(photo credit: FLASH 90)
Netanya organized crime figure Charlie Abutbul was buried in the city on Friday, a day after he was found in his home with a gunshot wound to his head in what police suspect was a suicide.
Abutbul’s sons Francois and Aviv, both incarcerated, were not allowed to attend the funeral, with the Prisons Service saying that would pose a threat to public safety. The family appealed the ruling on Thursday, but on Friday a Nazareth judge upheld the decision.
A few hundred people attended the funeral, a somber event that was a far cry from the ceremony that followed the murder of Charlie’s brother Felix in a hail of gunfire outside his Prague casino in August 2002. Felix, the well-dressed “gentleman mobster” who dominated organized crime in the city and was one of the most famous criminals in Israel, was buried in a funeral fit for a head of state with stores across the city’s downtown closing their doors in solidarity.
Friday’s muted affair was a fitting coda for a crime family whose fortunes have waned in recent years, as it has become a shadow of its former glory following repeated murders, incarcerations and other setbacks.
The Abutbul family moved to Israel from Morocco by way of France in the late 1960s, setting up shop in Netanya. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Felix built his fortune running the small “gambling cages” in the backrooms of Netanya stores and clubs and quickly became a force to be reckoned with. Well-known in the underworld already, he became known to the Israeli public in July 1984, when customs inspectors found him in a shipping crate at Stansted Airport near London, next to his childhood friend Alex Barak, and Omaru Dikko, the former Nigerian transportation minister who fled Lagos after a military coup and was suspected of embezzling millions. An Israeli anesthesiologist, Dr. Levi-Arie Shapiro, was found in the crate with Dikko, tasked with ensuring he was drugged and would not asphyxiate on the flight to Lagos.
Felix Abutbul served a six-year sentence in the United Kingdom and returned to Israel cloaked in mystery and with a bolstered reputation at the center of an affair widely-believed to involve the Mossad.
In the ‘90s, Abutbul began to expand his criminal interests, moving his gambling operations from the smoky back rooms of Netanya to full-fledged gambling parlors that raked in millions.
The family began operating gambling ships that sailed out of Eilat into international waters, and organizing chartered flights to Eastern European casinos for Israeli gamblers, including to the Royal Casino Felix owned in Prague.
The family ran the chain of “The Farmer’s Daughter” restaurants in Netanya and elsewhere.
Felix Abutbul became known as a godfather of the Israeli mob, and adopted the look and persona of a European gentleman – wearing custom-made suits and walking with a well-mannered air that stuck out among the rough-edged criminals of the Israeli underworld.
After Felix’s murder, his heirs were meant to be his sons Francois and Assi, neither of whom lived up to expectations.
Both filled the hot-headed stereotype of the younger generation of Israeli organized crime figures, and found themselves repeatedly in the headlines and narrowly escaping assassination attempts. Assi survived a grenade attack in Prague and repeated attempts on his life by men with shoulder-fired missiles, including one fired at his Ramat Poleg home in 2006. He was sentenced in 2009 to 13 years in prison on a series of organized crime charges, and Francois, long known for his short fuse and butting heads with no shortage of rivals, was gunned down at a gas station in the Sharon region in July 2011, a murder that remains unsolved.
Already following Felix Abutbul’s death, however, the family’s power began to wane, as rivals and former associates began moving in on their holdings in Netanya, in particular organized crime figure Rico Shirazi.
Charlie Abutbul’s sons also made the headlines in recent years, with Francois (“The Redhead”) convicted for the murder of teenager Raanan Levy outside a club in Shefayim in 2004, a crime that shocked the country. Only 20 at the time of the killing, Francois was sentenced to life in prison in 2009 and by the time of his father’s death had not seen him for several years. Charlie’s son Aviv is currently serving a four-and-a-half year sentence on drug and weapon offenses.
By Saturday, police said that additional evidence strengthened the suspicion that Charlie Abutbul took his own life at his home, where he was on house arrest after a year in prison for the kidnapping of a yeshiva student suspected of robbing associates of his.
Although voices in the public and the press have expressed doubt that a man like Charlie Abutbul would kill himself, possible motives for a suicide include the incarceration of his sons and the failing fortunes of the family, his inability to establish a life for himself outside of the criminal world, and the two attempts on his life in recent years.
On Friday, the Prisons Service said it would allow Charlie’s sons to visit his grave during the 30-day shloshim mourning period. It also said it would consider allowing the sons to join the minyans during services in their respective prisons and to study with Prisons Service rabbis.
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