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Deep Cover – Shedding Light on the Case in Japan

An Exclusive Interview With Mr. Michael Levine, Top Narcotics Smuggling Expert in the U.S.

It’s hard to imagine a person having more colorful life experiences than Mr. Michael Levine. One of the most decorated supervisory agents in the history of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, Mr. Levine’s story is that of a Jewish kid from the Bronx who went on to serve his country on the battlefield and on the streets, protecting its citizenry, ensuring that the bad guys are not a threat to society, and working so that the innocent aren’t wrongly prosecuted.

Mr. Levine has served with great distinction with the U.S. Customs Service, the IRS Criminal Investigations Division, and the FBI/DEA Task Force. Trained and licensed as a police instructor by DEA, his career in police training, now numbering more than 30 years, continues to this day. Mr. Levine””s expert testimony has been accepted on hundreds of occasions in federal and state courts, both criminal and civil.

As a trial consultant and expert witness commencing with his DOJ retirement in 1990, Mr. Levine has reviewed and commented upon countless cases involving a wide array of areas of expertise. This involves exhaustive and lengthy reviews of the investigative and law enforcement practices of many local and federal agencies. This ongoing experience keeps Mr. Levine current and up-to-date on policies, procedures and standards of U.S law enforcement.

 

Most recently, Mr. Levine was called upon by the askonim assisting the boys incarcerated in Japan to testify in their defense. Mr. Levine shared with the Yated in this exclusive interview that he is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt, as he testified in court, that the boys had absolutely no knowledge of what they were transporting when they were arrested for attempting to smuggle drugs into Japan. In fact, while Mr. Levine has turned down 300 cases for which he was requested to testify, he felt strongly in this case that there was a need to set the record straight regarding what the boys did and did not know.

 

Mr. Levine, with over 40 years of intensive hands-on, award-winning experience on the streets and in courtrooms, has acquired vast insider’s knowledge and a razor sharp eye for details that are vital to expert testimony. The details that underlie and support his résumé have stood up to the rigorous cross-examination of some of the best prosecutors and attorneys in the nation.

 

He is also a widely published, highly skilled professional writer, well known for the effectiveness of his reports and affidavits.

 

Mr. Levine currently resides in Ulster County, near High Falls, NY.

 

As we commenced our interview, I first asked Mr. Levin about his background.

 

“Of my family of Russian and Polish Jews, I was the first to be born in the United States. I grew up in the Bronx and joined the US Air Force at age 18. I was with the Air Force from 1958 to 1961. After college, I went to work as a federal agent, first with the IRS Criminal Investigations Division and then as a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). At that point, I became an agent for the U.S. Customs Service and began working undercover all over the world posing as a drug trafficker. I worked on virtually every continent, from Asia to South America. I was involved in an investigation in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam conflict, resulting in a Special Act US Treasury Award for taking down one of the most significant international heroin smuggling organizations of the time.”

 

As we discuss his career, Mr. Levin relates that he spent most of his life as an undercover special agent with theDrug Enforcement Administration. He was considered one of DEA’s top Undercover/Deep Cover and international narcotic trafficking specialists and was charged with design and orchestration of some of the government’s most significant national and international Deep Cover and conspiracy investigations. Some of Mr. Levine’s investigations were considered among the most significant in drug war history.

 

You now serve as a police instructor and are an accomplished author.

 

“Yes, since my retirement from the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1990, I have lectured on a contractual basis for many local enforcement agencies on human intelligence, undercover/covert operations, narcotics investigations – from street level to international, international operations and more. I served as a regular instructor of Undercover Tactics and Informant Handling for Ontario Provincial Police Academy for 7 years. As a lecturer and consultant on the subject of International Narcotic Enforcement and related subjects, I have spoken before a wide variety of audiences, from the United Nations and the World Presidents Organization to the New York City Council. I have also been invited as a lecturer and consultant to international drug conferences sponsored by the French, Spanish and Dutch governments. I am the author of the NY Times bestseller, Deep Cover, a nonfiction book about my undercover work, as well as a national bestseller, The Big White Lie, which I authored with my wife, Laura Kavanau-Levine, among other books.”

