A state witness in an extortion case against one of Israel’s most prominent organized crime figures was killed Friday evening in a car bomb in Hod Hasharon.
It was a deadly end for a produce vendor who allegedly had been threatened repeatedly and was charged extreme interest rates on a loan that was handled by Avi Ruhan, the head of a major crime family based in the Sharon.
The victim’s 17-year-old daughter was also in the car and was slightly wounded in the blast, which occurred next to the city’s train station and was described by witnesses as sounding like a rocket strike.
Magen David Adom paramedics said they found the man lying on the road in critical condition next to his car, which was engulfed in flames. They said his teenage daughter had been sitting next to him in the car but was somehow only suffering from light injuries caused by the shock wave of the blast, which was strong enough to set off the airbags in a vehicle driving behind the car.
The victim, Shai Bachar, had agreed to testify in an extortion case against Ruhan, 51, and his associate Sami Mizan, 40, both from Ra’anana.
A long-time underworld figure in Israel, who also has interests abroad – including in Serbia and Morocco – Ruhan and his organization are the chief suspects in a series of underworld killings in Israel in recent years.
Friday’s murder may persuade other potential witnesses against testifying in future organized crime cases.
Israel Police said in a statement on Saturday night it couldn’t comment on an ongoing investigation or whether or not the victim was being threatened before his death. Police added that when it comes to witnesses periodic assessments are carried out to determine to what extent they are in danger and act accordingly.
The indictment issued in Lod District Court on October 10, 2014, against Ruhan and Mizan, includes charges of aggravated extortion against both, with Ruhan also facing an aggravated assault charge.
The indictment followed a complaint issued by the witness to police on September 8, 2014, saying he was under a relentless campaign of extortion and threats from the two men, as well as Moshe “Chico” Ben-Adeh, believed to be the right-hand man in Ruhan’s organization.
The indictment tells a familiar tale of a small-time businessman who takes a loan that he is eventually unable to pay. As in countless other cases, the loan was “taken over” by criminals who charge exorbitant interest rates and used intimidation and threats until the witness pays up.
According to the indictment, Bachar took a NIS 350,000 loan from a Ra’anana man named Rafi Elbaz, who owned a kiosk on Schwartz Street in the city. When Elbaz died in 2009, Bachar still owed NIS 80,000, and Ruhan told Elbaz’s son Oren he “would take care of the debt” and make sure that Oren and Elbaz’s widow got the money owed them.
So, allegedly, began a campaign of terror against the witness.
On April 12, 2011, the witness was called to a meeting at 7:30 the next morning at the Tabon Ve’hamangal restaurant on Ahuza Street to discuss the debt. When he arrived, he was met by three associates of Ruhan’s, who allegedly grabbed Bachar, with one of them taking out a kitchen knife and slicing him down one of his forearms, telling him: “That’s from Avi, because you didn’t respect him and pay your debt to the widow.”
Bachar began to make payments, only to be told at a later meeting with Ben- Adeh that he still owed NIS 110,000. In 2013, following a series of threats, he agreed to hand over 12 checks for NIS 10,000 each, which were to be paid to Oren Elbaz and Ruhan and his associates.
Things took a turn for the worse when one of those checks bounced in late 2014, after which Ruhan himself came to Bachar’s produce store and according to the indictment, told him “I will tear your ass open, why don’t you pay Sami?” It was after this threat that the witness finally decided to file a complaint with police, who arrested Ruhan and Mizan on September 4, 2014.
Not long after the indictment was issued, Bachar gave an interview with Channel 2, in which he denied that he had suffered any intimidation at the hands of Ruhan or his associates. With his face and voice obscured, Bachar said all of the claims attributed to him about Ruhan were lies, and said he was being pressured to testify by police. He denied that he was being intimidated to recant his testimony.
At the moment, it is unclear what effect Bachar’s death will have on the case.
Attorney Kobi Ben-Shaya, who represents Ruhan, said prosecutors and the defense were working on a way to reach a possible plea bargain, so it’s not certain the witness would have needed to testify anyway. He also said Friday the witness owed a lot of money to people not connected to Ruhan.
A series of murders in central Israel in recent years are believed to have been carried out by Ruhan and his organization.
One of the most prominent was the October 2006 murder of Eyal Salhov, a high-ranking associate in Ruhan’s crime family, who became an informant and for months gave police an inside line into the operations of Ruhan’s organizations before he was found out and killed in a vacant lot in Pardes Katz.
In November 2013, Ruhan and associate Hanoch Atzmon were arrested and later released on suspicion of carrying out the July 2013 car bombing at the Yarkonim junction in Petah Tikva that left two men – Dekel Tzafar, 35, and Sharon Farhi, 31, both from Rosh Ha’ayin – dead at the scene.
That case, like many others against Ruhan and his crew in recent years, did not stick and remains open.