October 2, 2003
Why two Israelis lost their lives in the California desert.
Ben Wertzberger dreamed of moving to Las Vegas to start a new life. Tired, sick and impoverished, the 24-year-old Israeli packed his DJ equipment on Dec. 2, 2002, and together with his childhood friend, Adar Neeman, prepared to head to the Las Vegas to break into the club scene.
But Wertzberger and Neeman never made it to Las Vegas.
After a six-month investigation, on Sept. 21 the FBI discovered the two boys' bodies buried in a shallow grave in Barstow, a desert town 150 miles north east of Los Angeles, on the way to Las Vegas.
Last week, a federal grand jury in Los Angeles indicted Shane Huang, 34, and Benjamin Frandsen, 29, for kidnapping that resulted in death. The two men will be arraigned on Oct. 6, and, if convicted, face a possible death sentence.
What happened between Los Angeles and Las Vegas? Why did it take so long for authorities to get involved and to solve the case? How did two nice boys from Rishon Lezion end up involved with alleged drug dealers?
The tale of Wertzberger -- because it is primarily his adventures in which Neeman, 25, unwittingly got caught up -- serves as a cautionary one to the many young Jews from Israel who dream big dreams, do a lot to further them and meet an unfortunate end.
The Beginning: Summer 2001
In the summer of 2001, Wertzberger was working his way up as a DJ in Israel. He did quite well supporting himself by spinning at weddings, but he dreamed of "the real thing" -- to work big clubs in America.
"He was 23 when he took all his equipment and left," his mother Yohana Wertzberger told me last year when she was in Los Angeles to search for her missing son. A convert from Transylvania living in Israel with her family, Yohana didn't have the strength to stop her son. "I wasn't thrilled, but he insisted," she said.
Wertzberger came to Los Angeles in August, and met Dan Aeberhard, an aspiring movie director and Internet designer.
The two moved to Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley, and Aeberhard, who was very impressed by the young Israeli's talents, tried to help him. Aeberhard got Wertzberger work as a musician on the movie he was working on, and introduced him to people in the music industry.
"I soon realized that Ben was a very complex character," Eaberhard told me last year after his friend went missing. "On the one hand, he was very intelligent, but at the same time, he was very secretive. Something always happened to him that shouldn't have happened. He had a lot of charm and a big heart, but he could also be manipulative," the director said.
Alin Cruise also met Wertzberger, and was immediately taken. "We became very close friends; he helped me open my restaurant, and since then I never charged him money for the food that he ate at my restaurant," she said. "He's a charming person, a guy with a head on his shoulders. And he gets to your heart the minute he meets you. I was like his sister, and my husband and I adopted him."
But, Aeberhard noted, "His problem was that he was arrogant -- he thought he was smarter than others, and that got in his way of moving up in the music business."
Wertzberger eventually met Jamil Kharboutli, owner of Angel Booking, a booking agency for domestic and international electronic music artists. Kharboutli tried to get Wertzberger several gigs in the field, but met with limited success. Meanwhile, he introduced the young Israeli to several of his shadier friends, among them Shane Huang, from Canoga Park and Venice, and Benjamin Frandsen, from Los Feliz.
At the time Wertzberger was living hand-to-mouth, doing odd jobs like selling paintings door-to-door, and borrowing money from friends around the city. By May 2002, he moved out of the Porter Ranch apartment, leaving behind a $1,500 debt. He also reneged on his car payments.
By the summer of 2002, after moving from apartment to apartment and piling up debts around the city, Wertzberger moved into Huang's apartment in Canoga Park, rent-free. In exchange, Wertzberger watched over Huang's marijuana plants and ecstasy stash that was hidden behind an inner wall in the house.
According to witnesses, Wertzberger used to sell small quantities of the drugs in order to make a living, and apparently, Huang turned a blind eye to the pilferings as long as they were negligible.
But when Wertzberger stopped being careful, and started bringing people home, including his girlfriend Christa, Huang blew up. He didn't like the fact that the hideout became a social hangout.
Sickness and Recovery: Summer/Fall 2002
Wertzberger's new job as a marijuana watchdog didn't suit him. His girlfriend Christa was the first to notice. "He got sick in July," she told me. "We had no idea what he had come down with -- he slept all the time, he didn't eat and he lost like 20 pounds; I took him to the emergency room."
At the time, Wertzberger put together a tape called "Paranoia."
The doctors didn't know what he had; he was dizzy and would fall down, and was also hysterically paranoid. His visa ran out and he couldn't extend it, and he had to avoid immigration.