 

Mr. Levine, with your decades of experience in this turbulent line of work, is there anything you haven’t seen? Have tactics changed over the years?

 

“I still do see new things every day, because, as a trial consultant, I am retained for cases all over the world, like the Goldstein case in Japan, involving police and all sorts of people. I have been called by the District Attorney of Atlanta to review shooting cases. I am asked to study cases involving use of force by police officers. I am constantly exposed to human tragedy and beatings, false arrests, people imprisoned because of lying informers, poor police investigations, and individuals convicted of all types of crimes, from drug trafficking to murder.”

 

Being exposed to such immense tragedy and corruption, how do you stay even-keeled? How do you maintain your peace of mind?

 

“I have a secret weapon: my wife, Laura Kavanau-Levine. She keeps me balanced. I rely on her. While I have to experience everything that is wrong in the world, she tells me what’s going right with the world.”

 

In addition to your storied career and having served this country as a member of the U.S. Air Force, you made the ultimate sacrifice when your son was killed while working as a police officer.

 

“Yes, my son, Chief Richard Levine, a police officer with the NYPD, was killed in the line of duty in 1991. He witnessed an armed robbery at an ATM machine in Manhattan and took action and was killed in a gunfight. That tragedy really brought my line of work home on a very personal level.”

 

– – – – –

 

Since his retirement from the Department of Justice in 1990, Mr. Levine, as an expert witness and trial consultant, has been retained in hundreds of criminal and civil matters – resulting in 90% out-of-court resolution. His expertise and reputation as perhaps the top drug smuggling expert in the country led to his involvement in the recent trial of 24-year-old Yoel Zev ben Mirel Risa Chava Goldstein, the third of the three Japan bochurim arrested on charges of smuggling narcotics in false bottoms of suitcases. Mr. Levine, who traveled to Japan to testify on behalf of Yoel Zev, was the first American law enforcement agent ever allowed to provide testimony in a Japanese court.

 

At this time, Yoel Zev’s trial has been adjourned until further notice from the judge.

 

How did you get involved in the case of the boys in Japan?

 

Those involved in helping the boys found me. I had written an article about “blind mules,” which is the term used to describe individuals victimized by major drug traffickers to unwittingly carry drugs. I am often called upon by attorneys defending those involved in the unwitting participation of a crime, people inveigled into playing a role in a crime when they have no idea what they are doing.

 

What did you do at that point?

 

When Aron Nezri, Elimelech Bindinger and the attorneys contacted me, they sent me all the materials regarding the case and I spent several days going over all of it.

 

What was your immediate reaction upon reviewing the details of the case?

 

At that time, I was, as I am now, 100 percent certain that these three boys were victimized and had no idea that they were carrying drugs. They were victimized by what I would say is a major ecstasy organization in Amsterdam.

The man who set these boys up, being a member of the community, was naturally trusted by them.

 

I am looking at this case through a lens of four decades of experience, having dealt with over 1,000 similar cases, and their innocence is clear.

 

How about the fellow who set them up?

 

I am not privy to the details of the Israeli police investigation, but what I am absolutely certain about is that the boys thoroughly trusted the person who sent them on this mission and they had not the slightest idea of what was really taking place.

 

After reviewing the case details, were you then asked to testify?

 

First I embarked on writing a report pointing out to the Japanese court why I am an expert in this area and in what way I possess knowledge of these types of cases that the Japanese court doesn’t. As an expert, I explained in my report, I could help the Japanese uncover the truth, and that’s what I did in my affidavit.

 

What are some of the things you highlighted in your affidavit?

 

First and foremost, I stressed that there are esoteric tactics used by interdiction investigators that could have immediately determined at Narita International Airport whether the boys were lying. Shockingly, the Japanese police never used those tactics. Failing to use these very standard tactics resulted in hiding exculpatory information. In essence, the Japanese police, either because of a lack of training or lack of understanding, might as well have been working for the traffickers who set up the boys.

