October 21, 2014
Raphael’s Son died alone in his car, sitting upright behind the wheel with his safety belt on and his throat slashed from right to left—a clean, some would say artful, cut of almost surgical precision. His body was discovered at 4:45 a.m. on Monday, June 24, 2013, by Neda Raiis, his wife of seventeen years who, according to her statement to the police, had found him cold and unresponsive in his gray, two-door Aston Martin with the personalized license plate—I WYNN—as it sat idling against the wrought-iron gates of their house on Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills. Nearly one hour before that, Neda had been awakened by the sound of what she imagined was a car accident—metal crashing against metal—on the street. She had spent the next fifty minutes drifting into and out of sleep. Then, finally, she had decided to investigate the source of the earlier disturbance, risen from bed, and walked the length of the yard to the front of the estate. The sound she had heard was that of the Aston Martin crashing head-on into the gate.
The driver’s window was lowered all the way. Through it, Neda could see a trail of blood that had spilled out of the wound in Raphael’s Son’s neck down along his chest and stomach, onto his short, portly thighs, and gathered in a pool on the Italian leather of the car seat. Raphael’s Son’s eyes were open and his mouth was slack, and he looked as gray and hollow as an inflatable toy animal with the air let out—like he had finally lost those extra thirty pounds he had carried so imperfectly for so long around the middle and that made everything he wore—those $2,800 Zegna suits from Saks Fifth Avenue and $700 jeans from Barney’s and, on Sundays at the Sports Club in West LA, those black Nike shirts that he had to buy in extralarge, so they fit around the waist but hung too low over his knees—appear as if it belonged to an older, much taller brother.
To find out if her husband was alive, Neda had reached through the window and shaken him gently by the left shoulder. When he didn’t move, she left him in the car and went back into the house to call the police.
* * *
This, at any rate, was the story that circulated within the Iranian Jewish community of the United States in the first two or three hours following the alleged discovery of the body. By nine o’clock Monday morning, word had spread to Canada and Israel. By noon, the closed-circuit, Persian-language satellite radio stations broadcasting from LA to Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East were receiving calls from Tehran asking to confirm the rumor.
Raphael’s Son was not the first Iranian Jew to be murdered in America, but he was by far the most high profile, hated, and, according to his enemies, deserving of a painful and untimely death. So the story, which would have been sensational in any case, circulated with even greater speed and urgency, the details becoming more bloody and brutal with each telling until the single wound at the throat had morphed into multiple stabbings, then a beheading, then a complete dismemberment. Accounts varied as to the immediate motive for the killing and whether he had been robbed of his wallet, the five-karat diamond pinkie ring he wore instead of a wedding band, and the $30,000 gold Rolex Daytona he had bought a few years earlier at the Aramaic brothers’ jewelry store on Pico and Sepulveda. The watch, Raphael’s Son had announced to the Aramaic brothers, would serve as a memento of his incontrovertible triumph in the fifty-two-year, scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners, only-one-of-us-is-walking-out-of-here-alive, legal and psychological battle he had waged against his wife’s family, the Soleymans of Tehran who, he was proud to claim, had suffered endlessly at his hand.
Meanwhile, a continual string of celebrity murder trials and incessant reruns of CSI on cable having turned the entire population of LA’s West Side into prosecuting attorneys and forensic crime–solvers at once, every bit of information that seeped into the ether was analyzed and employed to draw conclusions about the killer’s identity, motive, and modus operandi.
* * *
It wouldn’t take a detective, of course, to figure out that Raphael’s Son could have been murdered by any number of bitter enemies he had toiled so restlessly during his entire adult life to create—from former “enemies of the revolution” in Iran that he had handed over to the ayatollahs only so he could secure their release in exchange for a “service fee,” to every business partner he had defrauded then sued for fraud, to the thousands of Iranian Jews and a few American ones he had most recently swindled out of half a billion dollars. And those were just his adversaries; his allies were even more likely to want him dead.
For years, Raphael’s Son had run what proved, during the great financial meltdown of 2008, to have been an especially smart variation on a Ponzi scheme that targeted mostly Iranian Jews. Because of him, entire families had slipped into poverty or suffered irreversible financial setbacks. When pressed about how he had managed to “lose” all the investors’ money, he blamed the worldwide economic meltdown and reminded people that, with Greece and Iceland also bankrupt, he was, indeed, in good company. When asked if he felt he should be held accountable for any of the pain that had been caused, he sighed and said he wished he were held accountable—just as accountable as Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, and all those Wall Street CEOs who either got reappointed to their cabinet posts or received huge bonuses for presiding over a global financial fiasco.
Like those CEOs, Raphael’s Son had emerged from the collapse of the Ponzi game richer and more self-righteous then ever. Five years after he was officially broke, he still lived in a $52 million house—2.6 acres in one of the city’s most vaunted neighborhoods, just across Sunset Boulevard from the Playboy Mansion with its peacocks and swans and naked twins running loose, a stone’s throw from Aaron and Candy Spelling’s fifty-six-thousand-square-foot, $150 million pad with the leaky roof (recently sold to a twenty-two-year-old Russian “heiress” for half that amount), down the street from the forty-five-thousand-square-foot, $125 million “Little Versailles” of that nice Jewish couple who spent five years building the house and divorced the minute it was completed.
