The Last Jewish Gangster

Murray Wilson, the brutal financial wizard who links the Mafia and the Russian Mob, had prospered in obscurity. Until now.


Sitting in a small office across Fifth Avenue from the New York Public Library, Murray Wilson doesn’t appear to be a world-class hoodlum, the shadowy link between New York’s Russian and Italian mobs. Neatly dressed in a crisp blue shirt and slacks, his silver hair soldered in place, the 57-year-old businessman flashes an easy smile and tosses quips with the aplomb of a Borscht Belt veteran. Forget for a moment that he is talking about friends who got whacked or meetings with wiseguys like Benny Eggs and Johnny Sausage. Wilson could pass for your uncle, the funny, roly-poly one.

As he reluctantly answers a visitor’s questions about his colorful career — one packed with million-dollar swindles, foreign intrigues, murders, and gangsters galore — Wilson complains, “I don’t need you to write a book on my life. You want to do it and ruin me, go ahead.” He adds, “I just don’t want no more bullshit around me.”

In a city teeming with ethnic gangs, Wilson quietly sits at the crossroads between Howard Beach and Brighton Beach, perhaps the only man to be identified by law enforcement officials as a high-level associate of both the Russian Organizatsiya and the Italian La Cosa Nostra. A twice convicted felon, Wilson — described in one confidential law enforcement report as a “sophisticated fraud man” — is suspected by federal and state investigators of being involved in laundering and investing money for both crime groups.

Wilson’s remarkable career — which began with hosiery sales in the Garment District when he was a teenager — has seen him traffic in diamonds, bauxite, trademarks, stolen checks, stock, aluminum, restaurants, letters of credit, and bootleg gasoline. During this span, Wilson has been the focus of at least eight criminal probes and has surrounded himself with Mafia bosses, Russian killers, captains of industry, corrupt lawyers, and, for good measure, an international art thief and one KGB agent. A former prosecutor who once unsuccessfully tried to “flip” Wilson against his criminal cohorts said enviously of the businessman: “This is the guy who knows about the money.”

But while Wilson has played a key role with both crime syndicates, he has managed to maintain a low profile. Married 38 years and the father of two grown daughters, Wilson lives with his wife, Sondra, in a Forest Hills co-op that they moved into in 1964. He drives a Mercedes and reports income of $240,000 but does not appear to have a flashy lifestyle. Wilson portrays himself as a quiet homebody who spends weekends in his Queens apartment and plans on retiring in a couple of years.

One federal agent was surprised recently when told of Wilson’s recent activity, saying he thought the businessman was dead. A state investigator, too, was unaware of Wilson’s good health, asking, “He’s still alive?” In fact, it appears that Wilson’s name has never appeared in any published or broadcast reports about organized crime. During an interview, Wilson indirectly attributed this to a motto he picked up during an early-’90s hiatus in federal prison: “Obscurity is security.”

A detailed Voice examination of Wilson’s career, though, has turned up information that he would surely prefer remain obscured. These findings include:

  • A Wilson firm is the second largest shareholder in the publicly held Sloan’s Supermarkets chain, which owns and operates stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In connection with this stock ownership, Wilson has submitted a false report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, omitting details of his criminal background. Sloan’s principal owner is supermarket titan John Catsimatidis, a Wilson acquaintance now embroiled in the controversy over City Hall’s awarding of $43 million in contracts to a Queens-based social service organization.
  • Wilson has a secret interest in two popular Manhattan restaurants, including the favored East Side haunt of former police commissioner William Bratton. Because his criminal convictions disqualify him for a liquor license, Wilson’s fashionable bistros are held in the name of an employee, a Hasidic Jew from Monsey.
  • Though he travels in potentially dangerous criminal circles — a number of his contacts have been the victims of gangland hits — Wilson has maintained a “continuous ‘open door’ line of communication with the FBI in New York” regarding various criminal probes, according to one court document.
  • Along with his FBI cooperation, Wilson has also served as a primary, though unnamed, source on several newspaper and magazine articles about the Russian mob. In the stories, Wilson’s identity is thinly concealed, though his role as a source could prove as perilous as his FBI contacts.

While many organized crime experts busy themselves speculating about who will become the “new John Gotti,” a more appropriate question might be “Who is the new Meyer Lansky?” The financial guru behind some of New York’s original organized crime dons, Lansky and cohorts Gurrah Shapiro, Lepke Buchalter, and Longie Zwillman ran the loosely configured “Jewish Mob,” an outfit obliterated over the years by death and deportation.

