By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
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.
The initial shock of the arrests in this case, which made international news in late July, centered on the incongruity of Hasidic Ecstasy smugglers. But as culturally quirky as this alleged smuggling ring might seem, it does somewhat fit an established profile for international MDMA trafficking. In its June 1999 Drug Intelligence brief about Ecstasy, the DEA stated that Israeli organized-crime syndicates (some composed of Russian-Jewish immigrants to Israel who maintain ties to Russian mobsters) are the "primary" source of Ecstasy for distributors in the United States.
But while the DEA is thinking globally, Miami Beach club kids are tripping locally. Laying aside the distinguishing garb of the alleged couriers, the sheer number of pills involved in this case speaks volumes about Miami's appetite for the most famous of all designer drugs, the drug that's driving some of the hottest music trends and dance clubs -- and most heated drug-enforcement debates -- on that sinful stretch of Miami Beach known as Washington Avenue.
Four forty-five a.m. Sunday on Washington Avenue. The regular clubs are closing down, the after-hours clubs are starting up, and too many of the thronging revelers are fucked up on the wrong kinds of drugs. A shaven-head twentysomething in a Fubu tank top shoulders his way through a cluster of silk-shirt-and-blue-jeans clad men waiting to get into Twist. "Excuse me," says one of those getting shouldered, with a tinge of attitude. "Excuse you is right," says the offender, clearly spoiling for an early morning gay-bash. His two friends shoo him along without incident. It wouldn't have been worth it anyway, it seems. "Hitting a faggot is like hitting a woman, knowhatimsayin'?" he expounds. "They start cryin' and shit."
Now there's a guy who could use some Ecstasy, the feel-good drug of the Nineties. Where could he score some? According to Miami Beach police, just about anywhere. Like from the guy with the impish grin and dyed-blond flattop waiting in line to get into The Mix. "You need rollers?" he asks, in a friendly tone. Or maybe it was a statement: If you're up this late, and you're not already rolling, then you need rollers.
His offer is politely declined; he departs with a retro "soul-brother" handshake. No more business to be done here. He's clearly taken a gander at the 30 or so individuals waiting to get into the Beach's most notorious after-hours club, and seen that the clientele is already rolling big-time. Every third patron is sucking on a Charm's Blow Pop; one diminutive girl, appropriate to her stature, has brought a pacifier, while a couple of bug-eyed gringos are chewing ferociously on plastic straws. Anything to offset that dry-mouth feeling that comes from the dehydration effect of Ecstasy; several of those in line are draining bottles of Zephyrhills. What's that smell? Ah, it's the wiry youth with the goatee and the Atlanta Falcons floppy hat smearing Vicks VapoRub all over his face. Who doesn't love the smell of menthol in the morning? (Kids on X use the strong-smelling stuff to cool off because the drug raises their body temperature.)
After a 40-minute wait in debilitating heat, the velvet rope parts. You plunk down a $15 cover charge, endure a turn-out-your-pockets- and-thorough-pat-down search, and then you can roll right into The Mix, with it's thump-and-wail trance soundtrack courtesy of DJ David Padilla, $4 bottled water ($2 for a cup of ice water -- hey, these kids ain't drinkin' booze, and these clubs ain't there for charity) and grinning, sweating clubsters brandishing glow sticks.
If Miami is the Ecstasy mecca of the globe, then The Mix is its holiest shrine.
MDMA, an acronym for 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, has been around in one form or another since 1912, when a German company first synthesized it, possibly for use as an appetite suppressant. Decades later its euphoric effects, including the feelings of empathy, touchy-feelyness, and all-around good vibes, gave it some currency among psychiatrists, who explored its application as a therapeutic drug in the late Seventies and early Eighties. As with so many other substances in our anything-for-a-buzz culture, the stuff found its way into the illicit market, and as recreational use of this designer drug began to escalate, the state stepped in.
