U.S. District Judge Leo Glasser sentenced the defendant, Shimon Levita, 18, Tuesday to 2 1/2 years in federal custody, but not before taking his Hasidic supporters to task.
Where was the community when all of this was going on? the judge asked in a crowded Brooklyn courtroom. Who was keeping tabs on 18-year-olds who were flying drugs back (from Europe) and taking money there?
Levita had faced up to 15 1/2 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring with six others to import millions of ecstasy pills.
I was raised in a real Orthodox religious home, Levita told the judge while asking for mercy.
Before joining the conspiracy, Levita added, I didn't know what drugs were.
The judge called the prison term, which starts with six months in a boot camp, extremely lenient given the enormity of the acts in which you were engaged.
Outside court, one supporter, Jacob Friedman, said, I hope the whole community takes this as a warning to be on the lookout to help these kids.
Authorities said Levita was swept up in a burgeoning trade in ecstasy, a synthetic psychedelic amphetamine dealt to young customers on college campuses, in dance clubs and elsewhere. Last year, U.S. Customs seized 1.3 million pills from smugglers entering the New York City area; only about 48,000 were seized in 1998.
Levita was named in an indictment describing an Amsterdam-based trafficking operation headed by Sean Erez. Authorities say Erez began recruiting couriers from Hasidic enclaves in Brooklyn and Monsey, N.Y., with the help of Levita in late 1998.
Erez believed the young men, with their black hats, dark suits and sidecurls, would deflect the suspicions of customs inspectors, authorities said. The men each were promised a free trip to Europe and about $1,500 if they agreed to retrieve packages in cities like Brussels and Frankfurt; Levita was paid $2,000 per recruit.
The couriers were told they were carrying diamonds. But authorities say they ignored obvious signs that each shipment consisted of up to 45,000 pills destined for sale in New York City and Miami Beach. They also allegedly smuggled proceeds back to Amsterdam in suitcases holding as much as $500,000.
Narcotics agents began investigating the case last October. A break came when Dutch authorities turned over tapes of wiretaps on Erez's phones, which revealed conversations with Levita and others.
When authorities started rounding up couriers last spring, Levita fled with $100,000 to Amsterdam, where he experimented with personal use of ecstasy, court papers said. He also began plotting his own modest scheme to import ecstsy into Israel, the papers added, before he, Erez and five others were arrested last July by federal agents and Dutch police.
So far, five of the defendants have pleaded guilty. Erez and his girlfriend remain in Dutch custody and are fighting extradition.