American Greed

Rabbis, rappers and cold-blooded killers: Unusual extortion cases


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "extortion" as "the crime of getting money from someone by the use of force or threats." This is a fairly broad definition, but it suits a crime that can take on any dimension and occur at any level of society.

Many people think of extortion as the sole province of oily, creepy men with damning video footage, but that stereotype is too narrow to fully encompass this crime. The schoolyard bully threatening a classmate for lunch money is practicing extortion just as surely as the international terrorist threatening a city with a dirty bomb.

The proportions may be different, but the principle remains the same—give me your money, or else. Read ahead about a few cases of extortion that may make you rethink your assumptions.

Michael Lawrence Tyler aka Mystikal performs at the 2011 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on May 7, 2011 in New Orleans.
Erika Goldring | WireImage | Getty Images

Grammys, extortion and videotape

Michael Tyler is a Grammy-nominated rapper who performs under the name Mystikal. He was associated with such acts as Lil Wayne and Master P, and his career peaked commercially with the chart-topping 2000 album "Let's Get Ready," featuring the timeless classic "Shake Ya A--."

What a difference four years makes. In January 2004, he was led out of a Louisiana courtroom in handcuffs, having pleaded guilty to sexual battery and extortion.

According to The Associated Press, he was sentenced to six years in prison for forcing his hairstylist to perform oral sex on him and two of his bodyguards, after accusing her of stealing $80,000 from him, which she denied. However, the men had filmed the assault, and when Judge Tony Marabella saw the videotape, he concluded that she had been "terrorized" by the three men.

"The court is convinced that the defendant believes he is above the law and can take the law into his own hands," Marabella said, according to the AP. The bodyguards, Leland Ellis and Vercy Carter, also pleaded guilty to sexual battery. Tyler served his entire six-year sentence and was released from prison in 2010, according to AP.

Make me rich or die / Kids for cash

The high-powered holy man

Milton Balkany was an orthodox rabbi known as "The Brooklyn Bundler." According to the Los Angeles Times, he was a major donor to George H.W. Bush's 1989 presidential bid and gave the invocation at annual dinners honoring then-President Ronald Reagan.

"He was a power player," New York Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf told the Jewish Daily Forward. "He had access to City Hall; he had a lot of friends." But that clout vanished when he was found guilty of attempting to extort $4 million from the SAC Capital Advisors hedge fund.

Read MoreHow criminals make dirty money clean

He had been offering religious counseling to an inmate at the Otisville federal prison in Orange County, New York, and according to The New York Times, the inmate revealed that several employees at SAC were engaged in insider trading. Balkany told the firm that he would stay quiet about this revelation, and advise the inmate to do the same, for a nominal fee of $4 million.

The hedge fund gave the rabbi the money, but when he deposited it he was arrested within hours—SAC Capital had been working with authorities all along. On Nov. 10, 2010, he was found guilty of extortion, blackmail, wire fraud and making false statements, and sentenced to four years in prison the following February.

John "Sonny" Franzese is booked at the Elizabeth St. police station in New York, March 24, 1966, after his arrest on a 43-count gambling indictment.
Anthony Camerano | AP

The 93-year-old wiseguy

If you saw John "Sonny" Franzese walking down the street, you probably wouldn't guess that this frail man in his 90s had ever committed a crime. But not only was he the hardened underboss of the Colombo crime family, he had a criminal record stretching back to 1938.

According to The Associated Press, Franzese did time in prison after a 1967 bank robbery conviction. He wasn't convicted of another crime until 2011, when he was sentenced to eight years for the extortion of several Manhattan strip clubs and a Long Island pizzeria.

Read More The tricks of the 21st century fraudster

He would be 101 years old if he serves the full sentence, so it is very possible that he'll die in prison. But those who pity him should be aware that according to FBI testimony given at his trial, he boasted of killing dozens of people, and according to the AP, he was caught on tape saying that the best way to dispose of a corpse is to dismember it in a kiddie wading pool, microwave the body parts and put those down the garbage disposal.

"Today, you can't have a body no more," he said in a quote attributed to him in court documents. "It's better to take that half an hour, an hour, to get rid of the body than it is just to leave the body in the street."

Morris Levy, circa 1970
Michael Ochs Archives | Getty Images

Hit singles and violent shakedowns

Morris Levy was the owner of Roulette Records, a label founded in 1956 that boasted such artists as Count Basie and Dinah Washington. According to Tommy James of "I Think We're Alone Now" fame, the label was also a front organization for the Genovese crime family .

Read MoreBecoming a victim is a click away

In 1984, the FBI began an investigation of Levy after the music mogul was involved in the extortion of John LaMonte. A record wholesaler, LaMonte had agreed to buy $1.25 million worth of LPs from Levy, but refused to pay when the delivery came without any of the bestselling titles. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the government alleged that LaMonte was assaulted by two men, who fractured his eye socket.

Levy was arrested for his involvement in the crime in 1986 at the Boston Ritz Carlton at 7:30 in the morning in front of TV news cameras, according to the Los Angeles Times. On May 25, 1988, he was convicted of two counts of conspiracy to commit extortion and later sentenced to 10 years in prison. However, Levy never spent a minute in a correctional facility—he died of cancer on May 20, 1990, two months before the sentence was scheduled to begin.

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