A Westside High School Grad Went Searching for Meaning and Ended Up in an Israeli Military Prison
Kevin Orenshein, a lanky 22-year-old, points at a mug and asks: "What's the word for this?" Orenshein was born and raised in West L.A., but after nearly five years in Israel he has lost some English words.
It's a latte, he learns. He orders one. He has come to this coffee shop on Beverly Boulevard to unburden himself about his time abroad. Until recently, he was locked up in an Israeli military prison on terrorism charges. He has been reluctant to discuss that, but he ultimately figured that if the story is going to get out, it might as well be the truth.
He has his laptop with him. In the course of a three-hour conversation, he opens it up and plays videos that he shot on his GoPro camera. The first clip shows a cluster of ramshackle houses next to a dirt field. It's the Gaza Strip. His unit is taking fire. Orenshein can be heard laughing. In the next clip, he fires a bazooka at a distant, low-slung building, which explodes in a puff of smoke.
Since he was 13, he'd known that he wanted to be in the military. His grandfather, who fought in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, worked for Northrop Grumman and brought him posters of military aircraft. He became obsessed. When U.S. army recruiters came to Hamilton High School, he relished the chance to show off his knowledge.
After finishing high school early, he enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces. In special forces training, he would hike for three days up a mountain, in freezing temperatures, hauling a stretcher and a heavy pack. He tore the cartilage in his shoulder in three places. It was an awful experience — and also the most important thing he had ever done.
He was assigned to an explosives unit, where he learned how to assemble charges that could topple Hamas hideouts. He was the only American in his unit, and one of the few in his platoon. The Israelis were conscripts who couldn't understand why he had volunteered.
When he was off the base, Orenshein gravitated to other Americans. One became particularly important to him. His name was Everett Adam. He was older, about 30, and Orenshein was captivated by him from the moment he learned he had been a Navy SEAL.
They clicked right away, playing video games together and bonding over their shared passion for military hardware.
"I loved the guy," Orenshein says. "I talked to everyone about him. I told everyone I knew a Navy SEAL, and he was a genius."
Each had left his familiar surroundings behind. Both were searching for meaning in their own lives by traveling to a deeply significant place halfway around the world.
Of course, had Orenshein known Adam's true intentions, it would have ended differently: "I would have shot him in the leg and arrested him."
Foreigners who enlist in the IDF are known as "lone soldiers." Israel is a small country, and most soldiers can easily drive home when they're off duty. Lone soldiers are thousands of miles from their families. When they go on leave, they go to an empty apartment.
Though they make up only about 2 percent of the standing army, lone soldiers have increased in recent years. The spread of social media and the ease of international travel have removed barriers for Jewish kids who want to deepen their connection to Israel.
Max Steinberg, a 24-year-old from Woodland Hills, is the most famous of them. He enlisted after visiting Israel on a 10-day Birthright trip in 2012, and was killed during the Gaza war last July.
Ari Platt, a lone soldier who served from 2009 to 2011, explains there is a "double barrier" for new recruits. They must transition from civilian to military life while also adapting to a new culture. Often they go to strengthen their ties to the country, only to find themselves more isolated.
Orenshein grew up in a Modern Orthodox house. Though he no longer shares the faith — "I'm confused," he says — he did feel a strong connection to the Jewish state.
"I understood that the Jewish people are my people," he says. "In my own opinion, we're not doing so well. We don't have strength in numbers. The whole world hates us."
When he arrived in Israel, Orenshein did not know Hebrew. After a three-month language course, he continued to struggle. Often during training, he would misunderstand a command and do the wrong thing. The whole unit would be punished with extra drills.
"In the beginning, they hated me," he says.
Even as his language skills improved, Orenshein still couldn't pick up on jokes. Sometimes the joke was on him. During hazing for new recruits, the veterans strapped him to a stretcher and set off a tear gas canister.
"They walked away laughing," he says, "and I'm choking on tear gas."
Every three weeks, Orenshein would get a weekend off. He would go to an apartment in Netanya, a beachside city north of Tel Aviv. Known for its population of French immigrants, it aspires to be called the "Israeli Riviera." He did not have a car. He would bring home his groceries and stay inside all weekend.
"I was extremely lonely," he says.
