Moshe "The Religious" Was the Kingpin of L.A.'s Israeli Mob, but He Always Honored the Sabbath
Illustration by David Plunkert
UPDATE on July 31, 2015: Moshe Matsri has been sentenced to 32 years in federal prison. In a letter to the judge, Matsri said he was "deeply regretful" for his actions.
On the evening of Aug. 26, 2010, Yaniv Amar was at home in Woodland Hills with his girlfriend and their two children when he heard a knock on the door. He opened it to find a stranger.
The man was African-American, about 6-foot-2. In his right hand, he held a first-aid kit. He mumbled something about the address. Amar looked down at the kit. With the left hand, the man lunged at Amar's neck. Amar heard an electrical noise, which he recognized from his years in the Israeli Defense Forces as the sound of a Taser.
They struggled on the front steps. Amar retreated into his house, grabbed a blanket from the couch and tried to throw it over the Taser. The man kept coming, swinging his fists. Amar stumbled backward and fell on the kitchen floor.
The man straddled him as Amar kicked wildly. He heard screaming. It was his girlfriend. She had come in from the family room, carrying their little girl in her arms and yelling at the attacker to leave Amar alone. With her free hand, she tried to shove the man away.
He pushed her into the kitchen counter. She recovered and grabbed a butcher knife. Lunging at him again, she plunged it into his back.
The attacker recoiled and ran out of the house, leaving behind a trail of blood. Amar chased him down the street, but he was already gone.
More than a year later, a DNA test identified the attacker as Deandre Brown, a small-time criminal and addict. Brown confessed that he had been paid to do it.
Pleading for leniency, he said he'd needed money to buy PCP, ecstasy and cocaine. He blamed his troubles on the difficulty of finding work, being a felon during the recession. He got eight years in prison.
No one was ever prosecuted for ordering the attack. But in a recent court filing, the FBI blamed it on Moshe Matsri, a 47-year-old businessman from Tarzana, who was described as the L.A. leader of the Israeli underworld.
Seven months before the attack, Matsri had directed Amar to resolve a financial dispute by turning over half his business to a former partner. Amar had refused.
This fit a pattern. Over the years, Matsri had become known in L.A.'s Israeli community, which is concentrated in the southern part of the San Fernando Valley and closely tied to the clothing and jewelry trades in downtown L.A. Matsri was seen as a mediator who would back up his decrees with violence.
"If you didn't know this was real," ex-prosecutor Michael Stern says, "you'd think you were watching an episode of The Sopranos."
From left: Moshe Matsri, Yuval Geringer, a Matsri associate awaiting trial and Yaron Cohen, Matsri's associate in Amsterdam
Israeli TV has its own mafia show, The Arbitrator. It depicts the everyday life of an Israeli crime family, and it's a hit. Thematically, it borrows from The Godfather, dramatizing the tensions between family, piety and violence. The title character is a vicious killer who mediates disputes by citing the Torah.
Until his arrest, in July 2013, Matsri's life embodied the same tensions. To Israeli gangsters, he was "Moshe the Religious." He sent his children to private Jewish schools and belonged to Bet Yosseph, an Orthodox synagogue on Ventura Boulevard, within walking distance of his house.
He did not conduct business on the Sabbath. Investigators noticed that their wiretaps went dead on Friday afternoon, and calls did not resume until sundown on Saturday.
At the same time, according to voluminous court filings, Matsri also was a drug trafficker and brutal enforcer. On one wiretapped call, he instructed one of his lieutenants in the art of intimidation.
"Tell him, 'On Monday, if I don't get my payment, you'll continue paying me for the rest of your life,'?" he said. He advised his lieutenant to "bring some baboon with you" — meaning a gang member to act as muscle.
"Matsri is very well respected — and feared — in the Israeli community," says Lt. Stephan Margolis, who heads LAPD's organized-crime unit.
Matsri liked expensive watches and drove a BMW. Otherwise, he lived relatively modestly in a four-bedroom stucco house with his wife and children.
He now sits in a federal detention center awaiting sentencing for drug trafficking, money laundering and extortion. He did not respond to a letter sent to him in jail by L.A. Weekly, and his attorney, Dean Steward, declined to comment.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration spent eight months pursuing Matsri, an investigation that spanned the globe. Agents had cooperation from the FBI, LAPD and police agencies in the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Israel.
