The Nahmanis—Ronen, Szilvia and their five children—were your typical frum Israeli family living in Miami. They went to shul every Shabbos, their kids attended the local Jewish day schools, and Ronen worked while Szilvia raised the children full time. Then, five years ago, Ronen was charged with intent to distribute controlled substances. As Ronen would later find out, the accusation came from a friend who wanted to get off the hook for a crime he had committed, baiting the courts with Ronen, who the friend said had access to an even bigger catch. Ronen was indicted in the hope that he would take a plea deal and provide information about a huge distributor in Orlando. However, knowing that he was innocent, Ronen chose to go to trial—and was given a disproportionate 20-year sentence, which the prosecutors told his lawyers was because Ronen had angered the courts by not cooperating. As a result of bad friends, risky choices and some funny business by those charged with upholding the law, Ronen was sent to prison. After a widespread effort to garner political support, President Trump signed Ronen’s pardon in July 2019 and he was released. This is the Nahmani family’s story.
The second I saw the blinking lights in our rearview mirror my stomach sank. I couldn’t afford to get pulled over. It was late and we still had hours of driving until we got to Miami, where my wife, Szilvia, was waiting up for me.
“Hopefully this won’t take long,” I told my friend Barry* as I pulled the car over to the shoulder.
My company, Vintage Electronic Cigarettes, sold electronic lighters, and I had recently invested in a new product with a partner in Sarasota. When the product didn’t deliver as I hoped it would, I decided to pull my investment. I knew it would be a three- or four-hour drive to pick up the cash from my partner, so I asked Barry to come along for the ride and keep me company. Barry and I had known each other for years. We were members of the same synagogue, his family often joined us for Shabbat meals, and sometimes he even came with me to pick up our kids from school. I knew he was usually up for anything. Everything was fine until we got pulled over.
As the cop came closer, I rolled down my window and handed over my license and registration. After a good few minutes, I wondered why it was taking him so long to hand me back my paperwork.
“Where y’all coming from?” the officer asked. I told him that Barry and I were on our way back to Miami from a business meeting in Sarasota.
“We need you to get out of the car,” he then said. Suddenly, there were several police cars converging on the scene and dozens of police officers approaching our car. Where had they all come from? What was going on?
“Mr. Nahmani, we have a warrant to search your vehicle.”
I was stunned. I vaguely heard an officer ask if I had anything illegal in the car, while another one brought over a dog to sniff the interior. I was then asked if I had any money on me—which I did, $22,000 in cash that I had just picked up from my business partner. I showed them the Bank of America pouch, along with the receipts to prove that everything was legit.
Then the Drug Enforcement Administration showed up. It seemed like this was going to take longer than I expected. “Can I call my wife?” I asked. Szilvia was probably worried.
“Sure,” they said. “Just don’t let her know that the DEA is here.”
I rummaged around the car for my phone and dialed her number.
I glanced at the clock on the oven one more time: 11 p.m. Ronen should have been home by now. The kids had gone to sleep without saying goodnight to him, and the dinner I had prepared was long cold.
“Where are you?” I texted him. The string of messages I’d sent—all unanswered—asked the same thing. “Is everything okay?” I kept calling his phone, but it rang and rang and rang. No answer.
Finally at about 11:15 my phone rang. It was Ronen, calling me back.
“Ronen!” I yelled before he had a chance to speak. “Where are you? Are you all right?”
His voice sounded distant. “Don’t get nervous,” he said, “but we got pulled over and they’re taking us in for questioning.”
“What do you mean questioning? Why?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he reassured me. “I’ll be home soon.”
I hung up confused, but relieved that my fear that Ronen had been in a serious accident was only my imagination running wild. At least he was safe and sound, not lying battered and broken in a ditch on the side of the road. Baruch Hashem, it was only a small misunderstanding with the cops that would surely be sorted our soon. Little did I know…
Because my nerves were already taught, the pounding on the door made me jump. Who could it be at this hour? When I peeked through the slightly opened door, the officers outside greeted me with stony faces. The outlines of their weapons were visible in the moonlight. They said that they were from the DEA, but I had no idea what that stood for. “Open up!” one of them shouted. Before I could oblige, they pushed the door open and started barraging me with questions.
