Just when Ron Gonen, a soldier in New York's underground of Israeli organized crime, was ready to tell prosecutors everything, they made him stop. They didn't want every penny-ante crime -- just the murders, and the biggest drug deals. "Blood and volume," they called it.
Thus the title of the first book by Dave Copeland, a former Pittsburgh Tribune-Review staff writer who at the time he first spoke to Gonen was a Pittsburgh-based freelancer and grad student in creative-nonfiction writing. Copeland says the contact came online, through Craig's List, where Copeland was job-hunting and Gonen -- by then in the federal witness-protection program -- was seeking someone to tell his story.
Two years of research and writing followed, during which Copeland moved back to Boston, where he'd grown up, and earned his master's degree from Goucher College, in Baltimore. In fact, the manuscript for Blood & Volume: Inside New York's Israeli Mafia was his thesis. Now it's been published by Barricade Books. Copeland visits Pittsburgh for a pair of readings, on March 23-24.
In their first phone conversations, in 2004, Gonen's stories about life as a jewel and art thief in Europe, about prison breaks and coke deals and multi-million-dollar crime rings, sounded too wild to be true, says Copeland. But it all checked out: The underworld known as the Israeli mafia really did exist, if briefly, in 1980s New York, and Gonen had been coerced into joining.
Copeland had recently left the Trib, where in five years as a reporter he'd won awards for stories including a prescient 2000 series on the city's looming fiscal crisis. For Blood & Volume, his big research break came courtesy of a former Brooklyn assistant district attorney named Eric Seidel, who made available a huge file of wiretap transcripts and arrest records. The material provided invaluable details for Copeland, who crafted the true story of life inside the Israeli mafia with the literary style and pacing of a novel.
Blood & Volume has drawn good buzz: coverage in the New York Daily News, two Boston dailies and The Jerusalem Post, plus a long take on Public Radio International's "The World." Copeland, who still lives in Boston, says he's even fielded inquiries about movie rights.
But with the book barely in stores, there's already a postscript: Gonen's cooperation with Copeland got him expelled from the witness-protection program, in which he'd spent 18 years. Now Gonen is at risk of deportation to Israel -- even as several of his former mob cohorts have recently been murdered there, including his former best friend Ran Ephraim, who was gunned down in Tel Aviv, on Feb. 1.
Dave Copeland Blood & Volume book-release party, with reading and signing 7-9 p.m. Sat., March 23. moxie DaDA gallery, 1416 Arch St., North Side. Free. 412-682-0348Blood & Volume reading, discussion and book-signing. 7 p.m. Sat., March 24. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 2705 E. Carson St., South Side. Free. 412-381-3600