Through a friend from home, Orenshein met a group of Americans who were serving in the IDF. In fall of 2013, they invited him to hang out at the beach in Netanya. That's where he met Everett Adam, who had a frogman tattoo on his back — the symbol of the SEALs — with a unit number.
"Sick tattoo, man," Orenshein said.
A few months later, he ran into Adam again. From then on, they would hang out every time Orenshein was off base.
Adam was a big guy — 6 feet, 220 pounds — and talked with a Southern accent. He said he had come from Texas to forge a deeper bond to his Jewish faith.
The two Americans would smoke pot and play video games. When Adam came to visit Orenshein's apartment, Orenshein showed off his personal collection of explosives — a smoke grenade, some fuse wire and a brick of C4 — which he had taken from the base. Adam was impressed and asked if he would consider selling him the C4.
"You wouldn't want it," Orenshein told him. "It's a dud."
Adam seemed to have money. He drove a 2012 Volkswagen Passat, which struck Orenshein as a really nice car for Israel.
"Every night he was asking me and my buddies to go out," says Jonathan Leibovits, another lone soldier. "He was dropping a couple hundred shekels. He seemed well off."
As far as Orenshein knew, the money came from Adam's business. Adam ran a power-washing company, which employed a couple former lone soldiers. They would go into Jerusalem, where Adam kept a place, and use high-pressure washers to clean stone buildings. For taller buildings, such as hotels, they would rappel down the side.
Others were told the money came from an uncle, or that Adam had made it selling a cancer drug. Some heard he had a yacht and that he planned to sail to Greece.
When Adam got drunk, he would talk about Arabs. He wondered why the Israeli army didn't carpet bomb the Gaza Strip or poison the water supply. He talked about the Dome of the Rock — the golden mosque that is the most distinctive feature of Jerusalem's skyline — and about how someone should blow it up.
He had a hundred such ideas. Orenshein didn't take any of them seriously. Later, under questioning, he would be asked why he didn't go to the police.
"Like I'm gonna call the police every time an Israeli says something racist about Arabs," he says. "Everyone would be in prison."
He also wanted to maintain the relationship. Orenshein was due to get out of the service in December 2014, and Adam offered to go into business with him once he was discharged. Adam knew a lot about the plastics business, and wanted to start up a company specializing in pyrolysis — the decomposition of plastic for conversion to gasoline. Adam drew up a 28-page plan detailing the idea, and Orenshein passed it to his father, who had a business degree and had run a kosher-food company. His father looked it over and said it seemed promising.
"I wanted him closer to me," Orenshein says. "I was worried I was letting a good opportunity go."
Late last summer, tensions were rising in Jerusalem. Adam and his two employees came to Orenshein and said they had been attacked by rock-throwing Arabs while washing graffiti off the side of a synagogue. Adam said he had thrown cleaning acid down on the crowd.
They wanted something better to defend themselves with. Orenshein says they asked him to get them flash-bangs, nonlethal grenades that are sometimes used for crowd control.
Though it was against the rules, it was not unusual for soldiers to take home weapons. "Every lone soldier has explosives he got in the army," says Ben Packer, an IDF veteran who runs a hostel for lone soldiers in Jerusalem.
Each of Orenshein's three friends was ex-military, so he figured they would handle the grenades responsibly. He also was worried about their safety. He could picture them dangling two stories above the ground as an angry crowd formed below.
"They were so vulnerable like that," he says. "Like a piñata."
He agreed to give each friend one tear-gas canister, one smoke grenade and one flash-bang — all nonlethal weapons. That way, each would be able to defend himself while suspended in the air.
"I think it makes sense, or at least I did," he says. "In the eyes of the law — no. But I didn't want to see my friends die."
Orenshein says that on the base, a fellow soldier spotted him rooting through a vest and asked why he was taking the flash-bangs and nonlethal grenades.
"I just want it," Orenshein says he responded.
He says the soldier then said to follow him. He led Orenshein to his room, where the soldier kept detonation bricks under the bed. Orenshein says the soldier offered him some, so he took four bricks and four booster charges. He says that when he got home, he put the bricks in his closet and gave the nonlethal weapons to Adam.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Washington Wizards
TicketsWed., Oct. 25, 7:30pm
UCLA Men's Soccer v Oregon State & UCLA Women's Soccer v Stanford
TicketsThu., Oct. 26, 4:30pm
CSUN Womens Soccer
TicketsThu., Oct. 26, 7:00pm
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Toronto Raptors
TicketsFri., Oct. 27, 7:30pm
UCLA Women's Soccer v California & UCLA Men's Soccer v Washington
TicketsSun., Oct. 29, 1:00pm
A few minutes later, Adam gave him 500 shekels, or about $125. Orenshein says he refused the money, but Adam insisted that he take it.