"July 1, 1985," says Jim Hall, executive director of the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Community. "I remember the day exactly. That's when the DEA scheduled MDMA as a designer drug." Beginning on that day, Ecstasy was a Schedule 1 drug in the United States, meaning the federal penalties for its use and possession were just as stiff as they were for cocaine, PCP, and heroin.
But even as early as the mid-Eighties, the European subculture that had grown up around X, especially in the pot-permissive Netherlands, was unique. "The emergence of warehouse parties in Amsterdam was really centered around Ecstasy," Hall says. "It was [marketed] like, 'Here is the return of acid, but without LSD.' Ecstasy gives self-introspection like LSD, but it's technically a stimulant, not a hallucinogen. It's not a stimulant like cocaine or amphetamines, where you get this physical, nervous, agitated energy, like too much coffee for some of us," he adds, with a chuckle. "It's more of a mental alertness, an awakeness, but there's no distortion of reality." With the warehouse parties, Hall says, the early-morning hours accommodate the stimulant effect, and the booming music and photonic light shows stand in for the aural and visual hallucinations acid would have provided.
Hall adds that, despite the euphoric feelings it delivers, X is hardly benign. As with any stimulant, an overdose carries the risk of convulsions or even stroke. Ecstasy also is notorious for a bad hangover, usually lasting most of the day after use. Because of the relative newness of MDMA, Hall says, researchers really don't know much about the effects of long-term use of the drug on humans.
Kirsten Leistner, a 34-year-old bartender, has a prime perspective on the Ecstasy era. A native of Berlin, she vividly remembers the European X scene, and she's tended bar in Miami Beach since 1991. "Back in the days," in Europe, she says, Ecstasy appeared out of an Amsterdam drug/club scene already saturated with marijuana and LSD. X spread quickly through Western Europe as a once-in-a-while, special-occasion, stay-up-all-night-and-hug-everybody drug in the mid- to late Eighties, and remains strong in the clubs over there. One of the most visible and notorious barometers of Ecstasy's continued popularity is the annual Love Parade in her hometown, during which it seems the entire continent's youth takes MDMA, then brings the fun out of the clubs and into the streets. If you don't want to participate, it's best to leave Berlin.
"The music needs to be enlivened, so the old disco gets a revived backbeat to it, a more energetic feel to it," Hall adds. "There was always this kind of special relationship between the drug and the event." The intertwined phenomenon of MDMA and the all-night party made enough of an impact in the United States -- principally in Houston, Atlanta, and the San Francisco Bay Area -- for the government to declare the drug part of the deal illegal. (With a few exceptions, then as now, the drug itself was being produced in Western Europe and shipped all over the world.) In addition to the semiclandestine warehouse parties where X was served, organizers would sometimes pitch a tent somewhere out in the boondocks as a temporary venue. By the end of the Eighties, the word rave entered the mainstream pop-culture lexicon. By the early Nineties even Jason Priestley's character on Beverly Hills 90210 took something called "Euphoria" at a rave in one episode. (He makes out with a sleazy girl who slipped the "4" (as in eu-FOUR-ia) in his drink, then the next day she says, "You told me you loved me," and he says, "Yeah, well I must have been on drugs." Cue music ... and fade.)
The demand for the stuff was expanding steadily. As with most drugs, its popularity spurred a growth in the production of fake Ecstasy.
"Through most of the Eighties, when people would send in Ecstasy for us to test, it was one of the few street drugs that was almost always what it was supposed to be," Hall remembers. Then, in the mid-Nineties, that began to change. He recalls one person from Central Florida calling the Miami Coalition's hotline, distraught because he had flunked a drug test, but insisting that he hadn't done any drugs. Hall asked him what he had tested positive for; the man told him, cocaine and phenobarbital. Which was impossible, because he hadn't taken any drugs ... except for Ecstasy. "Well, there's your answer," Hall told him. "What you took wasn't X, but a combination of cocaine and phenobarbital."
