to draw Fofana back from Africa by cutting off communication.

Fofana's 14 alleged accomplices have roots in sub-Saharan and North Africa, Portugal and France. One is the 18-year-old son of an Egyptian newspaper correspondent. Another is Giles Serrurier, 39, the burly, blond manager of the building, who has been charged with taking cash in exchange for access to an empty studio apartment on the third floor and the boiler room where Halimi was tormented.

Serrurier had a reputation as an operator, said Joseph Boyer, 61, a diminutive, tattooed former soldier from the French territory of Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Boyer lives in a first-floor apartment -- filled with crucifixes and Catholic art -- near Serrurier's.

"He grew up on welfare, he grew up on the street," Boyer, who preceded Serrurier in the manager's job, said with dignified disdain. "He got a lot of advice from here and there, but he didn't do his job well.... I get the feeling he couldn't do anything without hustling. He did things in the shadows."

Some Jewish leaders and police officials think others in the project knew about Halimi's captivity but didn't report it, either because they were afraid of or loyal to the kidnappers.

"That's the law of the projects," the police intelligence official said. "People know that drug dealing, squatting, criminal activity goes on in the basements and halls -- the turf of the mafias. The last thing they are going to do is report it."

Neighbors say they noticed a crew of youths hanging out day and night in the hallway and stairwell; they now realize the gang was standing guard. But Boyer said, "We were used to that. Usually with the kids in the hall things are OK, though sometimes they make noise and you call the police and they don't ever come."

The ethnic diversity of the gang was unusual, the police intelligence official said, as was the use of female accomplices who were paid to lure victims. The gang sent a young North African woman to the store where Halimi worked on a commercial strip of Voltaire Boulevard in a middle-class Jewish area. A tanned young man with a ready smile and close-cropped hair, Halimi was not rich. He lived with his mother, an immigrant from Morocco who works at a Jewish social agency.

Charmed by the young customer who seemed more interested in him than in buying a mobile phone, Halimi agreed to go out with her on the night of Jan. 20, a Friday.

"Here's proof that Jews are not clannish as some have said -- he goes out with a woman from another ethnic group," said Ghozlan, the retired police chief. "Now the young people are going to be more defensive, more suspicious. I don't know what the young people are going to think.... They all felt that at that moment that they could have been Ilan Halimi."

Six years ago, when a flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict set off attacks of arson and vandalism against Jewish targets in France, Ghozlan put 31 years of police experience to work and created an agency to monitor anti-Semitism. France's 600,000 Jews are largely migrants from North Africa. Many share cultural traits and neighborhoods with an Arab community from the same region that is 10 times larger.

A dapper, sturdy 63-year-old who also leads a Hasidic music band, Ghozlan was born in Algeria and speaks Arabic as well as Hebrew. He recalls that his aging mother lived in a housing project where Arab neighbors held doors and carried groceries for her.

"It's because they saw her as someone from the project," he said. "They treat you well if you are not an outsider. Unless you dare to express political ideas."

In the building on Prokofiev Street that has become a symbol of hate, the neighbors think money, not anti-Semitism, was the motive.

"We all live together here, black and white," said Marie-Beatrice, who is white. But she couldn't explain the actions of the "barbarians" next-door. And the guilt gnaws.

"I want to address myself to his mother and ask her forgiveness," she said. "I didn't do anything, see anything, hear anything."

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