"We're going into business — think of it as an advance," Orenshein recalls Adam telling him. "I know it's the end of the month, and you don't get a big salary. You're going to be flying to America soon, and this way you'll be able to eat something on the way."
Orenshein was in fact overdue for some time back home. In October, he took a two-week vacation to see his family in L.A. Adam called and asked him about the four demolition bricks and booster charges that Orenshein kept in his room. He was interested in buying them for another 2,000 shekels.
Adam had a key to the apartment, because he was preparing to move in. But Orenshein kept the door to his room locked. He said they would discuss it when he got back to Israel.
When Orenshein got back, Adam moved into the apartment.
"By the way," he said. "I took your stuff."
"What?" Orenshein said.
Adam had jimmied the lock, he says, and told him that he'd put the explosives in a safe place, so that no one would get hurt. Orenshein asked where the stuff was, and Adam was evasive.
"I picked up the vibes of, 'I'm not going to tell you,'?" Orenshein says. "I was panicking."
Orenshein says he tried to play it cool, thinking he stood a better chance of getting the explosives back if it seemed like no big deal. He says he refused to take the 2,000 shekels that Adam offered.
He scoured the apartment. He says he finally checked the apartment's storage unit and found that Adam had switched the locks. He kicked the door repeatedly in frustration.
He went to confront Adam, who said he had made spare keys, but they were in his other apartment in Jerusalem, and he wouldn't be able to get them right away.
A couple days later, Orenshein found a spare key sitting out on a table. He went down to the storage unit and opened it, but says it was empty.
There were a couple other places to look. But Orenshein was getting worried enough that he confided to a friend that he was thinking about reporting the theft to his superior officer.
"I think that's smart," the friend said.
On the night of Nov. 21, 2014, Israeli police knocked on the apartment door. Adam was the only one home. He refused to let them in. As police were breaking down the door, Adam tried to escape by jumping out the seventh-floor window onto the sixth-floor patio. He was taken into custody.
The police found the demolition bricks and booster charges in the storage unit.
Orenshein was on base at the time. The next morning, a friend called and asked why there had been an arrest at his apartment.
Orenshein went straight to his colonel and told him the whole story. The colonel told him to sit tight. Soon, agents from the Shin Bet — the Israeli version of the FBI — arrived and took Orenshein in for questioning.
"Let's put bullshit aside," the interrogator said. "We know you're trying to blow up the Dome of the Rock."
Orenshein was staggered. "My heart stopped," he says.
While Orenshein was on vacation, Adam had invited some friends over to the apartment. One of the friends brought his father. Adam got to talking about Arabs. He showed off the explosives, and said he had a dream in which he was a bull charging at the Dome of the Rock with a nuclear weapon strapped to his belly.
The father was alarmed and went to the police. As the police investigated, they discovered that Adam had attempted to get explosives from several people. One lone soldier had agreed to sell some demolition charges to Adam for 4,000 shekels, or about $1,000. The military police set up a sting, and the soldier sold the weapons to an undercover agent and was arrested.
The authorities were intent on thwarting an attack. Adam and Orenshein both were held as terrorism suspects — without access to lawyers. Orenshein was convinced there was a misunderstanding.
"I was thinking it's impossible. Adam would never do this," Orenshein says. "He's a Navy SEAL. He's trained. He's responsible."
The second day he was in custody, the interrogator told him that Adam was not a Navy SEAL. Orenshein didn't believe him. Adam knew too many little details — the kind that a combat veteran would know, and no civilian could fake.
The interrogator said Adam had a friend who was in the SEALs. He had picked up stories from the friend and inserted himself into them. It all clicked into place.
Orenshein had been loyal to Adam, staked his future on him and even risked getting into serious trouble for him, all because of Adam's service in the SEALs. Now he realized that loyalty was misplaced.
"Oh no. Oh no. Oh no," he thought. "I just helped a psycho."
