Avner Maio didn’t shy away from talking to the cops about other criminals like himself, but maybe he should have.
On Sunday, Maio – a witness in a sprawling case against one of the country’s most powerful crime families – was killed when an explosion tore through his SUV while it was parked outside his home in northeastern Tel Aviv’s posh Tzahala neighborhood.
Maio suffered wounds to his lower extremities and burns across his body, and was taken to Sourasky Medical Center’s Ichilov Hospital in the city, where he was pronounced dead.
Yossi, who lives next door, said, “I was putting on tefillin and I heard a boom and went outside and saw a massive blast and couldn’t get any closer.” He usually parks right next to Maio’s hulking white SUV.
Other residents spoke of a devastating blast they heard from blocks away, and how it shook the windows of their apartments.
Maio, 50, was set to be a witness in the state’s case against eight members of the Musli crime family – one of the biggest, richest and most ruthless in the country – who were indicted last May for allegedly planning and carrying out three murders of rivals from the Abergil crime family.
The case was built largely on the testimony of a feared former top associate of the Musli family who turned state’s witness and was put in the witness protection program a few years ago.
Word travels fast, though, in the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv dominated by the Musli family, and once they heard the associate was talking to police, payback wasn’t long in coming.
In November 2013, the witness’s brother was gunned down outside Johannesburg in South Africa, where he was working for the Musli family.
His murder is believed to have been intended to send a message to potential witnesses – that “even if we can’t get to you, we’ll get to your family.”
The indictment covers the murders of alleged Abergil crime family associates Bar Cohen, Ohad Franco and Daniel Samareh.
According to prosecutors, those planning the murders did so in one case at the Burger Ranch in Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Mall, and in another at a nursing home in south Tel Aviv.
It is unclear how Maio’s death will affect the case, though the testimony of the man in the witness protection program reportedly remains intact.
Maio had a long rap sheet of violent crimes and fraud, and was well-known in the Tel Aviv underworld. He was indicted in May 2008 for attacking a man who refused to apologize to his Rottweiler during an altercation at a Tel Aviv park. He allegedly pulled a knife and threatened to murder the man, telling him he didn’t know whom he was messing with.
He was previously called on to testify in a case against Dror Alperon – the heir to the Alperon crime family – but a plea bargain was reached in the extortion case before he could testify. In yet another case, he testified to police about an alleged plot by his former boss, French-Israeli tycoon and former MK Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, to torch a Tel Aviv auditorium as part of an insurance scam.
Maio’s murder came less than a week after the wife of a state’s witness was shot dead in front of her three children while she sat in her car in Beersheba. Police are still trying to piece together the motive for the killing, and have not ruled out that the woman was killed to send a message to her husband, or that her husband had arranged the murder himself.
The husband – who had testified against the biggest crime family in Beersheba – had been indicted for twice threatening to kill his wife.
In January 2015, a Hod Hasharon produce store owner named Shay Bachar was killed by a bomb placed in his car, not long after he agreed to testify in an extortion case against mobster Avi Ruhan and his associates, who had shaken him down and cut him with a knife over money they said he owed.
Bachar was not a state’s witness or part of the witness protection program, nor was Maio when his life was cut short in the explosion that rocked his quiet Tel Aviv neighborhood on Sunday morning.