Prosecutors in the United States and Israel indicted a dozen defendants, including Matsri and his brother, Shmuel Matsri, who was caught with bomb-making materials at his home in a suburb of Tel Aviv. Investigators believe the brothers were planning to plant a bomb in someone's car.
Police maintain that Matsri was the U.S. leader of the Abergil network. One of Israel's top crime families, the Abergils have been tied to murder, embezzlement, extortion and drug trafficking in Israel, the United States and Europe.
To investigators, the international operation was a major victory. But for more than a year, they kept it under seal. Only now is the story being told.
Moshe Matsri leaves his BMW to meet with undercover agents.
Their probe began in Amsterdam, where a DEA agent posing as a Colombian drug trafficker was introduced to an Israeli named Yaron Cohen. According to authorities, Cohen was known to smuggle heroin, cocaine and ecstasy into Europe through the Port of Rotterdam. The undercover agent asked Cohen if he could help launder about 200,000 euros.
Cohen agreed, wiring the money through Dubai and Hong Kong to an undercover account in L.A. The undercover agent then asked for help moving money within the United States, and Cohen suggested they get in touch with his contact in Los Angeles.
"He's very, very close to me. He's like my brother, like blood," Cohen said. "You can trust this person. You can put your life on him. ... You don't see one like this. Only one in a generation."
That person was Matsri — though he went by the code name "Jim." The agent set a meeting for Dec. 5, 2012, at Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar at downtown's L.A. Live.
The undercover DEA agent, Willivan Rojas, brought along another undercover agent, Ray Camuy, who posed as his underling. Outside the steakhouse, they spotted lookouts, who seemed to be doing countersurveillance for Matsri.
Rojas and Camuy went in and got a table. Matsri arrived and sat down. Before he said anything, he placed an iPhone on the table and moved it from side to side, apparently running an app to detect surveillance.
Matsri then called Cohen in the Netherlands. After exchanging a few words in Hebrew, Matsri handed the phone to Rojas. Cohen told the DEA agent that it was safe to proceed.
The dinner conversation was strictly business. Matsri said he could move money from New York to L.A. for a 0x000A4 percent fee, plus a commission. He also said he could move money from Canada and Europe to destinations in the United States, Mexico and South America.
Moving money is critical to the drug trade. Whenever drugs flow into Europe or the United States, money must flow in the opposite direction. Sophisticated networks exist to move the proceeds, either via wire transfers or physically, in cash concealed in a car or a plane, or in the form of diamonds or luxury watches.
On Dec. 19, an undercover agent met a Matsri associate at a hotel in Manhattan. He handed over $75,000 in cash. The associate, Yuval Geringer, went to the bathroom to count it and transfer it to his gym bag. When he came out, he complained that it was not in $100 bills and left.
A few hours later, Matsri met Rojas at a Starbucks in downtown L.A. They discussed the fee and made arrangements for the cash delivery. Another Matsri associate approached an undercover agent who was waiting in a car nearby, and handed over a bag containing $70,000.
Proceeds of a money laundering sting
With a successful transaction behind them, Matsri began to loosen up. At a meeting with the agents in January 2013, Matsri asked if they could help him extort a debtor in Guadalajara. If the man did not pay up, Matsri said he wanted him to be "no more breathing."
He also told them about his travels in South America. One time, he said, he had tried to ship 300 kilos of cocaine from Ecuador to Rotterdam. The cocaine had gone missing, and he had to travel to Mexico and Ecuador to sort it out.
He'd also trafficked in ecstasy, but the market had dried up. He said he had been trafficking drugs since he was 17.
Matsri came to L.A. from Israel in the late 1990s. He bought a house in Reseda in 2000. In short order he was on the radar of police, one of 15 suspects arrested in 2002 as part of an ecstasy sting.
Police were conducting surveillance on a Van Nuys parking lot when they saw a drug deal go south. The buyers pulled guns on the dealers and tried to steal 170 pounds of ecstasy, worth about $5 million.