Though certainly never the financial genius he has been made out to be, Lansky — like the thousands of uninitiated associates who followed him — helped maintain the Mafia’s financial backbone. Today, this network of associates — which far outnumbers “made” men — continues to help generate, hide, and invest organized crime’s illicit profits. A Mafia affiliate like Wilson — a highly prized moneymaker for the Genovese gang — is required to kick back funds to the family he is “with.”

Though he barely made it through the Bronx’s Taft High School, it is Wilson’s familiarity with complicated business transactions, off-shore financing, and Swiss bank accounts that makes him such a valuable mob “associate.” Wilson claims to run companies chartered in England, Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Bahamas, and more mundane spots like Delaware. He claims to have “representative offices” in places like London, Moscow, Zurich, Kiev, and Riga.

While not particularly religious, Wilson has dabbled in Jewish causes, including the Jewish Defense League and Soviet Jewry. He has also owned a kosher restaurant, managed the folk singer Shlomo Carlbach, and purchased the trademark name of Grossinger’s, the fabled Catskills resort.

In the rough-and-ready tradition of hoods like Zwillman and Shapiro, Wilson — up from the Bronx streets — is perhaps the last Jewish gangster. To his mob pals, though, the distinction is moot, since making money is a decidedly secular pursuit.

With his panoply of criminal connections and his preference for the shadows, it is surprising that Wilson has recently taken a rather public position with regard to the Sloan’s Supermarkets chain.

According to a 1995 SEC report, a Wilson company called Merchants T&F owns 206,250 shares of Sloan’s stock, or 6.6 per cent of the publicly held company. The only larger shareholder is multimillionaire John Catsimatidis, the firm’s chairman, who owns 42.3 per cent. The value of Wilson’s position — which apparently cost in excess of $1 million — has dropped substantially, since Sloan’s now trades at around $3.50, down from a high of about $9. The chain of 13 supermarkets has 355 employees and recently posted revenues of more than $48.3 million.

Along with his Sloan’s stake, the 47-year-old Catsimatidis also privately owns dozens of other metropolitan area markets, including the Red Apple and Gristede’s chains. In a January SEC filing, Sloan’s reported that it recently bought three of Catsimatidis’s privately held supermarkets and was planning a bond offering to finance the purchase of up to 30 more stores from the supermarket baron.

But the prospective bond deal cannot be helped by the disclosure that Sloan’s number two stockholder, Wilson, has been convicted twice of felony financial frauds. And, in an August 1994 SEC filing which disclosed its significant stake in Sloan’s, Merchants improperly asserted that Wilson — its president and treasurer — had not, in the prior five years, been “convicted in a criminal proceeding.”

Wilson failed to disclose a November 1991 New York State grand larceny conviction. That felony — in a case involving a $1.35 million swindle — came well within the mandated five-year reporting period. (Wilson was not required to mention a federal conviction in Las Vegas — which came exactly five years and 47 days before the SEC filing.)

The SEC filing, which was prepared by the politically connected law firm Davidoff & Malito, was signed by Laszlo Schwartz, a Wilson employee listed as vice president of Merchants T&F. Schwartz refused last Friday to speak with the Voice. Larry Hutcher, the Davidoff & Malito partner who represents Wilson, did not return messages left at his office.

In a sworn deposition taken only days after Merchants filed its perjurious SEC form, Wilson was asked whether, in addition to the Las Vegas case, he had “any other convictions.” He answered, “Not to my knowledge.” The deposition was part of a lawsuit against Wilson brought by investor Edward Reiss, who had charged that Wilson reneged on an agreement to purchase from him shares of Sloan’s.

Reiss has also filed a federal lawsuit against Catsimatidis and Sloan’s, charging that the company and its chairman belatedly disclosed to stockholders information about a Federal Trade Commission investigation targeting the Catsimatidis supermarket empire. In a bid to squelch the Reiss action, Catsimatidis last August submitted to federal judge Peter Leisure a sworn affidavit from Wilson in which the mob associate asserted that, as a Sloan’s stockholder, he did not believe the FTC’s antitrust investigation hurt the stock’s price. In a March 25 decision, Leisure rejected Wilson’s and Catsimatidis’s arguments, granting Reiss’s lawsuit class-action status.

