Case sheds light on LV, Israeli mob
October 18, 2010 - 11:00 pm
The federal extortion indictment of a Southern California man has led to the disclosure of new details about the stepped-up activities of the Israeli mob in Las Vegas.
Lior Zaken, 38, is the fifth defendant charged in a plot to extort thousands of dollars from two Israeli-born businessmen, Moshe "Moshiko" Ozana and Moshe "Chiko" Karmi, who run small electronics and cosmetics kiosks at local outlet malls.
The others charged earlier this year are Israeli citizens Moshe Barmuha, 37, and Yakov Cohen, 24, and two Russian-born brothers, Ruslan Magomedgadzhiev, 30, and Murad Magomedgadzhiev, 26. Cohen lives in Las Vegas, and the other three men live in Southern California. All are in federal custody.
Dave Logue, a Las Vegas police intelligence lieutenant, said the extortion scheme shows that the Israeli mob is "every bit as sophisticated and active" as other organized crime groups here.
"They try to keep a lower profile than some of the other groups, but they’re very opportunistic," Logue said. "They have strong ties to Southern California."
At a detention hearing for Zaken last week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly Frayn said Barmuha, the lead defendant in the extortion case, has a lengthy criminal record in Israel and is "known to be affiliated with a very powerful organized crime family." His right arm was amputated below the elbow after a pipe bomb he planted underneath a rival’s car prematurely exploded.
In arguing to keep Zaken behind bars while he awaits trial, Frayn told U.S. Magistrate Lawrence Leavitt that the Israeli citizen was intimately involved in the extortion scheme and alleged that he had plotted with Barmuha during recorded jail conversations to obstruct justice in the case. The two men also were overheard discussing another unrelated extortion plot, Frayn said.
Frayn said Zaken, who has been described as "muscle" for Barmuha, runs his business, Express Moving & Storage, out of the first floor of Barmuha’s Southern California home. The company’s license is suspended, according to records on file with the California secretary of state.
Las Vegas police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents uncovered the extortion plot a year ago, first bringing to light the Israeli mob’s renewed presence here.
Israeli mobsters are involved in traditional rackets such as loan-sharking, extortion, money laundering, prostitution and illegal gambling, authorities say. Their activities in Las Vegas revolve around lucrative illegal trafficking in Ecstasy, a popular drug on the Las Vegas nightclub scene.
Earlier this year, a federal judge refused to release Cohen from custody after prosecutors made public excerpts from FBI wiretaps of Cohen allegedly threatening violence against Ozana and Karmi and bragging about his connections to the Israeli mob. Authorities alleged Cohen was trying to muscle in on the kiosk operations of the two businessmen.
Frayn alleged in court that Zaken recruited the Magomedgadzhiev brothers on Barmuha’s behalf to physically harm Karmi in the extortion scheme. Ruslan Magomedgadzhiev worked for Zaken’s moving company.
In the Las Vegas attack, which occurred near Karmi’s home, Karmi was thrown so hard against his car that it left a large dent, Frayn said. Karmi was able to pull out a handgun during the attack and fire off some shots, one of which struck Ruslan Magomedgadzhiev in the buttocks as the brothers were fleeing.
When federal agents searched Barmuha’s car in Southern California in April, Frayn said, they found hospital bills for treatment the wounded assailant had received.
Frayn said investigators overheard Barmuha and Zaken during a June 30 jailhouse conversation discussing a scheme to influence witnesses in the case. Barmuha told Zaken he needed to "make sure he keeps these people in line," Frayn alleged.
Zaken filed for bankruptcy in California in August 2009 and failed to make mortgage payments on his home for a year before his bank foreclosed on it, Frayn said.
Yet after Zaken was assigned a court-appointed lawyer in the criminal case, records show, he opted to hire high-priced defense attorney John Momot, who has represented local mob figures over the years.
In a courtroom plea to obtain Zaken’s release last Thursday, Momot contended that his client has no felony record and no ties to any organized crime figures.
Momot portrayed Zaken as a "hardworking" businessman, struggling to provide for his wife and two young children in tough economic times.
Zaken, standing off to the side of the courtroom in jail garb and chains, pulled out a tissue and appeared to wipe away tears, as Momot showed Leavitt a photo of his two children. Zaken’s wife sat sobbing in the gallery on the other side of the courtroom.
On Friday, after reading a transcript of the recorded June 30 conversation between Zaken and Barmuha, Leavitt said it wasn’t clear to him whether the two men were conspiring to obstruct justice in the extortion case.
Leavitt ordered Zaken released on $50,000 bail, but because the magistrate said he still considered him a flight risk, the judge imposed several restrictions, including electronic monitoring and confining his travel between Southern California and Las Vegas for court appearances only.
If Zaken posts bail, prosecutors will be able to ask for a hearing to determine the source of the funds, Leavitt said.
Contact Jeff German at email@example.com or 702-380-8135 or read more courts coverage at lvlegalnews.com.