The police intervened and made arrests. One of the suspects fled, then abandoned his car. When he returned to the car later, Matsri was with him. Both were arrested. Matsri spent about four months in jail before pleading no contest to being an accessory after the fact. He got probation.
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That was not the end of the story. About a year later, Sami Atias, one of the dealers in the Van Nuys incident, was shot dead outside a Middle Eastern restaurant in Encino. Atias was believed to have set up the foiled Van Nuys robbery. Moshe Malul, the trafficker who owned the ecstasy shipment, later pleaded guilty to hiring gang members to kill Atias.
In 2005, soon after completing his probation, Matsri became a confidential source for the DEA. The relationship would last for five years, an unusually long time for such work. It is not clear how much help Matsri provided to investigators. It may have been minimal.
At the time, federal investigators were keenly interested in Israeli organized crime. In 2008, prosecutors in Los Angeles indicted Itzhak Abergil, the leader of the Abergil family. He was accused of embezzlement, loan sharking, drug trafficking and a host of other crimes, including involvement in the Atias murder. Abergil was extradited from Israel, pleaded guilty and is now serving a 10-year sentence.
Even as he was acting as an informant for the DEA, Matsri was consolidating his control of Abergil's L.A. operations. He extended business loans and offered protection, putting those who received his support in his debt.
In Israel, Itzhak Abergil's arrest set off a turbulent fight for control of the family. In 2011, two mob figures were assassinated in public places in Tel Aviv. In May 2013, Matsri confided to the undercover agents that the Israeli underworld was in upheaval.
"Almost all the time, it's fighting fighting, killing killing," Matsri said, according to a transcript of the conversation. "Israel is like Colombia — bombing, bombing. My head guy, right now he go to jail."
Authorities believe he was referring to Moti Hassin, who Israeli authorities think ordered the public assassinations in order to help cement his leadership of the Abergil family.
But Hassin was not in jail for long. Last fall, an Israeli judge acquitted him of the two murders, and he fled to Bulgaria before prosecutors could file an appeal.
Israeli immigrants in L.A. didn't know how deep Matsri was intertwined with events on the other side of the globe. They just knew it was wise to fear him in L.A.
In 2008, two armed robbers entered a mortgage business in Sherman Oaks. They herded the employees into one room and ordered them to lie down. They would not hurt anyone but were there "only for the money."
"We don't hold money in this office," said one of the victims, Danny Siag, as they went through his pockets, taking his watch and some cellphones before fleeing. A few hours later, police traced a cellphone to Compton, where they arrested Darrell Brown, who was wearing Siag's watch.
Investigators later connected the crime to Matsri. The business owner, Siag, owed him money, and had been the target of two other robberies around the same time.
Such stories began to circulate widely in the local Israeli community.
Another man who owed Matsri money found his van damaged, but somebody had been considerate enough to leave a note and phone number. When the car owner met up with the stranger, they shook hands — then the man struck him in the face with a small baseball bat, knocking out his tooth. A second man came at him and hit him again, and he ran inside. He called LAPD but refused to discuss his debt to Matsri.
Intimidation by Moshe the Religious could be both brutal and creative — even poetic. In one case, a man who refused to comply with Matsri's ruling in a "mediation" had his car smashed, and he was attacked in the street. A funeral wreath was sent to his mother.
In another, police allege Matsri tricked a savvy jewelry store owner, stealing three watches worth $400,000. The jeweler had received a call he believed was from an FBI agent, asking him to bring the watches to the FBI office downtown for inspection. Driving downtown, he was pulled over by what appeared to be a law enforcement vehicle. Two men got out, took the watches and drove off. Police believe Matsri set up the theft to collect on a debt owed him by another Israeli mobster.
These cases were impossible to prosecute, the violence carried out by surrogates, the victims often refusing to cooperate.
But one woman finally did testify against Matsri.
Sigal Lefkowitz is a clothing wholesaler in downtown L.A. In 2009, she sent a shipment of Polo shirts to a buyer in Israel for $40,000. Soon after, the buyer began demanding his money back, claiming the shirts had been seized at customs because they were counterfeit. Lefkowitz refused.
