Maurice Clarett was bankrolled by an alleged member of an Israeli crime organization after leaving Ohio State, ESPN has learned, and Clarett's attorney said Thursday that his client may have been in possession of firearms last week to protect himself against mob activity.
Clarett's attorney, Nick Mango, said Thursday that Clarett has repeatedly received death threats over the past year but that a cryptic postcard sent from Los Angeles last week has him wondering about Clarett's ties to an alleged mob enforcer.
In the late summer of 2004, ESPN has learned, Clarett traveled to Los Angeles and was introduced by a rapper friend to Hai Waknine, 35, a convicted felon who federal prosecutors believe is a member of an Israeli crime organization called The Jerusalem Group. Waknine, who at the time was facing a federal indictment on extortion and money-laundering charges, became Clarett's sponsor and adviser, along with Waknine's attorney, David Kenner. Waknine provided Clarett with cash, a BMW, bodyguards, drivers and beachfront lodging in Malibu, Calif., with the understanding that he would be reimbursed and receive 60 percent of Clarett's rookie contract.
But when Clarett was released by the Denver Broncos in August 2005, he was unable to pay Waknine back, and ESPN has learned that Waknine eventually cut off Clarett financially. Clarett moved back to his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, that fall.
After Clarett was arrested last week, allegedly wearing a bulletproof vest and possessing four guns and a hatchet, Clarett's attorneys say they received an anonymous phone call alerting them to Clarett's ties to Waknine. They grew more suspicious when they received the threatening postcard this week.
Mango said he is concerned that postcard, sent to his law office in Columbus, Ohio, may have come from Waknine.
"That's our question, whether it's from him or people associated with that scene out there," Mango told ESPN. "Again, it came from Los Angeles, and we don't know what to make of that. We're going to turn this over to someone in law enforcement and see what they think [of the postcard]. We've always felt he had some reasons to fear for his safety, and we don't think any of his actions the night he was arrested -- despite the way it's been spun -- were that he was a threat to anyone else but more of him being in fear for his safety for quite some time."
Mango also said he believes Clarett's debt may have something to do with the threats.
"I believe he owes [Waknine] money, and I think [Waknine] is probably not the only one [he owes]," Mango said. "Whether it's someone all the way on that coast or more on this side of the country; it's no one that I'd want to owe money to. A call came to our office [about Waknine], kind of giving us a rumored story. It's been kind of tossed around by us, and quite frankly, Youngstown has quite a reputation -- if you don't know it already -- for the Italian side of that ball game. And everyone here thought, 'Well, you wonder with money changing hands ' Having heard the things we've heard, this is a little more concerning."
Waknine's current relationship with Clarett is not clear, although two hours before Clarett's arrest, the running back called an ESPN reporter and mentioned, in passing, that he and Waknine were still friends. However, ESPN has learned that the FBI contacted Clarett about his relationship with Waknine before the 2005 draft, and it is unknown whether Clarett cooperated.
Waknine went on trial on June 5, and he pleaded guilty a week later to a single racketeering charge, admitting that he threatened violence to extort money from several individuals. Waknine, who was unavailable for comment Thursday, is expected to receive a nine-year prison term at his sentencing Sept. 11. His attorney, Kenner -- the former lawyer for Death Row Records and its founder, Marion "Suge" Knight -- did not return phone messages left at his office and cell phone.
It's no secret, however, that Waknine provided Clarett with a life of luxury from August 2004 to August 2005.
"When I worked with Maurice, he had Hai and a very high-profile lawyer (Kenner)," strength coach Charles Poliquin said earlier this year, after having trained Clarett in November and December 2004 in Phoenix. "There are not a lot of guys that want to play pro football who have a team of lawyers and money men backing them up, and, for sure, they had his best interests at heart. But he was living too nice a life. Too nice. He was living in Malibu. Right on the beach. I've been to the house. [Waknine] owned like 10 cars and said, 'Pick whatever car you want.'"
Clarett even took part in Waknine's elaborate Sabbath dinners. On one particular Friday afternoon in 2004, Clarett met with officials from the East-West Shrine game and said he would only partake in their all-star game if he could see who else was playing. When an official said he couldn't discuss the roster, Clarett stood up and said, "I've got to go, it's Shabbos."
But money eventually became an issue, especially for all of Clarett's three personal trainers. None of them -- Poliquin, Chad Ikei and Todd Durkin -- said he was ever paid for his services, and when one contacted a member of Clarett's inner circle to be reimbursed, he was told, "You'll get paid when I get paid."
Mango said he has neither the time nor the resources to investigate Waknine, but he found the threatening postcard puzzling.
"It came on a small index card like you use in school or whatever, and whatever language that was on it was actually cut and pasted in the old-fashioned sense, like typed and then cut out and pasted onto it," he said. "And then, obviously, the identity of the sender has been pretty well kept they took steps to keep that
"I think anything you get where the sender has taken very obvious and extreme and multiple steps to keep their identity sealed, that concerns me. Maurice has gotten other letters and, quite frankly, so have we. People write notes and might use the N-words, but it's in their handwriting some. Some sign it, even an address. In this case, none of that. There's no way to trace this one."