Catsimatidis said he knew Wilson “got in trouble once” in Las Vegas but that he “didn’t know the exact extent of the problem. What am I gonna do? Ask him if [he’s] a criminal?” Catsimatidis said he has recently turned down Wilson’s request to have his daughter Lori — also a Sloan’s shareholder — appointed to the company’s board of directors. “As far as I know, the guy hasn’t been a bad guy,” said Catsimatidis. “A little weird sometimes, but not bad.”

Reported to be worth in excess of $200 million, Catsimatidis is currently embroiled in the controversy swirling around City Hall’s questionable awarding of $43 million in welfare monitoring contracts to the Hellenic American Neighborhood Action Committee (HANAC), which he chairs. Federal and city investigators are now probing the canceled contracts. The politically connected Catsimatidis is also deeply involved in the nascent mayoral campaign of Fernando Ferrer, helping the Bronx beep raise $1 million last year. Of that total, $1000 came from a Manhattan corporation owned by Wilson.

Catsimatidis and Wilson met each other in the late ’80s, when the tycoon bought into Designcraft, the predecessor company to Sloan’s. At the time, Wilson also owned stock in the firm, which manufactured jewelry. Another investor, according to ex-chairman Sam Beckerman, was Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano, underboss of the Genovese crime family. For years, Mangano, now imprisoned for extortion, was Wilson’s chief Mafia handler and a close friend.

While Beckerman, 79, had nothing but hosannas for Mangano — a hood suspected of involvement in several murder plots — he derided Wilson as a “roughneck” and “a total dumbbell.” The retiree added, “As long as this guy breathes, there’ll be trouble in his future.”

When the Secaucus police first came upon Zvi Hager, he was cowering in the dark behind a factory building. The Brooklyn man told them he had just been robbed, which seemed plausible since the 24-year-old man was standing there naked.

Hager told detectives that his evening had started at a kosher restaurant on Essex Street in Manhattan, where he had met up with Wilson and the businessman’s hulking crony Sam Watenstein, an ex-Jewish Defense League enforcer. Hager, who once worked for Wilson, said he had accepted his ex-boss’s invitation that night to join him and Watenstein on a jaunt to Atlantic City.

As they crossed the river, Wilson told Hager he had to make a pit stop in Secaucus to “pick up a package.” When he pulled up behind a factory building, Wilson turned and laced into Hager, accusing him of trying to break into his office. In an interview with police a few days later, Hager recounted the assault that followed: Mr. Wilson got into the back of the car, took off my glasses and broke them into bits. Then Mr. Wilson punched me in the head and told me to get out of the car. I got out of the car. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Watenstein started to punch me all over. Mr. Wilson put his hand in his pocket and said he had a gun, and told me to take off my clothing. I began to yell and cry. Mr. Wilson came over and started ripping my shirt off and told me again to take off my clothes or he would shoot me. I started to take off my clothes. I was in my underwear. He told me to take off my underwear too.”

“Then what happened?” a detective asked.

“He started kicking me in the balls. And I took off my underwear and he told me to get into the bushes. I went into the bushes. He got into the car with Sammy and left.”

Though Wilson and Watenstein were arrested for assault, a New Jersey grand jury voted not to indict the pair.

Obviously, behind Wilson’s affable front hovers more than a hint of menace. In fact, several of the mob associate’s acquaintances would only speak to the Voice if granted anonymity, fearful of reprisals from Wilson. One described his former friend as a “brilliant guy. Diabolical, but brilliant.”

Accounts of Wilson’s wild streak poured from his ex-associates as well as the businessman himself: tales of Wilson punching a busboy at a restaurant, or smacking a fellow motorist who had leaned too long on a car horn. A public relations executive once testified that Wilson and Watenstein barged into his office one day and threw the contents of his desktop out the window because the man was slightly late in repaying a debt. The usurious loan would have made a loanshark blush: Wilson gave the PR man $20,000 for one month, but required a $25,000 repayment — the equivalent of a 300 per cent annual interest rate.

Wilson himself recounted a soured business deal in Israel that ended with him almost getting arrested for busting up his own clothing factory with a sledgehammer and painting swastikas — a crime in that country — on the destroyed equipment. Wilson defended “the doing of the artwork,” saying his Israeli partners had robbed him, causing a $250,000 loss.

Asked about an incident that occurred after his final break with JDL founder Meir Kahane, Wilson smiled broadly and listened as one of his wildman episodes was recounted. Once an early financial supporter of the JDL, Wilson’s relationship with the right-wing rabbi deteriorated, in part because he believed Kahane had stolen JDL funds.