 

In your writings about blind mules, you’ve explained that drug traffickers are willing to take losses from time to time, as long as their identities are protected.

 

Exactly. The idea of using a blind mule is to hide the identity of the traffickers. For those dealing with shipments of drugs worth millions of dollars, protecting their identity is always their priority. In fact, they expect to lose some shipments along the way. Their profit margin is so immense that it doesn’t matter to them. What they do have to protect is the sanctity of their organization, their identity. The blind mule is perfect, because he can’t give anyone information because he has none! Thus, even if the blind mule is caught, the smugglers’ operation can continue.

 

How should the Japanese police have handled the boys?

 

They should have followed up with them, allowing them to proceed to their intended destination in order to catch whoever was going to be at the site of the pick-up of the drugs. They should have wired up the boys and put them on the phone with their contact in Israel and recorded the conversation. The conversation would have revealed everything they knew. It would have been proof of what was transpiring.

 

Would this case have been handled differently in, say, the United States?

 

To be clear, the same mistake is made in America all the time. The Japanese police reacted no different than many American police do. I explained to the Japanese judges that in America, in these cases where police fail to follow up properly, the prosecutors refuse to even prosecute. The Japanese judges didn’t know that. I explained to the court during Yoel Goldstein’s case that to these drug traffickers, many of whom I have met face to face all around the world, the money means nothing. It’s their identity that is most important, as I mentioned, which is why a blind mule, like Goldstein and the other two, is ideal.

 

Do you believe that your words had an impact on the judges?

 

I don’t know. I testified back in July. What was bothersome is that the other two boys were found guilty without an expert testifying. The court should have allowed an expert to testify in their cases as well.

 

As I explained in court at Goldstein’s trial, the three boys used their own passports, stayed together as a group during the entire trip, and went to the same customs inspector – in short, everything that a drug trafficker would be sure not to do.

 

In this case, among the things that happened at the trial, the prosecutor tried to show that the Chassidic community and Orthodox Jews are very likely to be drug traffickers. The prosecutor was trying to do his job in overcoming the doubt that Goldstein knew that he was carrying drugs.

 

In all your years, had you ever dealt with such a case involving an Orthodox Jew?

 

No, I had never dealt with such a case in an American court. In fact, in 40 years, I had never dealt with Chassidic drug smuggler. I did some research and actually discovered that out of 2 million people who have been jailed for drug smuggling, not one has been a Chassidic Jew. I told that to the court.

 

How did you find the experience of testifying in a Japanese court?

 

The court really let me say just about anything. I don’t think that the court was accustomed to dealing with closed communities like Satmar in Bnei Brak, whose members don’t own televisions and lack connection to the outside world.

 

What was your reaction to the polygraph tests, which showed that the boys had no knowledge of what they were carrying?

 

The polygraph results were consistent with my contention that they are innocent.

 

What was your experience working with the special individuals who have devoted themselves to helping these boys?

 

As a Jew myself, I never had exposure to the Chassidic community and it was a wonderful experience. I really felt attached to them and grew to respect and admire them. I used to live in Monsey, NY, and I lived near many Chassidim, but I never knew them.

 

What was interesting is that when I was walking in Tokyo with one of the Chassidim who lives in Monsey, I mentioned that I used to live in Monsey. “Did you know Dr. Levine?” he asked me. In fact, I did know Dr. Levine, a longtime doctor on Maple Avenue in Monsey who my kids went to.

 

What did you think about the Japanese lawyers and the Japanese legal system?

 

The actual process is almost identical to ours here in the United States. However, in Japan, you testify not in front of a jury, but to a three-judge panel. As a witness, it is the same process: you testify and are then cross-examined by the prosecutors. The big difference between the American and Japanese systems is that in Japan, the trial is an ongoing process. Trial by jury in the United States is a finite process. The trial process in Japan seems to go on and on and involves multiple sessions.

 

I don’t have enough knowledge to comment further about their system, but the Japanese attorneys that I worked with are top notch. One even graduated from Columbia University in New York City.

 

What was your reaction upon meeting Yoel Goldstein himself?

