It’s not typical for a Tel Aviv judge to quote The Godfather in a ruling, but not every day does a gangster like Eitan Hiya get sent to the penitentiary for 20 years.
The long, illustrious career of Hiya should be coming to an end now that he’s been sentenced to prison-time and NIS 4 million in forfeitures and fines for extorting a series of victims who fled the country and turned into state witnesses against the 62-year-old mob boss.
Hiya had a modus operandi that would be familiar to many a loan shark. His victims would see their debts soar due to astronomical interest rates and even when they thought they’d paid up, Hiya would come with new debts and send his enforcers to terrorize them and their families. A few times the warning came by way of a frag grenade thrown in their front yard, in another case it was pistol shots from a passing motorcycle in rush hour traffic.
In every case, the victims feared for their lives and felt they had nowhere to turn.
In his ruling at the Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday, Judge Tzvi Gurfinkel referenced the infamous opening scene of The Godfather
, in which undertaker Amerigo Bonasera comes to Vito Corleone to ask a favor on his daughter’s wedding day – that he kill the men who brutally beat his daughter, after the courts failed to punish them sufficiently.
“This scene shows the exact situation of how the legal system is harmed. God help a society that can’t trust that justice will be served by the authorities and in which people feel they have to take the law into their own hands,” he wrote.
In laying down the 20-year sentence, Gurfinkel also went into depth about the difficulty of prosecuting extortion cases, the fear that prevents witnesses from coming forward, and the great importance of ensuing that the courts give harsh enough sentences to deter those who seek to use violence and terrorism to get rich.
The sentence follows Hiya’s conviction in December for three counts of extortion, using a fragmentation grenade, conspiracy to commit a crime, money laundering and tax crimes. He was acquitted of two charges of extortion. In addition to Hiya, nine associates of his were convicted in the case.
The case – which included the testimony of a number of state witnesses – revolved around a wedding hall in the center of the country, whose owner, one of the plaintiffs, told police that Hiya and eight other suspects, including the manager of an Israeli Premier League soccer team, had extorted money from him.
Another victim, Shmuel Shimshoni, took out a loan from Hiya that eventually climbed to nearly NIS 3m., forcing Shimshoni to sell his apartment in Tel Aviv’s Medina Square to pay the bill.
After he sold the apartment and paid, Hiya sent his associates to Shimshoni’s house and told him he still owed another NIS 600,000 and he agreed out of fear for his life, though he was later able to get Hiya to agree to just another NIS 50,000.
In perhaps the most severe case, Hiya waged a campaign of terrorism against the family of a drug user named Rafi Cahalon who owed him NIS 1.1m. After Cahalon’s father died and left him and his three siblings a large plot of land, a legal battle ensued in which the court ruled not to give Cahalon any of the land so that he would not sell it and use the money for drugs.
Hiya later sent his men to Cahalon’s brother Avner, telling him to hand over some of the land to Cahalon so he could sell it to pay Hiya. Avner refused, and on two separate occasions Hiya’s men threw grenades at Avner’s home, and at his brother Marcel’s home.
His associates also threatened another man who owed money, throwing a grenade at his house that instead blew up in his neighbor’s yard, and then, in September 2012, opening fire at him from a motorcycle while he drove on Route 6 during rush-hour traffic one morning.
In another case, after one of the extortion victims fled the country, Hiya’s men broke into his house to steal his car keys and then drove off in his vehicle, which was at the long-term parking lot at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Hiya’s reputation first took flight in the local underworld in 1970, when as a 17-yearold he murdered Amnon Hadad with two gunshots to the head as Hadad was sleeping in his bed. He was given a life sentence, which was later commuted, and he was released in 1979.
Hiya wasted no time leaving the country, and made his way to New York, where he started setting up a number of underworld operations.
These included a New York-based Israeli syndicate that trafficked drugs up and down the East Coast in the ’80s and ’90s and extorted Israeli business owners in the US, eventually earning Hiya the nickname the “Godfather of the Israeli mob in the United States.”
In 1993, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the murder of Jonny Atias, and moved back to Israel after his release in January 2004.
Since then, he has remained a major underworld figure in Israel, with a well-earned reputation as a veteran killer and crime boss.
Upon entering the court Thursday, Hiya said: “This is a democratic country, every day people are randomly sent to jail. I am also protected.”
The court room was full of family members, police officers and Prisons Service personnel.
Upon hearing the verdict, his children burst into tears, crying “Dad, be strong!”