Moshe Matsri, the reputed boss of L.A.’s Israeli underworld, was sentenced this morning to 32 years in federal prison.
Matsri, 48, was convicted in U.S. District Court last fall of 14 counts of money laundering, cocaine trafficking and extortion. Under federal sentencing rules, he will be eligible for release sometime after his 75th birthday, at which point he likely would be deported to Israel.
In imposing a stiff sentence, Judge James S. Otero said that wiretaps showed Matsri was "callous" and "would not hesitate to use violence to secure a debt." Otero seemed particularly disturbed that Matsri had allegedly threatened the family of an LAPD officer.
The case arose from an eight-month undercover operation led by the Drug Enforcement Administration, with assistance from the LAPD and the FBI.
The investigation spanned three continents and also involved cooperation from police agencies in the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Israel. Matsri was one of a dozen suspects arrested in July 2013. They also included his brother Shmuel, who was prosecuted by Israeli authorities and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
L.A. police had been pursuing Moshe Matsri for years, without much success. Investigators alleged that he was behind a series of thefts, beatings and extortions in the Israeli immigrant community. Matsri, who went by the name “Moshe the Religious,” was known as a mediator of business disputes.
In their brief to the court, prosecutors argued for a sentence of 33 years. Matsri, they argued, was “the leader of a vast international criminal conspiracy engaged in drug trafficking and money laundering across multiple continents.”
Matsri’s attorney, Dean Steward, pushed for a sentence of 11 to 14 years. In a letter to the judge, Matsri said he had undergone a "disgraceful and humiliating experience to be shackled and taken away to be locked up like a common criminal."
"I have done a lot of soul searching and wanted to inform your honor that I except [sic] full responsibility for my action and feel deeply regretful for letting down my family, my community, fellow Jews, society at large, and myself," he wrote. "Please show mercy and leniency and permit me to return to my family."
In a court filing, defense consultant John Brown maintained that Matsri is a good family man with a wife and five children, ranging in age from 6 to 18. He also went into detail about Matsri’s impoverished childhood in the slums of Tel Aviv.
According to the document, Matsri’s parents immigrated to Israel from Iraq to escape persecution in 1951. Matsri’s father ran a small food stand, where extortion was commonplace.
“Moshe’s father was extorted regularly and was twice hospitalized when he was beaten for refusing to pay,” Brown wrote. “Moshe himself was once assaulted when he would not open the door of his family’s apartment to people demanding money from his father.”
Matsri emigrated to Los Angeles in the late 1990s. Over the next 15 years, according to investigators, he would become a leading figure in the local Israeli mafia. He would mediate business disputes and back up his judgments with violence. Police documented instances of victims being beaten, tased, robbed at gunpoint and threatened with death for refusing to pay judgments.
On FBI wiretaps, Matsri was overheard instructing an associate in how to extract money from a victim.
“Tell him, ‘If I don’t get my money today … I will kill you,’” he said. He also recommended bringing some muscle to back up the threat: “Bring some baboon with you.”
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According to the defense, however, Matsri was committed to his family. Matsri’s 17-year-old daughter, Sarai, wrote to the court that her father “was always around for us when we needed him,” taking the children to school, the mall and movies.
“He is well respected because of the many people he has helped,” she wrote, “and when my father gave to others it wasn’t a show for everyone to see, it was done in a hidden manner so the receiving end wouldn’t be embarrassed.”
Matsri’s sister, Sima, wrote that she was disturbed to read an L.A. Weekly story about Matsri.
“He is not close to what they are portraying him to be,” she wrote. “He is important in our life.”