 

I saw him in court, but I did not meet him personally. In fact, I don’t know if it would have been a good idea for me to meet him, because, as an expert witness, my responsibility should be, and is, to stick to my point and objective, staying above and apart from the emotional aspect of the case. I guess there would have been a language barrier as well even if I would have spoken to Yoel, as I don’t speak Hebrew, though I am conversant in various languages, including English, Spanish, and a lot of Italian.

 

Have you ever been to Israel, where the three boys live?

 

I have a lot of family living in Israel, in Givatayim, but I have not been there in many years. Back in the 1970s, when I was working in Bangkok, Thailand, I went to Israel and visited family there.

 

Your life has taken you from the cozy neighborhoods of the Bronx, to the U.S. Air Force, to meeting face-to-face with the world’s most dangerous drug smugglers and other unsavory characters. Do you ever reflect on the surreal nature of some of your experiences?

 

For sure. I have had a strange life, no doubt. When I was young, I was an adventurous young man, and being an undercover agent, as I was for so many years, is all that and more. In police work, there is a saying that murder police is the “big top,” while undercover narcotics is the “adrenalin ride,” which is what it is. But that experience, in fact, continues for me to this day as an expert witness and trial consultant. I am still deeply involved in these matters.

 

Any closing message for the community?

 

We must take the case of Yoel Goldstein and the other boys and turn it into a lesson for the youth. Utilize it to teach young people to be careful about who they trust and what they take with them when they travel. It is always good to utilize real stories, which is more effective than some academic standing up and saying, “Do this,” or, “Do that.” There are lessons that can be learned from this case.

 

Thank you, Mr. Levine, for your time and your continued service to this country.
 
***
 

Blind Mules: Making the Most of an Opportunity

 

Mr. Michael Levine explains that thorough investigation of blind mule claims has led to some of the farthest reaching international drug cases in history, cases that simply do not happen anymore. There is no investigation that better illustrates the point than one that began with his arrest of John Edward Davidson, blind mule extraordinaire. Here is the Davidson story, in Mr. Levine’s own words.

– – – – –

 

The year I met John Edward Davidson, 1971, was the same year that President Nixon declared war on drugs. The Special Agents of US Customs didnt need a declaration of war. By 1971, they had been combating drug smugglers for decades. The investigative tactics involved with the apprehension of a “mule” the “flip” followed by the “controlled delivery” run concurrently with an intensive conspiracy investigationhad already been initiated and were showing huge and unprecedented successes. Books have been written about this era and the accomplishments of these immensely talented and streetwise investigators, who were second to the FBI and CIA only in public relations and in the imaginations of fiction writers.

 

When I transferred into the Customs Agency Service from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms in 1970, I was a willing student of these tactics and soon found myself deeply involved in many of the major international investigations of that time. In 1973, the Drug Enforcement Administration was created by Presidential Order. I was one of 750 U.S. Customs agents transferred into the new agency. One of my first assigned duties was the management of smuggling investigations as well as the training of DEA Agents without Customs experience in the same interdiction and investigative tactics I had used as a Customs Agent.

 

One of the investigations I used as a lecture tool, US vs. John Edward Davidson, et al, began on July 4, 1971. I had “the duty” that day, which in Customs parlance meant that I was on 24-hour call status. It was about 1 p.m. when headquarters called. I was at a party at an uncles home in Babylon, Long Island. There had been two arrests at JFK International; one a Peruvian woman with a half kilo of cocaine hidden in her body and a Caucasian male with 3 kilos of heroin hidden in the false bottoms of three Samsonite suitcases. Each had been in custody for about 10 minutes when I got the call.

 

I made it, red light spinning, siren screaming and brake drums smoking, to the rear entrance of the IAB (International Arrivals Building) in less than 15 minutes, which meant that I would have, at most, an hour to flip one of the two mules and let him (or her) walk out the double doors into the arrivals area with his bags to see if anyone approached or followed. I had a couple of undercover, plainclothes patrol officers standing by and more agents on the way.