Raphael’s Son’s house had eight bedrooms, a six-thousand-square-foot guesthouse, an outdoor basketball court, indoor bowling alley, outdoor tennis court, indoor lap pool, outdoor pool and cabana, three kitchens (one, the size of the Taj Mahal, where no cooking was done; a smaller, restaurant-caliber, for household use; and a third, catering-style kitchen for large parties), three regular bars, a dry bar, two dining rooms, a thousand-square-foot breakfast “nook,” plus the obligatory library, dome-roofed greenhouse, and thirty-two-seat projection room.
Substantial as that may seem to any reasonable person, Raphael’s Son had the gall to deem the house a “disappointment.” It was big, yes, by most people’s standards, but in Los Angeles, it was not what one would call jaw-dropping—not when Little Versailles boasted a three-and-a-half-mile jogging track, the Spelling house came with a stable of thoroughbred horses, and the Playboy Mansion had Hugh Hefner and a few sets of twin bunnies.
Raphael’s Son had said this to the Aramaic brothers the day he went to buy the Rolex. Hoping to remind him that he was too rich to ask for a discount, they had inquired, ever so discreetly, if he enjoyed living in Holmby Hills.
“Oh yeah!” Raphael’s Son had responded ironically. “We have no cell phone reception because AT&T is a rip-off, and the lights go out every time there’s wind or rain because the power lines are old and decrepit, and our neighbors are all useless derelicts.”
The people at the Playboy Mansion threw parties seven nights a week. They blasted the music loud enough to create an earthquake, let their guests park their cars in the middle of the street, and didn’t bother to answer the phone or open the door whenever Raphael’s Son went over to complain. And you’re naive if you think the police were any help; they actually looked forward to being called to Hefner’s door. They got to stand around in the foyer and watch the naked bunnies, throw back a couple of apple martinis, and leave with a nice tip from one of the mansion’s many good-looking gay gatekeepers.
The old woman next door, heir to some cigarette fortune, had built a lake in the middle of her lawn, and she insisted on filling it right up to its sandy banks, never mind the rest of the city was facing a water shortage. Her daughter, married twenty years and a mother of three, lived with her and made a point of sleeping with every plumber, handyman, and eighteen-year-old delivery boy who showed up with a pizza. Across the street an Indian pharmaceutical mogul kept building the same ugly mustard-yellow house with 1,700 little windows, tearing it down just as it was nearly complete, and starting over; and a Russian mobster who, after attending one too many Landmark Forum seminars, confessed to his wife that he had cheated on her exactly 1,112 times. A few weeks later, his body was found, sliced in half, on a beach in Cancún.
Raphael’s Son had sued the cigarette lady for using too much water, Hugh Hefner for creating a noise disturbance, and AT&T for providing generally awful service, and he planned to sue the Department of Water and Power as well, for its crumbling infrastructure and high rates.
“I feel like I’m living in a third-world country,” he told the Aramaic brothers. “One person hordes all the water, the cops are on the take, and I have to buy my own generator or sit in the dark at night.”
* * *
None of this helped explain why Raphael’s Son had been able to maintain ownership of the house and God only knows what else, while some of his former “investors,” having lost their life savings, were reduced to living in their cars or neighbors’ garages. What seemed evident was that, in the ten years leading up to the bankruptcy, he had slowly ferreted half a billion dollars into the savings accounts of a ragtag army of his maternal cousins, their spouses, and their children. Forever impecunious until they fell into Raphael’s Son’s orbit, the gang known as the Riffraff Brigade had lived in near poverty in various provinces in Iran, then in cinder-block homes in Israel’s “occupied territories,” and finally in three-hundred-square-foot apartments in North Hills and Agoura in Los Angeles. Then all at once, starting in 2003, they began to buy ten-thousand-square-foot houses in Brentwood and Beverly Hills. Their wives’ miniscule diamonds suddenly grew to ten carats, their children enrolled in expensive Jewish day schools, and if you asked them where all this came from, they said with a straight face that it was “old money” from Iran because, didn’t you know, their fathers were all millionaires? That they owned land and horses and enough jewels and antiques to fill a museum?
The creditors believed the Riffraff were helping Raphael’s Son hide the stolen money—that they would hold on to it for a few years, then quietly return it piecemeal, minus their own commission, in creative configurations. It was easy, transparent, and, much to everyone’s amazement, extremely effective. The “investors” who had lost everything could hardly afford a lawsuit against Raphael’s Son or his cousins; the ones who had been robbed of a few million but had more to spare had all been promised, in secret, that they would get their money back if they didn’t go to the authorities or sue. The district attorney, who believed that all “Eye-ray-nians” were rich and entitled, had no interest in pursuing a criminal case in which some of them had stolen from the rest. The bankruptcy trustee was having a blast billing for time—four years, so far—he spent “looking into” the case, and the news media had their hands full covering celebrities who got drunk and crashed their cars, or killed their wives or themselves.