This was the first Hall had heard of this particular mode of combining an upper and a downer in one pill -- a cheaper formula than MDMA -- and calling it Ecstasy. But as he investigated this ersatz X, often known as "rollers" (which is confusing, because being on real Ecstasy is also called "rolling," the real stuff also called "rollers" and "rolls"), he discovered something weird.
"What has fascinated me about [fake Ecstasy] in the Nineties is, normally, when there's adulteration, the consumers get mad, or antsy, or paranoid," he says. "But here, for the first time, the adulteration becomes almost a promotional tool. People will ask each other, 'What's in your roller?' 'Mine has a little bit of X, plus methamphetamine, plus a touch of cocaine, and some Xanax, and just a little bit of heroin.' We first reported this back about six years ago, when people would take a 'five-way': In that case snorting, say, a line of coke, a line of Rohypnol, a line of Ecstasy, a line of Special K [the veterinary anesthetic ketamine], a shot of Jägermeister," he says, with an ironic laugh. "There was no real pharmaceutical logic to it."
In South Florida the non-Ecstasy rollers became a desired product themselves in the Nineties, especially among teenage ravers. Even as late as 1998, Hall says, the data he has collected locally, along with that of federal law enforcement and drug-prevention agencies, suggested that the big story down here was fake X, not real X. But in 1999 it's become clear that good old-fashioned, high-quality MDMA has made a huge comeback, especially in Miami Beach, thanks to a massive influx of the stuff from Europe, chiefly Amsterdam. The trendy and potentially deadly illogic of the "five-way" persists, though. The night of the September 18 rave in the Coconut Grove Convention Center, at which 15,000 people took in large volumes of electronica music and controlled substances, a man in his twenties died of an overdose in a nearby hotel. He appeared to have succumbed to some or all of the components of a "nine-way": Ecstasy, Special K, heroin, LSD, nitrous oxide, pot, cocaine, Xanax, and alcohol. (At press time the Miami-Dade County medical examiner's office had not determined the exact cause of the man's death.) Kirsten Leistner has witnessed the ebb and flow of drug trends from behind various bars. Her state-of-the-city report: "Now it's rolls everywhere," she says, specifying that she means actual X, not the fake stuff. Sometimes she sees the younger clubbers taking what they call "horse pills," big capsules that contain blends of Ecstasy, Special K, sometimes LSD, or other uppers or downers. Still, in 1999 the return of the real deal is dominating the club scene on the Beach. "Ecstasy came in within the last five years, but in the past few months, it's gotten a little more extreme," Leistner says.
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.
And though the multiagency, international investigation was centered in New York, Lacewell emphasizes that more than half of the million pills the ring smuggled into this country were sold in Miami Beach through Berman and his dealers. "This was a significant ring," Lacewell says. "I'm not aware of a larger Ecstasy organization that's yet been broken up." The DEA has published reports linking Ecstasy smuggling to Israeli organized crime, but nothing in the public record about the Erez ring suggests any mob ties to the operation. Lacewell declined to comment on possible links between Erez and Russian/Israeli gangsters.
Does the fact that the alleged couriers were mostly Hasidic young men especially trouble other observant Jews in South Florida? The rabbi contacted for this story hadn't heard the tale. After reading an Associated Press account of the bust, he reluctantly agreed to an interview, taking pains to stress that such behavior is an aberration. (Which, of course, is precisely why Sean Erez used young Hasids in the first place.)
"Every community wrestles with these kinds of issues," he says. "Teachers and parents wonder how to train the next generation, and when something like this happens, it just points out the challenges we face. The fact that young people are going to clubs and taking Ecstasy is the problem, that's what bothers me more. It's terrible that people are going to go to such lengths to recruit and plan for the supply of this drug, but the real question is, 'Why are kids taking this drug?'"