 

As luck would have it, the other agent on call that day was Jack Daniocek, another fluent Spanish speaker. Jack was senior to me and wanted to handle the Peruvian woman, so by default, I would, within minutes, find myself in a windowless room seated across a bare metal table from John Edward Davidson and the beginning of an adventure that would take me to the other side of the world. It would also be my first, personal glimpse into the minds of major international drug traffickers who would accept me as one of their owna firsthand, uncensored perspective that I believe is entirely absent from most of todays expert testimony.

 

The Customs inspector who had detected the heroin quickly filled me in on what I needed to know. Davidson had just arrived from Bangkok, Thailand, carrying three expensive Samsonite suitcases full of gifts and clothing. His passport showed seven trips to Thailand in the past 18 months. The weight of each empty suitcase was exactly one kilo more than it should weigh. A small hole drilled though the bottom of each revealed that the extra kilo was 99% pure heroin, known as “Dragon Brand.” Davidsons claim, so far, was that the suitcase had been filled by “Chinese People” hed met in Thailand during his R&Rs from the battlefields of Vietnam, and that he thought he was smuggling precious gems to evade import duties.

 

Blind mule? A Vietnam vet who thought he was smuggling jewelry? Gimme a New York break, I thought. This guy knew exactly what he was doing. But I also knew that no federal prosecutor would accept that assessment without an investigation that would show that it was unreasonable to believe his claim – an investigation that might lead to the identification of the true source of the drugs, or one that would show proof of the kind of deception common in drug smuggling cases.

 

Davidson was a smallish man with close cropped blonde hair. He wore granny glasses that gave him the look of a graduate student in theology. As it would turn out, he was anything but.

As I took a seat across from him, I noted grey eyes that reacted to my every expression. He studied me as I read his two-page, handwritten declaration. I was conscious of the passing time. I had to assume that, since he was carrying millions of dollars worth of heroin, blind mule or not, somebody was waiting for him. I had at most 30 minutes to get his cooperation and put him out on the airport concourse like a baited hook.

 

“I read your claim,” I said. “I dont think a jury is going to believe it, but if you are truly a blind mule, you have a chance to prove it yourself.” I had his rapt attention. “Are you willing to cooperate with me?”

 

“What do I have to do?”

 

“First, according to your statement, some John Doe should be waiting for you right outside.”

 

“I doubt if theyll still be waiting,” he said.

 

“They will,” I said. “Thats more than a million bucks worth of heroin youre packing, my friend. Theyll wait to make certain this isnt a typical airline delay.”

 

“What if they dont wait?”

 

“Why wouldnt they? We just announced over the PA that due to a baggage belt breakdown, some of the passengers on your flight will be delayed. Right now were holding a bunch of them just waiting for you to make a decision, John.”

 

It was all a lie, but he couldnt know any different. Without waiting for an answer, I shoved his statement at a Customs Patrol Officer. “Get the attaché in Bangkok on the phone right now. I want this guys every movement checked. Particularly phone calls made from hotels. Dates, times, numbers called, run everything for drug connections. Also check Mr. Davidsons finances. Call IRS, get his tax returns. I want to know everything about this man possible before we bring him to the magistrate. If hes lying, I want to be able to tell that to the judge.”

 

The bewildered CPO took the paper and left. Of course, most of that could be not be done any time soon, but to defeat a claim of blind mule at trial, I knew it all and more had to be done before trial.

 

I looked at Davidson. The color had drained from his face.

 

“Im gonna be straight with you,” I said. “I dont believe you. Im just giving you all the rope you need to hang yourself. If I can prove you lied on this paper (I shoved it in front of him), youre just gonna end up upsetting some judge and maybe a jury, and facing a possible five decades in prison. The secret youre carrying right now is how much time youve got left before whos ever waiting for you is in the wind and I wont be able to help you anymore. Thirty or forty years from now when youre still in a cage, you might remember this moment as your last chance. Its your choice, my friend.”

 

Davidson looked at the government-issue clock on the wall in front of him and then said, “I have about 3 minutes to make a phone call or theyll vanish.”