He started to cry.
The man Kevin Orenshein knew as Everett Adam was actually wanted fugitive Everett Adam Livvix.
Adam's real name is Everett Adam Livvix. A Google search for that name leads to the website of the Fugitive Recovery Network, which shows his mugshot and lists a phone number for an Indiana bounty hunter.
"We had a warrant for him for failure to appear on fraud charges," says the bounty hunter, Willie Bryant.
Bryant had been looking for Livvix for a year and a half, ever since Livvix had skipped out on an arraignment in his hometown of Robinson, Illinois. Livvix, who went by Adam, was accused of selling stolen farm equipment and had an extensive history of fraud and other charges.
He had grown up in nearby Marshall, Illinois, a rural town about 15 miles from Terre Haute, Indiana. He wasn't Jewish; the family attended a United Methodist church but Livvix himself was not religious.
His father had a farm and ran a successful plastics business. As a teenager, Livvix was fascinated by the military and explosives, and would often blow up things for the thrill of it, according to acquaintances who grew up with him. They also recall that he once exploded a dead cow to see what would happen.
He and his brother Tyler were popular. "They had money, they had cars, they had the girls," says a friend, who asked not to be named because Marshall is a small town. "Whatever they wanted, they had."
Everyone who knew Livvix remarked on how intelligent he was.
"He exuded confidence, and acted like he was bulletproof," says William Thomas, a local attorney. "He was very smart, but I think he misapplied his talents."
When his father died, in 2005, Livvix was cut out of the will. He had taken some equipment from the company and had not returned it, according to the attorney who handled the estate.
Livvix had spent a year in business school in Terre Haute, and spent the next several years launching various commercial ventures.
One of his companies sold a Taser that could be mounted on the end of a rifle. Another was a plastic recycling business, for which he obtained a $250,000 small business loan from the state of Illinois. But according to court records, he misspent most of the money and pocketed the rest, earning a 90-day jail sentence.
He also was sued by banks and suppliers over unpaid debts. Asked to sum up Livvix's personality, Clark County Sheriff Jerry Parsley says it was simple: "C-O-N."
"It was all scams from the get-go," he says.
Thomas, the attorney, invested in one of Livvix's companies: an app that would print pictures from a cellphone. He says it was "a really neat idea," but the business went belly-up after Livvix sold off the intellectual property. Thomas still believes that Livvix didn't really know what he was doing. But other investors thought they were scammed.
"The thing that's difficult is, 'Who was he really?'?" Thomas says. "Maybe I was totally duped. I don't know."
Livvix's friend says he exerted influence over investors and friends alike.
"Adam could brainwash you," he says. "If he wanted to make you do something and you hang out with him long enough, eventually he's gonna talk you into doing it."
Sitting in a Shin Bet detention center, Orenshein had ample opportunity to reflect on how he had been duped. He was angry, at Livvix and at his friends, who he believed knew that Livvix wasn't a SEAL and had failed to alert him. He was mad that his friends had used his obsession with the military against him. He was also confused.
"My whole world was warped," he says. "Everything he told me — I don't know what the hell was true or not."
He also had to contend with interrogators who thought Orenshein was hiding details of a terror plot. Sometimes they would withhold information, or give him misinformation in an effort to trip him up. Most of the time he was left alone with his thoughts. After about a week, they hooked him up to a lie detector. He failed.
"They called me a liar, and said, 'You're going to stay here forever,'?" he says. "I freaked out and started slamming my head into the door."
He took the test again, and passed. For the first time, he felt as if maybe he would be believed. He started to breathe a little easier.
One day, Orenshein was led shackled and blindfolded up a set of stairs and into an interrogation room. When the blindfold was removed, he was sitting across from Livvix. A group of interrogators asked detailed questions to see if their answers would line up.
Orenshein recalls that at one point, Livvix was caught in an inconsistency, and an interrogator blew up at him: "Cut the shit!" he said, and slapped him hard across the face.
Orenshein started laughing. That was the last time he saw Livvix.
Soon thereafter, Orenshein was indicted for stealing explosives from his base and selling them to Livvix. Orenshein insisted it was common for soldiers to remove weapons from the base.
"They maybe take bullets or practice grenades," prosecutor Dan Cohen says. "I'm not sure it's so common to take explosives. And you certainly don't sell it to another guy, especially if he's foreign and he talks about how much he hates Arabs."