In the Miami Beach club community, after-hours clubs are not the only ones in which Ecstasy is being sold and consumed. But the number of wide-awake early-twenties clubbers the drug generates clearly is driving the bottom line of The Mix and its after-hours brethren, the Fabric and Kit Kat clubs.
Their proprietors probably know this, and they also know that the combination of their drug-haven rep and the ungodly hours they keep (4:30 a.m. to noon) has put them in the cross hairs of cops and politicians on the Beach. But hey, these people are going to be awake for a while anyway. Do the powers that be really want packs of young adults roaming the streets, touching everything that moves?
"I've seen some crazy things," says bartender Kirsten Leistner. "Those glow sticks, you know how people wave them around in front of people's faces? This girl was standing in front of my bar two or three months ago, totally rolling, and this guy with two glow sticks comes up to her and starts making them go around her head, really fast. Then, he smacks her in the head so hard that she starts bleeding! The guy freaked. He was like, 'Oh my God, I'm sorry!' I gave her some napkins and asked, 'Did you notice that you're bleeding?' She just kind of wiped it off and smiled. She didn't even fucking care."
(Leistner adds that X actually has been a real bummer for those in her profession. "I made more money from the cokeheads," she says. "They have more to drink, and they get generous when they're wired. The X kids don't have much money, and they spend it all on the drug. Plus you don't want to drink anything but water on X.")
Would shutting down after-hours clubs solve the Ecstasy problem in Miami Beach? According to several sources, the X connection to the Beach goes way deeper than that.
"We are an epicenter of Ecstasy for the world," stresses Jim Hall of the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Community. "Even in New York, it's the Miami name that you find associated with some of the Ecstasy tablets. We are a world capital for Ecstasy, not the production center, not necessarily even the consumption center, but one of landmark, prestige centers of the MDMA cognoscenti. They visit here, they deal here, they trip here." He pauses. "They raise a lot of money here for charities."
Hall is referring, rather pointedly, to another aspect of Ecstasy's broad appeal. Not just skater/ravers from Kendall, but Miami's gay male clubgoers are rolling these days, as many of them have been throughout the decade. "Of the circuit parties, the White Party stands as the center event of that scene, which has done wonders for [AIDS-related] charities," Hall says. "Yet within that genre has also appeared the international jet set of this drug. The cognoscenti comes to the high temples of the high parties, whether they're on an island in Thailand or Sydney or London or Paris, Amsterdam, or New York."
And while local law enforcement hasn't made any busts on the scale of the alleged Erez ring, they have been noticing a sharp uptick in the amount of Ecstasy flowing into South Florida.
Agent Brent Eaton, public information officer for the Miami office of the DEA, notes that MDMA distribution and use has risen dramatically in the past few months. He cites several DEA busts as evidence of this trend. On July 21, two Dutch women were arrested at Orlando International Airport after arriving on a flight from Brussels with 50 pounds of MDMA. On July 25, a Dominican woman was arrested at Miami International after arriving from Santo Domingo with 9500 tablets of X; she was the most recent of five Dominican couriers arrested at MIA within the past six months. On July 29, a German man and woman were arrested at Fort Myers International after having brought 33 pounds (50,000 tablets) of Ecstasy on a flight from Düsseldorf. (Eaton says these pills were bound for Miami.) And on August 25, a Dutch woman was busted at the Orlando airport after bringing in 27 pounds of the drug from London.
On the Beach itself, the upsurge has been even more acute. "We didn't really start making arrests with [Ecstasy] until the last year, year and a half," says Sgt. David Young of the Miami Beach Police Department's narcotics unit. "We've made what we consider some really big arrests, involving up to 10,000 pills. It's now become so common here, we're running into dealers almost weekly." Although Beach cops hadn't "run into" the Miami Beach middlemen of Erez's alleged operation, Young confirms that the elephant, Superman, and yin-yang imprints of Ecstasy pills the group are accused of trafficking were -- and still are -- commonly found in Beach nightclubs.