 

Within a minute and half, he was dialing a phone number in Gainesville, Florida. It was answered by Allan Trupkin, the financier, at the time one of the major heroin trafficking groups on the East Coast.

 

“Yeah,” said Trupkin.

 

“Its me,” said John, his eyes on the rolling tape-recorder.

 

“Where are you?” said Trupkin.

 

“Still at the airport,” answered Davidson smoothly. “The baggage belt broke or something.”

 

“Its okay?”

 

“Im fine. I missed my connection, but Im okay.”

 

“What time you gonna get here?”

 

Davidson looked at me for a cue. I mouthed his answer.

 

“Next plane I can get,” he said.

 

“Whoa! You dont know, man. We were really worried.”

 

“Okay, Im on my way,” said Davidson and he hung up.

 

I had an immediate problem. Davidson had cut the conversation short while Trupkin was still clearly willing to talka sign of deception. The only evidence the recording would reveal was that Trupkin was waiting anxiously for Davidsons arrival for the end of story. This did not look good. Davidson was now my confidential and very criminal informant, my CI, which opened a textbook full of legal problems, the first being that Mr. Trupkin might be some low-level dupe who Davidson was using to protect the main man, the head of his organization whom he might fear more than a long jail term, a very common ploy of all criminal informants.

 

I had to prove differently. It was now time for the Controlled Delivery operation. Customs technicians, working quickly, replaced all but one ounce of the heroin with a white powder substance that looked and felt identical to the heroin, all of which was perfectly resealed inside the false bottom suitcases. Within two-and-a-half hours, Davidson, my partner George Sweikert and the suitcases were on a flight to Jacksonville, Florida, where a team of twenty Customs agents and plainclothes patrol officers were waiting to convoy us to Gainesville.

 

At about 3 a.m., about fourteen hours after the arrest of Davidson at JFK International Airport, I lay hiding in a rear room of a luxuriously equipped house trailer in the middle of a Gainesville swamp watching Allan Trupkins headlights approach through a field of high grass that concealed twenty federal agents laying in ambush. Within minutes, Trupkin and his heroin addicted gofer, John Clements, were ripping into the Samsonite suitcases, as a hidden tape-recorder rolled.

 

“What did you get, Dragon or Elephant?” Trupkin asked.

 

“Dragon,” said Davidson.

 

“I love you brother,” said a jubilant Trupkin.

 

Within minutes, I had enough on tape to establish that Trupkin was neither a blind mule receiver nor an innocent or entrapped dupe. I gave the bust signal and the trap was closed. Ironically, it was the drug addicted gofer, John Clements, who would refuse to either cut a deal or cop a plea that ended up with the longest jail term of the three: 27 years in prisona sentence which he has since completed.

 

What had started out as a blind mule case in New York did not end in Gainesville, Florida. Davidson next agreed to introduce me to his Bangkok heroin connection as his mafia financier. One month laterafter coded letters were interchanged between Davidson and a man I would later identify as Liang Sae Tiew, a/k/a “Gary” – I landed in Bangkok, Thailand posing as “Mike Pagano” mafia capo.

 

– – – – –

 

“Going the extra mile at the time of the arrest may save hours or days of courtroom battling of the blind mule defense,” says Mr. Levine. “The current crop of law enforcement officers and prosecutors who have sworn oaths to protect the people who hired them and our constitution are too often not willing to go that extra mile. Too many seem quite happy to make the arrests of whoever walks into their outstretched arms without conducting a due diligence investigation. They instead add up the seizures to be paraded before Congress, submit themselves for cash awards for ‘excellence’ of performance and then rely on the word of government ‘experts’ for conviction. Adherence to the Search-for-Truth Doctrine and National Drug Policy are things of the past.

 

“I cannot be certain precisely when or how this change in prosecutorial and investigative practices occurred,” says Mr. Levine. “What I am certain of is that the price America now pays for this change can be felt in the deterioration of our system of justice and gangs of international drug traffickers and terrorist sharks that can safely operate with impunity while the American justice system targets the minnows.”