About a year later, she testified, she got a call from Matsri, who told her that she now owed $120,000. "If you want to play hard, I'll show you what hard play is," Matsri said. But Lefkowitz and her husband didn't back down. Then a strange man appeared on their doorstep, telling Lefkowitz's mother that her daughter needed to pay up. Lefkowitz, who could not be reached by the Weekly despite numerous attempts, was awakened by rocks smashing through her front windows. Someone called and said, "Pay up, or they will come back over and over and over again."
They finally went to the police. L.A. prosecutors charged Matsri with extortion. Matsri's lawyer argued that he had been merely attempting to broker an equitable solution to a business dispute. Someone else, the lawyer claimed, must have been responsible for throwing the rocks.
At the same time they were pursuing this extortion case, LAPD detectives were looking into a credit card scam involving El Al Airline tickets. In 2010, Matsri's partner in G&S Check Cashing, a man named Gabby Ben, bought more than 200 tickets on El Al through a Beverly Hills travel agency. Matsri helped supply names of travelers and itineraries to the agency, and his wife and children were among the passengers.
But the tickets, worth more than $600,000, were purchased using phony credit card approval codes. Most of them were resold to local Israelis at a discount.
The credit card companies reported the theft to LAPD, and detectives got a warrant to search Matsri's and Ben's homes, as well as the check-cashing business in a strip mall in Encino.
They found two stolen motorcycles, 11 Social Security cards, 26 driver's licenses, 21 watches and a handgun, which was tucked under some loose clay roof tiles at Matsri's house.
Bank accounts revealed that G&S Check Cashing lacked enough money to operate. Investigators concluded that it was a front for Ben and Matsri's fraud schemes.
Matsri and Ben were charged with grand theft and conspiracy. But even if the charges could be proven, such crimes carry light sentences — nothing that could put Matsri out of business.
Federal charges posed a far more serious threat, however, and by the spring of 2013 Matsri was walking deeper into the DEA's trap.
On May 21, surveillance cameras picked up Matsri at a food court at the Shops at Montebello, talking on a cellphone. He got a takeout order from Chicken Now. The cameras zoomed in as he stuffed something into the Styrofoam container.
He walked to his white BMW and put the takeout bag in his trunk. Another man removed the bag from the trunk and handed it off to someone else.
The recipient was an undercover DEA agent, posing as a courier for the Colombian traffickers. Inside the takeout container was $14,500, bundled in stacks of $50 and $20 bills. This was the last of three payments that Matsri made to the undercover agents, totaling nearly $80,000.
Two months earlier, the agents had proposed sending a load of cocaine by ship from Panama to Israel.
Matsri had agreed to buy 10 kilos but wanted to check the quality of the cocaine. The agents suggested he come to Panama, but Matsri wanted to try the coke in Los Angeles. Under the terms of his bail, he was wearing an ankle monitor that prevented him from traveling.
He explained to the undercover agents that he'd gotten into a dispute over some shirts, and the victim — clothing wholesaler Sigal Lefkowitz — "had a bad dream." He also shared his plan to take revenge on the LAPD. He intended to file a racial discrimination claim against the detective who had investigated him. That, he believed, would give him access to the detective's personal information, which would help him locate and harm the detective's family.
As for the ankle monitor, Matsri assured the undercover agents that he would let the battery run down before going to check the purity of the cocaine. In a subsequent meeting at the Shops at Montebello, an undercover agent handed one of Matsri's lieutenants a one-gram sample of cocaine in a Starbucks cup.
With that, the deal was on.
The DEA had plenty of evidence on Matsri, but agents wanted him to lead them to his connections in Israel. That would involve setting up an undercover operation in Tel Aviv. To buy time, an agent told Matsri in June 2013 that the coke shipment would be delayed due to storms off Florida.
"The 'girls' are stuck in Miami right now," the undercover investigator told Matsri, referring to the kilos in code. "The girls are just going to be a little bit late, but the party is still on for the middle of July. Is that cool?"
"Yeah, no problem," Matsri said. "What can we do? Bottom line? Nothing."
"Yep, unless you got somebody that controls the weather, bro," he said.