By the end of the summer, Wertzberger left the Canoga Park apartment, and apartment hopped around the city. According to witnesses, Wertzberger took a set of Huang's keys with him. Huang suspected his Israeli tenant was still stealing from him, so he eventually changed the locks.
Wertzberger told his friends that Huang owed him money and threatened to report him to the authorities, but his friends talked him out of it, telling Wertzberger that Huang was a dangerous man. (Huang has had run-ins with authorities before.)
Meanwhile Wertzberger decided he wanted to move to Las Vegas, where the club scene was thriving even during the week. Wertzberger wrote his high school friend, Adar Neeman, and invited him to join him on the planned move to Vegas. He didn't tell Neeman what was really going on in his own sinking life.
Neeman, also a DJ who worked on the side as a security guard at Ben-Gurion Airport, found the idea of spinning full time in Vegas appealing. On Nov. 18, 2002, Neeman flew to New York and, a week later, came to the West Coast. He met up in Los Angeles with Wertzberger, who had just returned from a prep trip to Las Vegas. Wertzberger was in a good mood. He was ready for a change.
The Last Days: Nov. 29-Dec 1
About 10 months ago, on Nov. 29, the two Israelis went to Hacienda Underground, a club downtown. During the wee hours, Wertzberger called a number of friends. "He was very optimistic," said one of his friends. "But then he asked me for a $20 loan so he would have some cash. Only then did I understand how desperate he was."
When the party ended on the morning of Nov. 30, they crashed at their friend, Doron Kohli. That night, Neeman called his mother and told her he'd call her again on Dec. 2, before she was to leave to Paris. On Dec. 1, she called his cell phone, and a male answered the phone; there was a lot of noise in the background, and the call was disconnected. She assumed he was at a club, but never spoke to him again.
Who Stole the Drugs? Dec. 2
Dec. 2 was the day Wertzberger and Neeman planned to leave to Vegas.
Kharboutli waited for Wertzberger at his own apartment with Huang, because the Israeli was supposed to give Kharboutli money that he owed him.
But when hours passed and Wertzberger didn't show, Huang started to lose his cool; he had long suspected that Wertzberger was stealing from him, but the previous night a big take went missing from the Canoga Park apartment, and Huang suspected the Israeli.
They left Kharboutli's apartment and went to Canoga Park with Frandsen, where they found Wertzberger and Neeman. Huang exploded, accusing the two of attempting to clear the place out and hightail it to Las Vegas.
Another man who was invited to the apartment that day told authorities during the investigation that he saw Huang holding a 3-foot sword in the faces of Wertzberger and Neeman, who were handcuffed and kneeling.
Kharboutli opposed the murder -- it was too much for him, the witness said.
"If you kill them, you will have to kill me, too," Kharboutli reportedly said.
After the Fact: Dec. 3
The FBI has not yet released the exact details of the alleged murder, but it might have occurred on the same day the boys were seen held at knifepoint. On Dec. 3, Las Vegas parking enforcement found the boys' car, a 1992 blue Chevy Cavalier convertible, abandoned in downtown Las Vegas. The keys were in the ignition and in the back seat were all of Wertzberger and Neeman's belongings. That same night, there were attempts to use Neeman's credit cards: one, a failed attempt to buy electronic equipment worth some $8,200; and later on, someone bought $467 worth of clothes. The signature on the credit card slip was clearly not Neeman's. By that point, the boys were probably not alive.
It took about a week for the foreign ministry, the Consulate in Los Angeles and the Las Vegas police to enter the picture.
Neeman's and Wertzberger's mothers hired private investigators and came to Los Angeles by mid-January 2003. They gathered information and gave it to the Las Vegas police.
"I didn't know that he got involved with the wrong people, and when I talked to him on the phone I didn't sense anything was wrong," Yohana said. "I know in my heart that Ben's a good kid and maybe because of money problems he went the wrong way."
But when two men who fit the boys' description were spotted in Nevada -- apparently healthy -- the Vegas police closed the file in February, calling it a "voluntary disappearance." Some weeks later, it turned out that the two Israelis in Nevada were not Neeman and Wertzberger and the FBI began to investigate.
In February, I spoke to Kharboutli, who presented himself as a friend of Wertzberger. He sounded scared and nervous. After a few weeks, when the investigators were closing in on him and his associates, he closed his business and is nowhere to be found. (There is no warrant out for his arrest, but the investigation is still open.)
But his alleged partners in crime, Huang and Frandsen, weren't so lucky.
Neither were the Wertzberger and Neeman families. Ten months after their sons disappeared, the case has been solved. And yet, it is a cold comfort.
Translated from the Hebrew by Amy Klein.