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By Steve Miletich P-I Reporter
SATURDAY, March 19, 1988
Section: News, Page: A1

A prominent rabbi and three other men were arrested in Seattle yesterday in what federal prosecutors described as an international money-laundering conspiracy that sent millions of dollars to Panama and Colombia.

The four were among 13 people, including a group of Israeli nationals, named in a federal complaint filed in New Jersey charging them with violating federal currency laws that require large transactions to be reported.

Other defendants were arrested in Edison, N.J., and Los Angeles.

The Seattle defendants were identified as Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin, 47 (age), regional director of the Lubavitch Hasidic community in Seattle; Sergio Dias, 26 (age); Avi Hazan, 24 (age); and Baruch Zeltzer, 32 (age), believed to be an Israeli citizen.

Zeltzer lives at Chabad House, a community center for the Hasidic Jewish community at 4541 19th Ave. N.E. in the University District of Seattle. Federal agents yesterday seized records related to money laundering at the house, officials said.

In a hearing yesterday afternoon, Levitin and Zeltzer were ordered held on $50,000 bond by U.S. Magistrate John Weinberg in Seattle. Dias and Hazan were ordered held on $25,000 bond.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Friedman, who asked that the defendants be held without bail, said they had been involved for at least 11/2 years in shipments of hundreds of thousands of dollars from New Jersey to Seattle.

Friedman said $350,000 to $400,000 a week was sent in cash to Seattle and converted to cashier's checks that were hidden in magazines before being shipped by air freight to Panama and Colombia.

He said he didn't know how much money was involved, but federal prosecutors in New Jersey said as much as $25 million in cashier's checks and money orders may have been sent to the two countries, as well as to banks in London, West Germany and Israel.

Most of the checks were sent to Banco Cafetero in Panama City or to Enrique Korc, the alleged kingpin of the operation in Cali, Colombia.

Levitin's arrest shocked other rabbis in Seattle.

"When I heard this, I couldn't believe it," said Rabbi Anson Laytner, director of the Jewish Federation's Community Relations Council.

"This is totally out of keeping from the man that I know," he said. "To my mind he is a scholar and a very spiritual person, a community activist in terms of helping people in need."

Levitin, the father of nine children, founded the Chabad House in the early 1970s. It is known as a place where Jewish people can seek emergency housing, food or money and receive outreach services. Several hundred Hasidic Jews live in Seattle, most in the area of Chabad House.

Rabbi Earl Starr of Temple De Hirsch Sinai, a Reform congregation, called Levitin "a very outward person, self-assured and a recognized leader."

After the hearing, Friedman refused to comment on the source of the money or to say whether it was linked to a cocaine smuggling cartel.

But federal law enforcement officials have previously said that Panama and Colombia are primary bases for cocaine and money laundering operations. Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega was indicted last month in the United States on drug and money laundering charges.

According to court documents, members of the conspiracy in New Jersey regularly sent cash to Seattle, where it was converted to cashier's checks by taking it to several banks and presenting it in amounts that didn't require federal currency reporting. Under federal law, bank transactions of $10,000 or more must be reported to the government.

The checks were sent to Panama and Colombia in a manner that avoided a law requiring the reporting to the U.S. Customs Service of transfers of $10,000 or more out of the United States.

U.S. Attorney Gene Anderson in Seattle said the money wasn't tied to any illegal activities or drug dealing in Western Washington.

Anderson said the "structuring" of transactions at several banks in amounts less than $10,000 is a "common technique used by money launderers" and is illegal under recent amendments added to federal money laundering statutes.

The arrests capped an investigation by the Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration that began with the seizure of a package containing $450,000.

In addition to Korc, the other leaders of the operation were identified as a man listed only as Kimaro, also of Colombia, and Ali Tal, 27, of Edison, N.J., described as the head of the U.S. operations. Tal, a former employee of El Al Airlines, the Israeli airline, supervised his wife, Jacqueline, 26, a former flight attendant with Northwest Airlines, and a New Jersey couple, Nir Goldeshtein and his wife, Zoe Lawton. Three other defendants allegedly operated in Los Angeles.

Friedman said court-approved wiretaps were used to intercept conversations, which were conducted in Hebrew.

He cited one conversation in which said Zeltzer and Tal allegedly discussed an evacuation plan if they were caught.

Friedman said the defendants in Seattle had a contact in the security department at Pacific Northwest Bell who was to warn them if subpoenas were served for telephone records.

Levitin was represented in court by Murray Guterson, who described his client as a "dear, dear friend and a sweet human being" who presided over the marriage of his daughter.

Guterson unsuccessfully sought Levitin's release on personal recognizance, saying the rabbi wanted to be freed in time for the Jewish sabbath beginning at sundown yesterday.

However, he will be held in Snohomish County Jail until at least Monday morning, Guterson said.


This article contained at least one photo or illustration as described below:


Description: P-I/1983 -- Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin

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