Holy Rollers

To keep X-craved Miami Beach raving, Hasidic teenagers smuggled in pills by the hundreds of thousands

Tiny was late. Not something Sean Erez wanted to hear. The feds were arresting his New York mules left and right, so Erez decided to change the drill for the latest shipment. First he used a couple, a man and a woman, to carry the 80,000 or so Ecstasy pills he'd bought from his favorite lab in Amsterdam. The pair were Orthodox Jews, just like the rest of his couriers, but maybe the cops would be looking out for the black-bearded, black-garbed, eighteen-year-old yeshiva-student types he'd been using for the past three months. Maybe a young couple in their early twenties, without Hasidic trappings, could slip through.

Second, Erez didn't send them to JFK in New York. This time, when Moshe had passed the couriers the suitcases in Paris, Erez had arranged for them to fly directly to Miami International, where Tiny would meet them, give them the code word, take the X, move it to GQ or one of the other dealers, then fly back to Amsterdam with Erez's cut of the cash. Tiny hadn't liked that idea at first, didn't want to get caught with money. "What do you think it's for, money?" he had whined. "When someone has a quarter million in their suitcase, what do they think it's for, tomatoes?" Eventually Tiny agreed, and Erez described to him what the couriers and their luggage looked like. He told Tiny they'd be arriving in Miami between 12:30 and 12:45 p.m. on April 14....

But Tiny was late. He hadn't been there when the couple had landed, and by the time he arrived, neither the mules nor the two million dollars' worth of high-quality elephant and Superman brand pills were anywhere to be found.

At 11:20 p.m. Erez is fuming in his apartment on Amsterdam's Herengracht Street when his cell phone rings. It's Tiny.

"I ought to stab you in the head," Erez seethes. Tiny has put him in absolutely "the worst predicament ever. You deserve nothing; you deserve to have no money and be broke again." That way, Erez threatens, "maybe you'll appreciate things in the future."

He pauses. Across the Atlantic, Richard Harris "Tiny" Berman says nothing. Maybe it's best to let Erez vent for a bit.

"I just don't get it. How could you be late?" Erez continues. "They couldn't be expected to wait for you."

At this Berman responds that the last time he went to the airport with Goombah, he had to wait.

"I cannot afford to lose any more money," Erez declares.

Berman then asks if the couriers are going to call anyone. Erez says he doesn't know, but what he does know is that Berman owes him $600,000. Erez berates Berman, asking his Miami connection to consider for a moment that the couple "might have stolen it." Perhaps, Erez continues, if it were Berman's money on the line, he would have been on time to meet the plane.

Berman hangs up. Erez folds up his cell. Where are the couriers? Did they take the X? They thought they were smuggling diamonds. Even if the young couple got the idea they could fence diamonds, there was probably little chance they'd know how to get rid of 25 kilograms of Ecstasy.

Or maybe they got pinched. Best not to think about that.

In fact the couriers had been standing in line at the gate in Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris on April 14, just about to board their flight to Miami, when French police descended on them like hungry crows on roadkill. Their suitcases contained 78,000 Ecstasy pills, also known as rollers, bearing the Superman and elephant imprints, the two types of X popular in the Miami Beach club scene for which Richard Berman was a major supplier. The male courier, whose name is not contained in the federal indictment or the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) arrest affidavit in this case, told the French anti-narcotics agents the following story.

He was recruited in New York by a man named Isaac Deutsch to take a free vacation and smuggle diamonds back to the United States. He arrived in Paris on April 12; the next day a man calling himself Moshe Katz met the courier at his hotel and gave him the bags containing not diamonds, but Ecstasy (the drug's chemical name is abbreviated MDMA). The courier recognized Katz, and knew the name he was using was an alias, but couldn't remember his real name.

According to the arrest affidavit, Moshe Katz is actually Simcha Roth. (That arrest affidavit also includes excerpts from wiretaps on Sean Erez's phones, from which the opening scene of this story was constructed. At press time all of the defendants in this case have pleaded innocent, and are awaiting trial.) The courier recognized Katz because both are members of a close-knit community: the Hasidic and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups of New York City. Roth and Shimon Levita, both eighteen years old, allegedly served as the primary recruiters for Erez's Ecstasy operation, and the couriers they chiefly recruited were, like them, Hasidic males ranging in age from eighteen to their early twenties. From wiretaps, confidential informants, and other investigative techniques, DEA and U.S. Customs Service agents learned that Erez specifically set up his smuggling gang to use young Hasidic men as mules, hoping that their distinctly conservative dress, and the piety with which that dress is associated, would allay any suspicion of wrongdoing.

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