In late 1984, Wilson orchestrated a harassment campaign against Kahane while the JDL boss was fundraising in New York. One night, Wilson and some accomplices broke into Kahane’s auto and stole some of the rabbi’s belongings. Before spray-painted the words “Nigger get out of America” on Kahane’s car. The rabbi eventually complained to the FBI that Wilson was plotting to have him killed, a claim Wilson denied.

“I never would do that,” Wilson said of the spray painting. He added slyly, “That’s vandalism!”

Wilson does little to dispel his tough guy rep, in part because he appears genuinely enthralled with the gangster image. Once, before heading to a Christmas party at Mangano’s Thompson Street social club, Wilson turned to Watenstein and — excited by their Mafia social climbing — exclaimed, “Sammy, we’re getting up there!”

In Voice interviews, Wilson spoke freely about gambling with Mangano in Atlantic City, and of his frequent trips to the wiseguy’s Village hangout, mentioning how he would point out FBI agents trying to conduct surveillance of the club. Wilson said he met with Mangano to discuss their mutual interests in the closeout clothing industry. “If I had to discuss business with him at night, I would stop down at the club and have a coffee and discuss business with him.” A phone call apparently would not suffice.

Along with his trips to the Village, Wilson attended the christening of Mangano’s granddaughter and — for a time — used the hood’s son Joseph to write his insurance. “He handled my insurance, but he screwed it up,” Wilson said. Of Benny Eggs, who was imprisoned in 1993 following a federal extortion conviction, Wilson said, “He had probably a much better reputation than I did… for honesty and integrity. I didn’t find any fault in being near him.”

Law enforcement officials have pointed to Wilson’s close ties to Mangano, the number two man in the country’s strongest crime family, as evidence of Wilson’s own stature in the Genovese gang. Investigators have also said Wilson was once close to Genovese captain Matthew “Matty the Horse” Ianniello, a charge he denies.

With Mangano jailed, sources said that supervision of Wilson has fallen, at times, to Mangano’s longtime sidekick John “Johnny Sausage” Barbato and Daniel Pagano, a powerful Westchester-based Genovese member. The businessman has bragged, according to one source, that he remains able to “send a message downtown in the morning and get an answer in the afternoon” from the Genovese leadership regarding business decisions.

Asked about meetings with Barbato, Wilson said, “Yes, I run into him,” but he could not remember when, where, or why he met with the Mafia soldier. As for Pagano, Wilson claimed, “I’ve met him, never dealt with him.” Wilson said that he was introduced to Pagano by either Alex Zilber or his brother Victor, both of whom are members of the Russian mob and longtime Wilson cronies.

Now in their midthirties, the Zilbers arrived from Odessa with their parents about 15 years ago. They have been involved in a variety of business ventures, including their not-so-secret ownership of Rasputin, the gaudy Brighton Beach restaurant. Ledgers seized by the FBI indicate that the pair poured more than $4 million into the establishment, a marble shrine to blinis and beef Stroganoff.

The relationship between Pagano and the Zilbers, sources said, was rooted in their joint interests in gasoline bootlegging. The lucrative scam, which relies on the evasion of excise taxes for its huge profits, was the first criminal enterprise jointly run by Italian and Russian gangsters, beginning in the early ’80s.

The Pagano-Zilber connection was first exposed in a November 1994 New York magazine story written by Robert I. Friedman. In that article, there can be little doubt that Wilson is the “Genovese crime-family figure” quoted at length about both mob groups. In fact, at least four other Friedman pieces — dating back to 1988 and published in the Voice, Vanity Fair, New York, and The Washington Post — also bear a similarly distinctive Wilson stamp.

Friedman, a former Voice staff writer who is now pitching a book on the Organizatsiya, authored a 1990 biography of Kahane which includes Wilson’s on-the-record recollections of his JDL activities, including his role in the 1984 harassment campaign against the militant rabbi.

In the 1994 New York story, Friedman reported on the November 1992 attempted murder of Victor Zilber, indicating that the shooting may have been a bid by Pagano — in the face of a federal criminal probe — to silence a potential liability. Zilber, shot in the head, is now “blind and cuckoo,” according to his friend Wilson.

The hit theory was bolstered by some colorful quotes from an unnamed “Genovese associate” who noted that “Zilber had big balls. Unfortunately he used them for brains.” The source concluded that “He’s lucky his head wasn’t blown off. Victor was a loose cannon. Shutting him up was an act of survival.”

