August 2, 2001
How Cookie Crumbled
The rise and fall of drug dealer Jacob "Cookie" Orgad sheds light on the pivotal role Israelis -- and Jews -- play in the thriving Ecstasy trade.
To his mates in the New York prison where he awaits sentencing for a drug-smuggling conviction, the bearded, soft-spoken Israeli, who Customs Department officials say regularly ministers to a small flock of religious Jewish prisoners, is known as "Rabbi Ya'akov."
The rest of the world, however, knows the "rabbi," a former Los Angeles resident, as Jacob "Koki," or "Cookie" Orgad. Until his arrest in April 2000, he was the biggest Ecstasy, or MDMA, trafficker ever to be convicted in this country.
According to the 23-count indictment issued by a federal grand jury in the Central District of California in July, Orgad was the leader of an Ecstasy-smuggling organization accused of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiracy to import and distribute narcotics, and other violations. His sentencing, scheduled for October, could cost him 20 years and $1 million in criminal fines.
In the world of drug smuggling, groups from many countries have made their mark. Israelis, according to drug enforcement officials, were prominent in one of the first rings -- their presence in Europe and connections in the diamond industry allowed them to stake out a big piece of the market. The Israelis also involved Chassidic couriers and others in the Jewish community, drug enforcement officials say.
Within the last year, law enforcement officials have arrested dozens of people tied to these rings, including 25 in connection with Jacob Orgad.
On Monday, witness after witness confirmed to the Senate Government Affairs Committee, led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., that Ecstasy's popularity has mushroomed.
An investigation into the life and times of Cookie Orgad provides some of the reasons why.
Orgad's name first reached the public's attention in 1995, when HBO screened British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield's exposé, "Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam." Broomfield, who got his start with the BBC, had come to Los Angeles in mid-1994, about a year after Fleiss, born into an affluent family, had been arrested for pandering. Broomfield's inquiries centered on why someone of Fleiss' privileged background had operated a brothel.
Interviewing Ivan Nagy, depicted in the documentary as Fleiss' sometime lover, Svengali and ultimate betrayer, Broomfield noticed several bullet holes in Nagy's apartment ceiling and asked where they came from. Nagy told him that a person named Cookie was responsible for them. Nagy alleged that Cookie worked for Fleiss as "an enforcer and procurer," and that he operated a beeper store called J&J Beeper.
Later, having pursued the shadowy Orgad around various beeper shops, Broomfield interviewed a woman who alleged that Orgad beat her. He also obtained a tape recording of a conversation between Nagy and Cookie in which Orgad urged Nagy to harm the woman. Finally, Broomfield obtained Orgad's beeper number, and called it. Orgad answered, declined to comment on whether he shot up Nagy's apartment, and suggested that Broomfield might end up with "a bullet in his ass."
"Orgad," Broomfield told The Journal, "was Ivan's [Nagy's] enforcer, and then he defected to Heidi. After the film came out, I actually ran into him at Heidi's lingerie store in Santa Monica. He was quite charming, a little jittery. He hadn't seen the film yet, but he had seen our surveillance cameras. The rumor around town -- and certainly Heidi believed it -- was that Cookie had been a Mossad agent."
According to a U.S. Customs agent familiar with the Orgad investigation, there was no such evidence of such an association. But Orgad, a.k.a. Tony Evans, a.k.a. Cookie, a.k.a. "The Keebler Man," had succeeded -- certainly in the two years prior to his arrest and probably for several years before that -- in creating an Ecstasy-trafficking organization of breathtaking efficacy and sophistication.
Orgad's credit card statements, say Customs investigators, show that he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a month flying from homes in Los Angeles, New York and Miami, to tend to his business interests in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Austin, and as far afield as Paris, Luxembourg, Amsterdam and Tel Aviv.
Recruiting strippers and, later, lower-middle-class suburban couples in their 30s and 40s, Orgad outfitted them at malls, trained them as couriers, and pumped millions of Ecstasy (or E) pills manufactured in the Netherlands into virtually every major city in this country, say Customs and Justice Department spokesmen.
The main measure of Orgad's sophistication was the degree to which he had managed to remove himself from most of these transactions, Customs officials say.
During the '90s, Orgad owned a fleet of Mercedeses and BMWs, outfitted his living rooms with the hottest big-screen TVs and designer furniture, and stocked his closets with Armani suits. Orgad was wont, moreover, to drop $5,000 or $6,000 dollars a pop entertaining entourages at the Key Club or Café Maurice.
In Los Angeles, law enforcement officers had linked Orgad to prostitution, pandering, money-laundering and cocaine dealing, but for the last decade or so, he had fallen off their radar screen.
About two years ago, though, after debriefing various Orgad couriers, Law Enforcement identified a man named Kevin McLoughlin as one of Orgad's lieutenants. When police arrested McLoughlin for drug smuggling, he confirmed his relationship with Orgad, and helped flesh out what law enforcers had managed to piece together about Orgad's dealings.
Ironically, Israeli émigrés were perhaps the first to achieve dominance in both markets, although one can argue as to which of the markets ultimately had the greater impact on illicit drug use in the United States.