Raphael’s Son’s only punishment for the damage he had wrought was to become a pariah everywhere on the West Side, but that wasn’t as big a deal as it might seem because he had never been held in very high regard anyway. He was called “The Bandit of Holmby Hills” and “The Thief Who Came for Dinner” in a blog post or two, which he doubted that anyone of consequence actually read. His wife and daughters hated him, but that was neither new nor relevant. His Riffraff cousins prayed daily for his demise so they could keep all the money they held in trust for him, but they were too terrified of him to withhold so much as a dollar when the time came.
In the end, it was safe to say the only person who might have harbored any affection for Raphael’s Son was his mother, but she was dead and buried in Israel—and besides, she had been no Queen of Congeniality herself. He did not relish being universally despised, but he did enjoy having all that money—tax-free—in his offshore accounts. More than that, he reveled in the harm he had inflicted upon everyone else, the fact that he had gotten away with it so easily, and the certainty that, once the dust had settled and his creditors had tired of crying over their lost money, memories would fade and his commercial credibility would be restored merely by virtue of his hundreds of millions. He was already making backroom deals and buying up foreclosed properties using the Riffraff as a front, paying all cash and hiding the assets in unregistered corporations and having a grand time of it all—let the creditors eat stale bread, there’s money to be made in a recession—when he encountered, in 2011, a glitch in his plan.
Two of Raphael’s Son’s “investors” managed to convince the DA that he could make a strong case for wire fraud and money laundering. The amount involved was small—$30 million—but the investors were American, which meant they had asked Raphael’s Son for more than a handshake to verify and track their deposits. Thus nudged out of complacency, the DA pressed charges, and almost simultaneously offered a plea: if convicted, Raphael’s Son could get up to twenty years in a federal prison, and have to return the money; if he agreed to settle, he would do six years and return the money.
Raphael’s Son’s attorneys urged him to accept the deal; he fired them summarily for being cowardly and incompetent, then hired a cheaper set. He told them that if the heads of Goldman Sachs and Bank of America were sleeping in their own beds, his case should be a cakewalk. He told his second team of attorneys that he would never be convicted by a court because he was an observant Jew who served on many boards. Then he fired them too and hired a third team.
A trial date was set for Monday, July 8, 2013. As the pressure intensified and the lawyers swore to him that he was no Lloyd Blankfein and that even he—Blankfein—wouldn’t escape conviction and imprisonment if the government wanted it, Raphael’s Son began to contemplate parting with some of other people’s hard-earned money. He instructed his lawyers to go back to the DA with a plea deal that involved his returning the money but not serving time. He said he would have to “borrow” the money from his cousins, the Riffraff. A meeting was set at the DA’s office for Monday, June 24, at ten a.m. He died approximately five hours before that.
* * *
His enemies barely had time to process this information when, at 12:15 p.m. the day of the murder, they were struck by a second, much more disturbing, news bulletin.
In response to Neda’s call to 911, the ambulance had arrived quickly. It was greeted at the top of Mapleton by a hysterical Latina in a floor-length silk robe with lace trimmings, a pair of gold slippers with three-inch heels, and half a dozen rings in each ear. In between hacking sobs and mutterings of “Oh Mister, poor Mister,” she introduced herself as Esperanza Guadalupe di Chiara Valencia, “the children’s governess,” and led the paramedics to the scene.
Neda Raiis, 5’1″, small-boned, and meek as a canned sardine, was shivering quietly in a bloody bathrobe as she stood next to the car. A pair of teenage girls—Neda and Raphael’s Son’s daughters—stood barefoot and barely dressed next to the pedestrian gate. The Aston Martin was in park, the engine still running.
The paramedics saw a great deal of blood on the driver’s seat and on the floor mat beneath the steering wheel. They saw Raphael’s Son’s jacket draped carefully on the passenger seat. They did not see a Rolex or a pinkie ring but that was hardly an issue because what they also did not see—dead or alive, injured or whole—was Raphael’s Son.
He had been there, Neda explained to them plainly from between chattering teeth. He had been in the car and his throat was cut, it was definitely him and he was definitely dead when she left him and went into the house to call the cops. When she came back, he was gone.
GINA B. NAHAI is a best-selling author, columnist, and full-time lecturer at USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program. She is the author of four previous novels: Cry of the Peacock (1991), Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith (1999), Sunday’s Silence (2001), and Caspian Rain (2007). Her novels have been translated into eighteen languages, and have been selected as “Best Books of the Year” by the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has also been a finalist for the Orange Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize, and has won the Los Angeles Arts Council Award, the Persian Heritage Foundation’s Award, the Simon Rockower Award, and the Phi Kappa Phi Award. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles magazine, Publishers Weekly, and the Huffington Post, among others. She writes a monthly column for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, and is a three-time finalist for an LA Press Club Award. Nahai holds a BA and a Master’s degree in International Relations from UCLA, and a Master of Professional Writing from USC. She’s a former consultant for the Rand Corporation, and a frequent lecturer on the politics of pre- and post-revolutionary Iran.
Excerpted from The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. by Gina B. Nahai, by permission of Akashic Books. © 2014 by Gina B. Nahai.