While they waited, the DEA set up an elaborate sting, in hopes of adding extortion to the list of Matsri's crimes. On the night of July 9, 2013, agents staked out a Ford Mustang at an apartment complex in Toluca Lake. The undercover agents had been complaining to Matsri about a drug debtor named Vegas Chad. Matsri offered to help get their money, so they gave Matsri Vegas Chad's phone number and told him where he usually parked.
Then the agents put the Mustang at the location — and waited. As surveillance cameras rolled, someone drove up, got out and smashed the windows and side mirrors with a tire iron. A few minutes later, "Vegas Chad" — actually an undercover officer — got a threatening call.
"You owe money to Jose," said Matsri's enforcer, according to the transcript. "You got 10 minutes to call him. Otherwise it happens to your face. And I'm going to come personally to your fucking house in Marina del Rey, and that's what's going to happen to you."
The following day, Matsri met the undercover agents at the Montebello mall. They talked about vandalizing the Mustang — the agents said they were very satisfied — before moving on to other business. An agent handed Matsri $5,000 in a soda cup, as payment for transporting five kilos of cocaine to Utah. They also arranged for the arrival of the cocaine shipment in Israel set for two days later, on July 12.
Matsri wanted to do more business with them, offering to buy 100 kilos of cocaine from the agents. They agreed, and said they would deliver the first shipment of five kilos to a warehouse in North Hollywood on July 12.
Early in the morning of that day, Matsri called his associate Yuval Geringer and gave him the address of the North Hollywood warehouse. He instructed Geringer to follow the dealers after the handoff, apparently hoping to locate the traffickers' stash so he could steal it later. Then Matsri went to a Denny's in Montebello for breakfast with the undercover agents.
At about the same time, an Israeli undercover officer was meeting with Matsri's brother, Shmuel, near a movie theater in Tel Aviv. The Israeli officer handed over a suitcase with 10 kilos of a white powder resembling cocaine.
"There's the sequel, you know," Shmuel said, meaning that more deliveries should follow.
Matsri's organization vandalized a Ford Mustang to send a message.
The officers followed Shmuel home and arrested him. In his bomb shelter, they found a cache of tear gas canisters, bomb-making materials, some marijuana and five grenades.
Eight thousand miles away in North Hollywood, the carefully fabricated drama was nearing its conclusion. Undercover agents met Geringer at the parking garage, opened a minifridge and presented him with the five kilos. Geringer sent a text to Matsri confirming the delivery — and then was arrested.
Matsri was enjoying breakfast with the two undercover agents when he got the confirmation. Local Montebello police then entered the Denny's and arrested him, as well as the undercover agents — preserving their cover just a little longer.
Belgian and Dutch police also were making arrests. Roee Loss, an Israeli prosecutor, was with DEA agents at an office in Tel Aviv, watching the police operations on computer screens as they unfolded on three continents.
"We saw all the arrests in 10 minutes," Loss tells the Weekly. "It was very beautiful."
Shmuel Matsri got 12 years in prison, and several others have pleaded guilty. Geringer and Yaron Cohen are awaiting trial in Los Angeles.
For Matsri's part, at his trial in L.A. last fall, his attorney, Dean Steward, argued that his client was entrapped.
"The agents choose the meeting place, they choose the time, they choose the topics, they directed the conversations, and they do it again and again," Steward said.
Prosecutor Michael Dore countered that sting operations are "the only way you can crack an organization like this," and claimed that Matsri was inclined to commit the crimes anyway.
"They've got a pre-existing business," Dore argued. "The clear know-how demonstrated by defendant Matsri and his people suggest that this was not a one-shot deal."
Steward insisted that Matsri was working as an informant the whole time, committing crimes with the DEA's permission — though Matsri had been deactivated as a source two years before the investigation began. "He felt that he was still gathering evidence, as he had done for five, six years in the past," Steward said.
The jury convicted Matsri on 14 counts, including money laundering, cocaine trafficking and extortion. He is awaiting sentencing for those crimes and for the state charges of extortion and grand theft, to which he pleaded no contest in 2013.
In all, prosecutors expect Matsri to face up to 30 years in prison.
Even behind bars, Matsri has remained active, placing calls to his sister and speaking in code. According to an FBI affidavit, she serves as his proxy and his conduit to the outside world.