Holy Rollers

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

According to his arrest affidavit, Sean Erez's Ecstasy-smuggling ring was a major supplier of top-notch product to the Miami Beach market. Federal agents, with the cooperation of Dutch, French, and other European law enforcement agencies, have arrested seven people in connection with this network: The mastermind Erez, a 29-year-old Canadian citizen, known also by the aliases Opher Erez, Shmule, and Chaim; his girlfriend Diana Reicherter, a 21-year-old American also known as Rachel; Giacomo Pampinella, 23 years old, an alleged wholesaler of the drug in New York City, known as Goombah or Jimmy; Richard Harris Berman, 29 years old, an alleged wholesaler in Miami Beach also called Tiny; Yves Cesar Vandenbranden, 24 years old, known as GQ, an alleged Miami dealer who is accused of buying his drugs from Berman; and the two Hasidic 18-year-olds, Shimon Levita (also Shimi, or Mo) and Simcha Roth (Moshe, Moshe Katz, or Mutty Katz), who are accused both of transporting the Ecstasy themselves, and recruiting couriers from New York's ultra-Orthodox community for that purpose. At least six of these couriers became confidential informants for the government.

The federal documents describe the following modus operandi. Sean Erez, based in Amsterdam, would buy the X from the manufacturers. He or his girlfriend, Diana Reicherter, would pass the shipments to the Hasidic couriers recruited by Levita and Roth. The couriers would fly from one of several European cities (principally Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam) to New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport. There one of two middlemen would meet them: Pampinella, the New York wholesaler, or Berman, the Miami Beach wholesaler. For the return trip, Pampinella or Berman would give the couriers cash, to be handed over to Erez in Europe.

Of the million or so MDMA pills the ring is alleged to have distributed, more than half of that amount was sold in Miami Beach. In one taped conversation from a government phone tap, Berman once told Erez that 40,000 Ecstasy pills were "nothing," and that he could move 100,000 pills in 48 hours in Miami Beach. The DEA affidavit states that Erez relied on Berman as his readiest source of cash, because of Berman's ability to sell the Ecstasy quickly and return Erez's share of the profits to him in Amsterdam.

In early April of this year, after the feds started busting the couriers, the recruiters fled. Levita and Roth flew from New York to Miami, and then to Amsterdam. Roth eventually continued on to Israel and was considered a fugitive before returning to New York and surrendering to federal authorities. Ultimately all seven alleged members of the ring were arrested. Roth and Vandenbranden currently are out on bail after pleading innocent to the charges. Erez and Reicherter are still in the Netherlands, and are contesting their extradition to the United States.

On at least one occasion, the young Hasidic couriers made their trips from Miami, then to New York, then to Paris. The affidavit is unclear as to whether these couriers were recruited from Miami. Linda Lacewell, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case in New York, says that as far as she knows, Roth and Levita did all of their headhunting among the Orthodox Jewish communities in the New York City area. They focused on their fellow Hasids, but occasionally recruited other Orthodox people (such as the Paris couriers). Although she won't give an exact number, Lacewell says that, in the five months of its operation, Erez's Ecstasy ring recruited "dozens of individuals" as couriers, nearly all of them young Hasidic males from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and Monsey, New York. Some of them made multiple trips either to Europe with money, or from Europe with Ecstasy.

"The recruiters believed that these couriers would not attract the attention of Customs inspectors because of their conservative background and their religious dress and appearance," states a press release issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York. "The recruiters exploited the youth and relatively sheltered background of their recruits by falsely telling them that they would be smuggling diamonds."

Which of course is also illegal, but not without precedent among the Jewish diaspora, especially in the years before and during the Holocaust. "[Those couriers] might have said to themselves, 'Well, I remember grandma telling me about smuggling diamonds out of Europe in the linings of their clothes,'" says an Orthodox rabbi in Miami Beach, who asked not to be identified for this story. "So even though it would be wrong, they could try to justify it. There's these tax laws on merchandise, and it's a white-collar offense. But they should still know that it's wrong."

"Smugglers will try any subterfuge to get drugs into this country," says Rabbi Pinchas Weberman of Miami Beach, president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of South Florida. "They'll put it in fish, or cans of food, and this is just another way of hiding it. [The young Hasidim] don't fit the profile, and [the smugglers] probably knew that."

The press release continues: "Each courier was promised a free trip to Europe and approximately $1500 in exchange for making a smuggling trip. Some couriers also were paid a finder's fee of approximately $200 for each additional courier they recruited. Each courier smuggled between 30,000 and 45,000 Ecstasy pills into the United States." Within its relatively short lifespan, the ring allegedly imported at least one million pills into the United States. At a cost to Erez of between $.50 and $2, and a street value of between $25 and $30 in New York and Miami Beach nightclubs, there was plenty of profit to go around. According to the government complaint, couriers going to Europe often carried as much as $500,000 in cash.

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