“What does your husband do? What kind of business is he in?”
“Where in the house does he store his goods?”
Without waiting for an answer they spread through my house, rummaging through whatever was in sight. I stood there in my robe, pleading with them to not go up the stairs. “My five children are sleeping,” I explained. “Please don’t wake them up!” I could imagine how frightened they would be if they woke up and saw men with guns standing over their beds. Even I, an adult who was wide awake when they arrived, was terrified. The officers were frustrated. They wanted to go upstairs, but they had no permit and I had just told them not to. If I didn’t give them permission they couldn’t do it.
“We’ll be back,” they warned me before walking back into the night.
At six foot eight and 350 pounds, I was taller than all the officers and twice their size, but when they surround you with guns and tell you and your friend to follow them into separate cars, size doesn’t matter anymore. You do whatever you’re told.
The driver of the patrol car chatted with me as we drove to the police station. When I mentioned that I was from Israel, she said that she had family there. I realized that they were Palestinians when she didn’t say that she was Jewish. That didn’t make me any more comfortable.
The police station was dark when we pulled up just before midnight. They opened a few lights, but most of the building was shadowed in darkness. Within seconds of pushing me into a chair, the questioning began.
“Why did you have so much money on you?”
“What does your company do?”
“With whom do you do business?”
“Will we find anything illegal in your storage unit?”
No, no and no, I repeated again and again. My company had recently expanded to selling chemicals. It was possible to use one chemical to create synthetic marijuana, but I didn’t get involved in what my clients did with it, so my involvement was legal. One hundred percent legal.
“We want you to work with us,” one officer finally told me. I was confused. Work with them how? Why?
Before I could ask more questions, one of the officers interrupted the interrogation. “Wait,” he said. “I forgot your Miranda warning.” He then raced through a list of my rights. You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to a lawyer. At the end he also mentioned that since they hadn’t actually arrested me, I had the right to leave at any time.
“Are you kidding me?” I stood up right away. “I want to go home!” What a relief! As soon as they saw that I wouldn’t be cooperating they weren’t as friendly, and everything they did, even opening the door, was done in anger. But they had no choice; they had to let me go. Little did I know that it was only the beginning of a very long saga.
I was about to be charged with conspiring to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances and controlled substance analogues. The substances I was distributing were legal at the time, [that is, they were not on the federal schedule of controlled substances and were merely analogues of listed controlled substances] but because of collusion between the prosecution and the court, I was facing 20 years in prison. The only out they gave me was a risky plea deal: If I offered information on an even bigger distributor in Orlando, they might give me a shorter prison sentence.
Until Ronen was pulled over that fateful night we were your average, quiet family. We were active in our community shul and our kids went to a local day school. We had the everyday challenges of everyday people, struggling to pay our bills, but happy with our simple life. Now, Ronen was facing a possible indictment. If he didn’t take the plea deal he was being offered, the statutory maximum was 20 years.
For the sake of our children, we pretended that nothing had changed. They woke up to a smiling Mommy and Abba who helped them get dressed, eat breakfast and head out for the day. I would hand them their backpacks, settle them in the car and drive them to school. There was no need for them to know that after dropping them off, Ronen and I spent the day meeting with lawyers and DEA officials. At night, after dinner and bedtime stories, we were back at the dining room table, doing research on our laptops or on conference calls with lawyers and anyone who could possibly help us. Our kids had no idea what was going on. There was no need for them to understand—especially since we believed that it would soon be over and life would return to normal. After all, Ronen hadn’t done anything illegal.
The next six months were horrible. Ronen was totally stressed out, worrying about how to defend himself and trying to comply with everything the government wanted of him. We hired a lawyer, only to realize after a while that he was unable to help us. He referred us to someone who was even worse. We didn’t realize how serious the situation was, and that the run-of-the-mill lawyers just weren’t up to the task. And even the second-tier lawyers were too expensive for us to be able to afford. It was humiliating to beg for help, and stressful to know how many loans were weighing on our heads.