Israel is well known as a lure to the mentally ill. Psychiatrists have described a phenomenon, known as Jerusalem Syndrome, in which tourists suffer psychotic episodes upon visiting the holy city. The local mental hospital averages two cases per week. Some patients are found delivering incoherent sermons. Some imagine that they are biblical characters. And some try to destroy holy sites, like the Dome of the Rock.
Once Livvix had a lawyer, the attorney immediately sought a mental-health evaluation. After his arrest, Livvix had spun all kinds of grandiose stories for his interrogators. He said that he had traveled to the West Bank, where he had been recruited by Palestinian terrorists to help assassinate President Obama.
While in custody, Livvix reportedly chewed off his own finger and ate it. This account comes from two sources: Orenshein, who heard it from his lawyers, and one of Livvix's friends from home, who did not want to be identified. Ron Roman, the spokesman for the prosecutor's office, confirmed that Livvix had injured his finger but said privacy rules prevented him from giving more details.
Orenshein worries that Livvix might be faking insanity in order to avoid prosecution.
"This guy is smart," Orenshein says. "I'm sure he's pulling this crap on purpose."
After several months of examination, a court psychiatrist declared on April 2 that Livvix was psychotic and unfit to stand trial. He was transferred to a mental facility, where he is entitled to periodic reviews by a psychiatric committee to determine if he is suitable for release.
"I don't know what Israel is gonna do," says Livvix's mother, Jennie Woolverton. "I'm just kind of playing the waiting game." [*Update: Livvix was returned to the U.S. on July 7 and is now in jail in Illinois.]
Woolverton had driven her son to Chicago in 2013, where he caught a flight to Germany. For a while, according to an FBI affidavit, they communicated covertly via saved email drafts in a shared Yahoo account. She says that when he was arrested, she hadn't heard from him in a while. She was stunned to learn of the charges.
"I think maybe his mouth got him in trouble. He's somewhat of a blowhard," she says. "You can't say dumb stuff when things are so volatile over there."
As a terror suspect, Orenshein was held in a military prison under the highest security level. A family friend was able to visit him every couple of weeks, bringing books on math and aerodynamics and thrillers by David Baldacci.
He did not get along with the other inmates. They were all conscripts who had disobeyed an order or committed some other infraction. They tended to see their country through a different lens than Orenshein did.
"Imagine the shittiest people you can possibly imagine," Orenshein says. "They're all saying, 'Screw the army. Screw the country. I hate Israel. I want to go to America' — all this type of crap. It was like, 'Shut your goddamn mouth.' It's like, 'Wake up. We have one country. We don't exactly have a choice. You have to protect this, even if you don't like it.'?"
On April 20, military prosecutors made Orenshein an offer. If he pleaded guilty to selling weapons to Livvix, he would be released. He insisted he never agreed to a sale, but says his lawyers told him to take the deal so he relented.
In issuing its ruling, a three-judge panel took note of a letter from Orenshein's Israeli army commander, who said the young man was a highly competent and caring soldier — "a good soul" — but also somewhat "innocent and naive," which made him vulnerable to being duped.
"The Defendant developed an admiration and absolute devotion to Adam, was taken under his wing, and his ability to judge Adam and his statements was compromised," the judges found. The judges acknowledged Orenshein's lifelong desire to serve in the military, and credited him for risking his life for Israel. "According to him, he did not understand the severity of his actions until he was arrested, and he feels today that he 'lost' the task that defined him."
The judges also issued a stern reprimand: "Defendant's actions created the most significant potential damage."
Orenshein was demoted from sergeant to private. After 5½ months in custody, his service to Israel was complete and he was sent home.
Sitting in the coffee shop, he talks about his future. He is working a real estate job now, and will attend Santa Monica College in the fall. He plans to become an engineer.
He says he was too trusting — too ready to put his faith in somebody, because nothing bad had ever happened to him.
He still believes in the Israeli military, and recommends it to others, though he thinks it could do a better job of taking care of lone soldiers.
"What happened with me and the explosives was stupid stuff. But I'm not going to let everything that I've done fall to pieces because of one stupid thing," he says. "It was a great experience — the best experience of my life."
Hebrew translation by Joel Schachar
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.