Former mobster writes tell-all about the Israeli mafia in NY

Book could turn Russian-born former drug dealer and burglar into a persona non grata in the US.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
A former mobster has written a tell-all book, for the first time ever exposing the inner workings of an Israeli gang that took over the New York drug trade for a brief period in the eighties. Ron Gonen, who has spent the past 18 years in the US Witness Protection Program, has teamed up with author Dave Copeland to offer an insider's glance into a parallel universe of crime, murder and deceit. Gonen, who spoke with The Jerusalem Post from an undisclosed location, says he was kicked out of the program earlier this month because he violated the terms of his agreement by co-authoring the book. Undeterred, the Russian-born former drug dealer and burglar said that he is writing a second work - his memoirs - in Hebrew. He hopes that this book will lead to a movie deal. After Gonen and his wife Honey published an advertisement on Craig's List in November 2004 seeking a writer to put his story into print, Copeland and Gonen began a collaboration that lasted more than two years and produced Blood and Volume, set to come out next week. Copeland, who has never been to Israel, said that the book has earned attention prior to its release. "The pre-orders have been pretty good, 80% of first printing has already been sold," he said. But the book may cost Gonen more than he banked on. Beyond the risk of angering his old enemies, Gonen may soon find himself a persona non grata in the US. According to Copeland, Gonen was given a permit that allowed him to work in the US as part of the Witness Protection Program, but the card is set to expire in May. Now, Gonen's work permit may not be renewed and he could be deported to Israel. Although the book mostly concerns New York in the eighties, Gonen's story actually begins in the Soviet Union, four decades earlier, where his grandfather was in the black market. As a young child during the Stalinist period, Gonen says, he "grew up with the knowledge that the knock on the door could be a very serious knock." When he was nine, Gonen's family moved to Israel. They were settled by the government in Beersheba, but later relocated to Holon. Eventually, he was sent to Kibbutz Ein Shemer. But Gonen says that he was expelled after two years for breaking into the kibbutz's storehouses and stealing clothing, which he distributed to his bunkmates. Upon returning to Holon, the 15-year-old began to dabble in crime. He engaged in cat burglary and fenced the goods, denying that he was the thief. His small enterprise expanded until, in 1965, Gonen decided to forge documents that would allow him to join the Israel Navy despite being underage. Docked in Marseilles, the young Gonen realized that the world held more opportunities than tiny Israel had to offer. While on leave from the Navy, Gonen continued his one-man crime wave, staging break-ins and robbing, among other things, parking meters. After he completed his mandatory military service, he returned to the streets, living high as a B&E man, and later branching out into auto theft. After an unusually successful theft whose take totaled an estimated $20,000, Gonen says that he decided he "had no future in Israel" and searched for new horizons. "I wanted to rob Germans. I thought it was a good payback," he recalled. For the next decade, Gonen's base of operations was western Europe, although he never lost his ties to Israel - or its burgeoning criminal underworld. At first he continued with break-ins, but - after being expelled from Germany - began to work in forged documents. "I looked like a diplomat," Gonen said. "This was old school, not gaining a name," he said of his lifestyle. "It [was] better to be in the shadows, but to be very involved in the social, cultural life of the country in which I lived." This was a principle that he maintained after moving to London, where he managed a fictitious company as part of a pyramid scheme. Gonen continued in London until he realized he was under surveillance, and then in 1981 fled to Spain, where he heard shortly later that Scotland Yard had raided his London office and arrested everybody. Deciding that Europe was now "too hot" for him, he fled to Guatemala, where he found himself in the midst of a series of coups. Only after he was warned for a second time that a death squad was after him did he flee, this time to the US. After a brief time in the States, he returned for a short stay in Israel. There, he realized that among his old friends in the underworld, drugs were a hot industry. "Everybody was high on speed that they bought from Kalkilya pharmacies," he recalled. Gonen called in old contacts, and began to smuggle cocaine into Israel in small quantities. Unwitting flight attendants would bring in the drug, concealed in cigarette filters. "But after three or four trips, I got the name of "Candyman" and began to hear that they'd be on to me," Gonen said, explaining why he returned to the US later in 1982. Meeting up with an old friend from Israel - Ran Efraim - Gonen began to buy coke from Efraim in LA and sell it in New York City, grossing about $50,000 a month. His business continued to grow, he found additional suppliers, and also met the woman who would become his third wife - Honey. The two were married in 1984, by which time, Gonen said, he was following her into a recurrent pattern of drug use. Gonen and Honey returned to Israel, but Honey was caught at the airport with almost 50g. of cocaine, and police used the arrest to try to convince Gonen to testify against his cronies in the Israeli underworld. Returning to New York, Gonen tried to set up a fake company and run a pyramid scheme. But his briefcase containing all of his papers was stolen, he says, and he returned to drugs. This time, his plans were altered by the unexpected arrival of old acquaintances from Israel - among them Eitan Hiya, Jonny Atias and Yisrael "Alice" Mizrahi. As then-District Attorney Rudy Giuliani had taken on the Italian mob, and the Soviet Union had not yet fallen, the New York drug industry was wide open. Apparently, even the criminal underworld abhors a vacuum. The Israeli newcomers wanted help and turned to Gonen. He began to hold weekly meetings with Attias, but soon realized that they had a different business outlook. "Jonny said to me, 'Don't worry, if anybody sees us, we take down the witnesses,'" Gonen - who says he never killed anyone - recalled. "Attias built his name on blood, on brutality, and on fear," Gonen said, adding that the violence was attracting too much attention and threatening his lifestyle. The situation became even worse after internecine war broke out between Mizrahi and Attias. Then, the second shoe dropped. Gonen was caught by an anti-drug task force set up under new laws pushed through by the administration of then-president George H.W. Bush. After evading police for three days, Gonen was arrested on September 27, 1989. When he saw police coming for him, he stopped at a corner store and bought four grapefruit juices and two coffees. If the police were trigger happy, he said, they would see that a man with his hands full of beverages couldn't reach for a gun. According to Gonen, a detective on the task force, Sgt. John Guslavage, saved his life by arresting him, convincing him to turn state's witness, and putting him into the Witness Protection Program. Gonen later informed on Efraim, who in turn ratted out the others. Almost 20 years later, Gonen is one of the few surviving members of what New York police called the Israeli Mob. Efraim, who served a sentence in the US, came back to Israel only to be gunned down last month in Tel Aviv. Hiya, one of the gang's most volatile trigger men, is back in Israel as well. But Mizrahi and Attias are now dead. After 18 years in what he calls "the program," Gonen says that he is satisfied with his "civilian" life. His daughter - unlike Hiya's son, who was sentenced last week for a mob hit - is currently in college. "I sent my daughter to college, and he sent his son to do these horrible things. Maybe one day, my daughter is going to prosecute him," he laughs. Gonen says that he is not overly concerned about his fate following the release of the tell-all book. "It's a lot less scary than what I went through 18 years ago. Not to compare. That is the price of doing business. I always knew that whoever stayed alive, their hate remained stronger than their logic," he said. "I sleep [well] at night. I never worry. It's not an option, because I know that if it happened, I wouldn't know about it. Nobody will torture me, just kill me." •