One day, Ronen walked through the door, and when I looked at him I could see the toll it was taking. My big, strong husband looked shrunken in more ways than one. Ronen was starting to wither away. How long could we go on like this?
When Szilvia and I met with our first lawyer, he laid out the terms: either give the DEA the information on the bigger Orlando distributor—to whom I had honestly never spoken a word—or take my chances in court. The lawyer was certain that my best option was the former. All the DEA wanted was for me to “cooperate,” although we had no idea what that meant. The confidential informant had apparently built a big case against me, and it wasn’t looking good. “If you go to trial you have a 98% chance of losing,” he warned.
“But I’m 100% innocent,” I told him. All of my business dealings were legal, and there was no way I was pleading guilty to something I hadn’t done. Nothing made sense. We knew that they were coming down hard because they wanted me to snitch on someone, but I had no connection to the underworld and no information to give them. Why were they coming after me?
Besides, my lawyer had discovered something unusual when he was reviewing the DA’s offer. In the fine print there was a line saying that they could use anything I said against me to bring new charges. Even agreeing to the plea deal wouldn’t keep me out of prison.
We were going to trial.
“This is America,” I reminded Szilvia whenever she doubted our choice. “A judge will see the truth.” We never imagined that the judge would hand me a sentence more harsh than was meted out to murderers.
Ever since I had left Israel a week after my bar mitzvah, the United States had been my home. I considered myself American first. As I must have said a million times in the days leading up to my trial, I believed in America and in the impartiality of American law.
Or at least I used to.
From the very beginning, the DEA shared that a major foundation of the case was firsthand testimony from a confidential source. The informant’s identity was protected and we had no idea who it could be, although we wondered for months.
Ronen and I were meeting with the defense attorney one day when every notion of friendship and trust we’d ever had came crashing down. The lawyer was going through testimony from the DEA’s office, and mentioned that the informant was in the car with Ronen when he was pulled over. Not realizing what that meant to us, the lawyer kept reading. But I couldn’t hear anything he said. My head felt heavy and when I looked over at Ronen, his face had lost all color.
Ronen’s good friend Barry was in the car with him that night, the same person who had been a guest in our home and had shared in all our simchahs. We were deeply hurt that our friend could do that to us. The pain of his betrayal was devastating.
We learned that on the way back from Sarasota, Barry had been texting the DEA with updates. When Ronen was taken into custody, Barry had played along so that his secret would remain safe. Even afterwards he had continued coming to our house and joined our conversations about the mess that he himself had started.
I remembered something that our cleaning help had said when Barry was over a few weeks before. In her broken English, she’d told me that something was off about him, and she warned us to stay away. But apparently it was too late.
Barry? He was my friend! His family had just been over for Shabbat. We chatted in shul every week, both before and after I was pulled over. He hung out with my kids. We’d just gone to Starbucks!
When my head finally stopped spinning, everything started to make sense. If Barry was the informant, a lot of the fuzzy details could now be clarified. When my distribution business first started taking off, Barry and I were talking one day when I told him I’d heard of someone in Orlando who was doing $4 million in business a week working with the same substances. They were completely legal, but because they could also be used to make synthetic marijuana and he was running such a large cash business, he probably knew that he was working on the edge. I didn’t know him at all, but that conversation was enough for Barry to use against me.
As we learned, Barry had been involved in some shady business. When he was arrested, he offered to make a deal with the prosecutors. He had a friend—me—who knew a big distributor in Orlando. If the courts could find a reason to arrest me, they could offer me a plea deal that would involve tattling on the Orlando guy, who was much more valuable to the DEA.
My friend had made up stories out of whole cloth just so he could walk away. We also later learned that Barry got 20% of whatever the courts confiscated. In my case, the DEA had seized my entire warehouse filled with $120,000 of electronic lighters. In addition to sending me to prison, Barry received $24,000 of my money. He and I haven’t spoken since the day I found out. I would never be able to talk to someone like him.
We had known each other for six years. He had watched me struggle with our bills and finally make enough money to live comfortably. Then, with the flick of a finger, he knocked me over and walked all over our family.
* * *