Of course, the irony of the latter quote is that Wilson either willfully ignores or is somehow oblivious to the inherent danger of his talking about mob business. The reckless behavior, though, does not surprise one old friend who believes the publicity — though anonymous as it must be — thrills Wilson. “He’s doing [business] deals that would scare normal people,” the source said, noting that Wilson — a high-stakes gambler — has never shied from taking chances.

The New York article also reported that when “Alex Zilber asked one of his Genovese partners” to arrange a sitdown with reigning Russian mob boss Vyacheslav Ivankov, “the mobster offered to have the Italians wipe out Ivankov.” The story continued, quoting the Genovese source: “The Brighton Beach boys are crazy, but they are still a pimple on an ass next to the Italians. Ivankov would never take on the Italians.” The voluble source concluded that if the Russians “ever challenged us, they’d never leave Brighton Beach alive.”

“I happen to like Robert and I’ve spoken to Robert on many occasions,” Wilson said, but he denied serving as the reporter’s source. Asked about passages from a 1993 Vanity Fair story which point to him as the source, Wilson quipped that he didn’t read the glossy “except when Demi Moore’s picture was on the cover.”

Potentially more dangerous than conversations with a journalist are the mob associate’s contacts with the FBI. In court papers, Wilson’s Las Vegas criminal attorney mentioned his client’s “continuous ‘open door’ line of communication” with the FBI regarding “investigations of others for which the FBI wishes to speak with” Wilson.

The disclosure of Wilson’s “continued cooperation with Governmental authorities” was made in a 1989 motion to secure relaxed bail conditions for Wilson. Attorney Mitchell Ogron noted that “At no time, past or present, has Mr. Wilson requested anything in exchange” for his assistance. Another document referred by name to two FBI agents who would, Ogron claimed, vouch that Wilson posed no threat to jump bail. One agent is an organized crime supervisor, while the other handled many JDL investigations.

In an interview, Wilson denied providing information to the bureau. The hint of cooperation, though, becomes even more dangerous, since while so many of Wilson’s associates have been arrested over the past five years, he has faced no criminal charges.

Records obtained by the Voice show that Wilson has served as Alex Zilber’s financial adviser, co-owned a company with him, and was involved in one real estate transaction with the Russian gangster. Zilber, Wilson said, “would only come to me for advice every now and then” when business problems arose.

Wilson and Zilber were partners in a 1991 joint venture — formed in conjunction with a large Ukraine-based manufacturer — to purchase bauxite for the production and sale of aluminum products across Europe and the former Soviet Union. The inclusion of Zilber in the deal could be attributed to his relationship with Russian gangsters in his native Odessa, where the manufacturing plant was located.

Before the arrangement collapsed in 1993 amid a flurry of lawsuits over the division of profits, the venture recorded about $500 million in sales — including many deals with fugitive financier Marc Rich. Bank records show that a Wilson firm, Bronx Investments, Ltd., received $7.2 million in wire transfers from the venture’s New York bank account. Another $250,000 was paid in April 1993 to Merchants T&F, the Wilson firm that owns stock in Sloan’s.

According to court documents, Wilson also lurked behind the scenes of the gasoline scheme that almost cost Victor Zilber his life. That illegal operation, federal prosecutors in New Jersey said, cost tax authorities more than $100 million in uncollected revenue and triggered more than $48 million in money laundering. The Newark probe resulted in convictions against a number of Wilson cronies, including Russian mobsters Arkady Seifer and Jacob Dobrer. Victor Zilber was also charged in the 1993 indictment but has been judged unfit to stand trial.

Cooperating witness Jeffrey Pressman, a key gas scam participant, testified that Wilson “did financing” for his illegal business. Pressman said that Victor Zilber also participated in some of these monetary transactions, which involved Wilson securing letters of credit from overseas banking institutions. A federal source said that the FBI, aided by the cooperation of four members of the New Jersey scheme, is continuing its probe of the illegal gasoline operation. Investigators are targeting members and associates of the Genovese crime family, certainly bad news for Wilson and Pagano.

Over the past decade, Wilson’s contacts in the leadership of the Russian mob have had a rough time in office. Along with the now “cuckoo” Victor Zilber, Wilson cronies have been murdered, sent to prison, or become government informants.

Wilson pal Evsei Agron was the first Brighton Beach boss. Before getting rubbed out in 1985, Agron was a feared presence in Brooklyn’s Russian immigrant community. Agron, the legend goes, carried a cattle prod like it was a walking stick.