Expected to go to jury this week in L.A. Federal Court is the case of Gilad Gadasi, 26, of Woodland Hills, who was arrested May 6 and charged with conspiracy to distribute more than 118,000 Ecstasy tablets.
And last week, police in New York arrested two Israelis, David Roash, 28, and Israel Ashenazi, 25, for possession of 450 pounds of E, more than a million tablets packed into eight duffel bags and a suitcase.
Also earlier this month, New York prosecutors secured a guilty plea from another Israeli, Sean Erez, who, according to Justice Department documents, had used Chassidic couriers to import more than a million tablets between late 1998 and June 1999.
In May, DEA agents arrested Oded Tuito, another major trafficker ostensibly based in Los Angeles and New York.
Cookie Orgad, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, had forged ties with the New York-based trafficking group led by organized crime figure Ilan Zarger, who had sold 40,000 pills to the Arizona-based organization led by Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano, a former underboss of the Gambino crime family.
Zarger, Gravano and dozens of compatriots have pleaded guilty to trafficking charges in recent weeks.
Fordham Law School Professor Abraham Abramovsky, who has studied Israeli organized crime both in Israel and in the United States, told The Journal that Israelis may have become aware of Ecstasy use in Europe, as well as in Israel, long before Americans. Hence, not only were Israeli youngsters among the first to use the drug at raves, but Israeli criminals were quick to recognize an opportunity to exploit a new market, and to work out the mechanics of manufacturing, smuggling and distributing the drug. "Some of this [involvement] may be related to the former diamond smuggling operations," Abramovsky says. Ecstasy tablets, he explains, are quite small, lending themselves to the same smuggling techniques long reserved for diamonds. In addition, he says, "The drug seems to move along the same routes as the diamond smuggling trade."
Ecstasy, a chemical (methylenedioxymeth-amphetamine or MDMA) made in drug labs, is produced for the most part in Holland and Belgium, at a cost of pennies per tablet. Sold to wholesalers for about $2 a pill, they retail, in the United States, Canada and Australia, where demand has virtually exploded during the last few years, for between $20 and $30 a pill.
The pills, moreover, are marketed rather ingeniously, often with designer labels or pop culture icons imprinted on them. (One batch of E even had Jewish Stars on them.)
Ecstasy acts on those parts of the brain that produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, causing a six-hour high characterized by enhanced feelings of empathy and sociability. Certainly there is no comparing it to crack, which often causes frequently hyper-violent mood swings among users. If anything, Ecstasy achieves the opposite effect -- users are more impelled to reach out and tongue someone to death than to kill them outright.
Ecstasy was first synthesized in 1912 as an appetite suppressant, but attracted little interest until the 1970s, when psychotherapists began to explore its potential to enhance empathetic understanding and emotional release.
Although not believed to be physically addictive, the drug is, in fact, a stimulant, a mild hallucinogen, and a hypnotic. It is also a neurotoxin, whose side effects include elevated blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature. Teenagers who have used it at all-night raves have experienced dehydration, heat stroke, and even heart attack. Researchers, meanwhile, believe that long-term use can cause significant cognitive and mood impairment.
There is mounting evidence, moreover, that however benign the high, the trade in Ecstasy, which has become wildly profitable, is also increasingly beset by violence. According to The New York Times, police first became aware of the propensity for bloodshed about 18 months ago, when an Israeli drug dealer was found dead inside a locked car trunk at LAX. Drug Enforcement Administration officials attributed the hit to a couple of hired hands from Israel.
"It's certainly becoming a free-for-all," says Dean Boyd, a Customs Department spokesman based in Washington. "We're beginning to see murders among rival trafficking groups. Now, we're seeing suburban kids getting in over their heads, with the result that 21-year-olds are being found shot in the head for suspected Ecstasy thefts. Although the Israelis were among the first, we now see many different people chasing more and more money, including Russians, Eastern Europeans and Dominicans."
According to U.S. Customs, however, Cookie Orgad enjoyed a certain pride of place within the trade. Since he was older than most of the newcomers and was recognized as a fixture and a force to be reckoned with, he was rarely challenged.
"Given his reputation," said an agent familiar with the case, "I was pretty surprised when, after two years of investigations, I finally met up with him. I was expecting to see I don't know what, and here was this soft-spoken little guy, somewhat arrogant and uncooperative, but not at all what I envisioned."
The scion of a family of Moroccan immigrants to Israel, Orgad arrived in the United States about two decades ago, becoming a U.S. citizen under the name of Tony Evans in 1995. Investigations of his background in Israel turned up evidence of a brother, Zohar, with a police record in Israel, but nothing on Orgad per se, leading Customs to suspect for a time that perhaps the name Jacob Orgad might have been an alias as well.
During court appearances since his arrest in April 2000, Orgad purportedly put his Armanis in mothballs, sporting a yarmulke and giving the impression he led a pious existence. In prison, "Reb Ya'akov" has grown a beard, eats glatt kosher food and leads prayer services and Torah study.
As part of his plea agreement with the government, Orgad waived his right to contest his extradition to France, where he faces separate charges. If convicted there, Orgad could end up where glatt may be even harder to come by than a hit of Ecstasy.