In April 1983, Agron and a large contingent of Russians accompanied Wilson on a Passover junket to Las Vegas’s Dunes Hotel. The immigrants were there to assist Wilson in a $1 million heist from the hotel casino. The plan was simple: Wilson, a valued Dunes customer, had arranged for credit to be advanced to the Russians, who — unbeknownst to the hotel — had no intention of gambling. Instead, the Russians returned the chips to Wilson, who had Watenstein and Hager (then fully clothed) redeem them for cash.

At Wilson’s and Watenstein’s subsequent 1989 fraud trial, Hager and other witnesses testified about the chip operation, recalling how Wilson’s hotel suite was awash in black $100 chips, delivered to him by a steady stream of Russian-speaking runners. Wilson instructed Hager to shout a code word — the Hebrew phrase for “to go up” — when it was time for the Russians to bring chips to Wilson.

In return for their services, Wilson treated the Russians to sessions with a pair of Vegas prostitutes. Asked if some of her johns wore “religious garb,” hooker Sally Kallestad — no Talmudic scholar — answered, “Yeah, beanies. Those little beanie things.”

A federal jury found Wilson and Watenstein guilty of mail and wire fraud, and the pair received prison terms, respectively, of three years and 18 months. Wilson served about a year in Allenwood before being paroled to a halfway house for six months. As a condition of his release, he was required to enroll in Gamblers Anonymous, and he is eternally grateful. “I thank the government.… Because you sit in a room with people who have the illness and you start to notice on others what you see a little bit of yourself.”

So, a reporter asked, “You’ve quit gambling?”

“No. I bet the Super Bowl,” Wilson laughed. “I had Tyson in the third round the other night,” he continued, referring to the ex-champ’s victory last month over Frank Bruno — which came by TKO in the third round.

In addition to Agron, other Russian mobsters along for Wilson’s holy days heist included Dobrer, Seifer, and a tattooed thug named Emil Puzyretsky. While Dobrer and Seifer would later be convicted in gas tax cases, Puzyretsky suffered a worse fate. The hoodlum, who reportedly did time in a Soviet gulag for murder, was himself killed in a 1991 gangland rubout in Brighton Beach.

Wilson claimed that he did not know Agron well and did no business with the mob boss. “He tried to get me into a real estate deal in Brooklyn,” recalled Wilson, “which I never went in.” But two sources recalled Wilson mediating a dispute between Agron and Genovese family members over a shipment of stolen merchandise sold by the Italians to the Russians. Wilson denied involvement in this deal, saying he had never heard of the transaction.

Succeeding Agron was his lieutenant, Marat Balagula, who is suspected in his ex-boss’s violent demise. Balagula, now serving time for — what else? — a gasoline tax swindle, was a sharp businessman with whom Wilson grew close. Sources said their business dealings were extensive and included diamonds as well as gasoline. The duo was even involved in Sierra Leone, the West African nation that had somehow become a virtual outpost for Russian hoodlums.

Through Balagula, Wilson was also introduced to a shadowy criminal named Shabtai Kalmanovitch, who, according to federal investigators, became “a close business associate” of Wilson’s. Through his ties with the Sierra Leone government, Kalmanovitch had become the diamond-rich nation’s unofficial economics czar. He offered Russian mob contacts — including Balagula as well as Wilson — a variety of investment opportunities, including importation and fishing rights. Supermarket baron Catsimatidis recalled Wilson once trying to recruit him to invest in “some far-flung scheme in Sierra Leone. Rice and diamonds, or something. I wasn’t interested.”

Wilson said that he met with Kalmanovitch once in Sierra Leone but would not deal with him because “I saw Shabtai was a crook.” He said his relationship with Balagula was “very peripheral.”

In December 1987, Kalmanovitch was arrested and later convicted in Israel on espionage charges. Months before Kalmanovitch’s bust, the spy was involved with Wilson, Watenstein, Balagula, and others in a counterfeit scheme to negotiate $12 million in phony Merrill Lynch checks, according to an FBI investigation.

The FBI determined that Wilson and the others “were involved in arranging the counterfeit checks and carrying them to Kalmanovitch in Europe.” The KGB spy was able to cash $3 million in bogus checks before his May 1987 arrest at the Sheraton Towers Hotel in London. “Hotel records show Wilson as staying in the hotel at the same time as Kalmanovitch,” while a search of the spy’s room turned up “an address book with Wilson’s name, address, and phone numbers.”

(The Merrill Lynch scam was detailed in papers filed by prosecutors during Wilson’s Las Vegas mail and wire fraud prosecution. They also reveal Wilson was under investigation for passing $10,000 in bribes to New York State tax agent Anthony Tedeschi. The payoffs were to fix a tax problem Wilson had with his now defunct kosher restaurant, La Difference. Though the document stated “Wilson is likely facing additional serious charges” for the payoffs, he was never indicted. In an interview, Wilson acknowledged knowing Tedeschi, who cooperated with prosecutors, but declined to talk about the allegations, except to call Tedeschi, “a guinea piece of shit.”

Law enforcement sources said Wilson was introduced to Tedeschi by notorious swindler Irwin “The Fat Man” Schiff, a childhood buddy and Taft High School football teammate of Wilson’s. Schiff, also a Genovese associate, was murdered in 1987 on orders from the crime family’s leadership. Wilson has said that when investigators with the Manhattan district attorney’s office tried in 1988 to convince him to “flip” on Mangano, they said the Genovese underboss wanted him dead, and had been involved in Schiff’s murder.)

While Kalmanovitch and a partner, William Davidson, were hit with federal fraud charges, Wilson and Watenstein were never indicted. The case against the swindlers was brought in North Carolina, since many of the bogus checks were drawn on a North Carolina National Bank account. Twenty years earlier, Wilson maintained a checking account at that same Southern bank, according to Wilson’s 1970 bankruptcy filing. Only 31 years old at the time, he stuck his creditors for a whopping $1.4 million, the equivalent today of $5.6 million.

Questioned about Davidson, Wilson denied doing business with Kalmanovitch’s sidekick. Court records and other documents, though, reveal that Wilson claimed to have been involved with the crook in a $1.3 million diamond venture, for which Wilson said Davidson owed him $1 million. After securing a judgment against an agreeable Davidson, Wilson set out to collect the money he was supposedly owed.

Showing monumental chutzpah, Wilson — armed with the Davidson judgment — launched a legal battle in Monaco to seize funds from a bank account opened there by Davidson. The frozen account happened to be where Kalmanovitch and Davidson had deposited the proceeds from the counterfeit check scheme. It is unclear whether Wilson succeeded in latching on to any of these funds — money the FBI claimed he helped originally steal.

When he was asked about his array of contacts with the Russian mob, Wilson scoffed: “You really think the Russians are organized crime? Do you really believe that? It behooves me how anyone can think the Russians are organized.”

Wilson said that he met most of the men through work he performed for Bris Avrohom, an organization that helps settle newly arrived Russian Jews. “I met these Russians through my solicitation of donations [in Brighton Beach] for this charity. Some may have turned out bad, but the majority turned out to be very nice citizens,” he said.

During an interview, Wilson proudly displayed a journal from a 1986 dinner at the Hilton which honored him and his wife Sondra for their work with the New Jersey–based Lubavitch group. Wilson beamed as he pointed to form letters from Ronald Reagan and George Bush saluting Bris Avrohom and the couple.

Wilson broke with the group after the charity, he claimed, abandoned him during his stay at Allenwood: “We had 80 Jews out of 800 people up there. I think 79 had rabbis visit them. I’m the only one who didn’t have a rabbi.” Wilson was also upset that Bris Avrohom did not help him get a special furlough to Miami, where selected federal inmates were allowed to congregate for Passover services.

Though hardly religious, Wilson wrote on his prison furlough application, “I was a very ‘active’ Jew and have lost the feelings,” adding that he wanted to again “do the mitzvahs I once did.” He even claimed to be considering “aliya within 3 years,” the Hebrew term for immigration to Israel.

One former associate, whose general opinion of Wilson is harsh, said that he always respected the businessman’s “strong Jewish identity” and support for Israel. The ex-friend surmised that Wilson’s worldview has always been colored by the belief that “I am a little kid from the gutter from the Bronx. And I was beaten up because I was a Jewish kid, or taken advantage because I was a Jewish kid. Now we got our own state: Fuck you. Fuck the world.”

In fact, the single thread that runs through Wilson’s career — gangsters and scams notwithstanding — is his involvement with Jewish businesses and causes. In 1994, he plunked down $225,000 for a piece of Jewish-American history, buying a partial trademark for the name Grossinger’s. Wilson, who can license it for bread and chicken products only, said proudly that he now earns “two cents on every loaf” of Grossinger’s rye bread sold.

The businessman has even adopted an alias, he has claimed, to better identify him as Jewish. By using the name “Harvey Schwartz,” Wilson — who said he is often mistaken for being Italian — leaves no doubt about his heritage. To detractors who sense an improper motive, Wilson has answered, “It is done as a matter of pride, not for the purpose of concealment.”

Along with his Grossinger’s purchase, Wilson last year paid — again at a bankruptcy auction — $1.47 million for the assets of a chain of jewelry stores. It was at least the sixth time he has bought a firm out of bankruptcy, prompting one acquaintance to joke that Wilson “always was a closeout guy.”

Along with these ventures, Wilson dabbles in commercial finance, providing loans to anyone willing to pay steep interest rates. One recent borrower was art thief Richard Erman, who collateralized a $150,000 Wilson loan with Dans Le Parc, an oil painting by French artist James Tissot. The work — stolen by Erman and smuggled into the United States — had been scheduled to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in May 1993 for between $800,000 and $1.2 million, but the item was instead seized by U.S. Customs agents. Claiming that Erman — who is now jailed in France on tax charges — never repaid the loan, Wilson is now waging a court fight against the auction house and the French government for possession of the painting. Wilson has said that, at the time of the Erman loan, he was unaware the 19th-century work was hot.

One of Wilson’s bankruptcy “closeouts,” sources said, was the joint purchase of Tribeca’s Ecco and the Upper East Side restaurant Campagnola, which, according to the Daily News, is the favorite restaurant of former top cop William Bratton. In fact, last Friday — after his final day at police headquarters — Bratton hosted a dinner party at the First Avenue nightspot. But while the ex-commish helped lower crime rates citywide, he apparently was oblivious to the fraud playing out in front of his plate of penne à la vodka.

State Liquor Authority records list Wilson sidekick Laszlo Schwartz — who does not have two felony collars — as “president and sole own­er” of both Italian establishments. But Voice calls to both restaurants asking for Schwartz caused confusion. “Does he have a reserva­tion?” a hostess at Ecco asked one night. On an­other occasion, the response came back, “There’s no Mr. Schwartz here.” A call to Cam­pagnola elicited a simlilar response. ”Never heard the name,” a man answering the phone said. The idea that Schwartz, an Orthodox Jew, would own a nonkosher, trayf-filled establish­ment is unlikely, said one source familiar with Wilson’s 53-year-old sidekick.

The response was quite different when a caller asked for Wilson at the eateries. At Ecco, a helpful receptionist offered, ”I know Mr. Wil­son is a part owner.” In February, a Campag­nola employee said, “I don’t know if he’s com­ing in today,” adding that he did not know if Wilson — who travels frequently — was “in town.” On another night, a caller was told, ”You just missed him.”

Wilson seems to stop by Campagnola reg­ularly after work, something he effectively de­nied during a Voice interview. Referring to his low-key lifestyle, the Forest Hills resident said, “That’s why I go home every night. You’ll never see me in the city having dinner…”

Wilson’s Merchants T&F company also has an interest in Akbar, an Indian restaurant on Park Avenue near 57th Street. Merchants paid $180,000 in May 1994 for the eatery’s assets, which included the establishment’s valuable ground-floor lease.

Seated at his desk one afternoon, Wilson is talking about the joys of typing. He does not need a secretary (”I save $600 a week!”) be­cause he types every contract and licensing agree­ment his office produces, a chore he finds relax­ing. “That was my job at Allenwood. I was the head typist,” the ex-con said. Wilson then ticked off the fringe benefits: ”An air conditioned of­fice! With girls!”

To the left of his desk, where Wilson’s gaze often falls, is an up-to-the-minute account of his stock holdings. A Quotron clone, the computer screen across the room is far enough away so that an optically challenged reporter cannot decipher the flickering ticker symbols.

The best peek into Wilson’s market hold­ings comes from 1993–1994 records from a trading account he maintained at the Zurich of­fice of Prudential Bache. The documents record Sloan’s trades as well as a 25,000 share position in a New York firm then controlled by Wilson’s uncle. At times, other holdings included Getty Oil, Bethlehem Steel, and Wal Mart.

While the account balance fluctuated from month to month, it usually hovered near $1 mil­lion. However, the most recent statement ob­tained by the Voice, covering May 1994, reflect­ed a closing balance of $4.25 million, due to the purchase of $2.9 million in U.S. Treasury notes.

As with most matters involving Murray Wilson, the answer to the question, “Whose money is this?” remains, for now, obscured. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 26, 2019