Amos Dov Silver, the founder of the mass cannabis distribution network known as Telegrass, escaped from law enforcement in Ukraine overnight Thursday ahead of his extradition to Israel, the Israel Police said Friday morning.
Silver escaped hours after the Ukrainian supreme court approved Israel’s request to extradite him back for trial where he faces charges of running a criminal operation.
According to reports, Silver escaped Ukrainian police officers moments before boarding a plane to Tel Aviv. Channel 12 said Silver bolted as soon as officers removed his electronic monitoring device so he could go through the metal detector.
He was last seen making his way through the Duty Free at the Kiev airport.
Ukrainian security forces were scouring the airport for Silver using a photograph of him taken moments before he vanished. Local police officials were quoted as saying they believed that Silver would be apprehended soon.
The Haaretz daily reported that Israel intended to send a law enforcement official to accompany Silver on the journey to Israel, but failed to send one in time for his Friday morning flight.
Israeli police said they were in contact with their Ukrainian counterparts and following the efforts to apprehend him.
In April, prosecutors filed indictments against 27 people suspected of involvement in Telegrass. Police effectively shut down the virtual marijuana marketplace, which operated on the Telegram messaging application, with the arrest of 42 suspected members in Israel, the United States, Ukraine and Germany, including founder Amos Dov Silver.
The suspects were charged with various crimes including drug trafficking, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, possession of drugs other than for personal consumption, obstruction of justice, money laundering and tax evasion.
According to the indictment, the network’s managers worked to hide their revenues through use of digital currencies such as Bitcoin.
While the drug most prominently sold on Telegrass was marijuana, the indictment stated that other, more serious drugs including LSD and MDMA were also marketed.
The State Prosecutor’s Office estimated that hundreds of millions of shekels were circulated through the network over the past two years, with the suspects mediating between more than 3,000 drug sellers and some 200,000 buyers, pocketing roughly NIS 30 million ($8.36 million) in the process.
Police questioned 90 individuals during a year-long investigation into the network, 50 of them as suspects. They received assistance from law enforcement agencies in the United States, Germany, Ukraine, Romania, France and the Netherlands.
In February 2018, the full list of some 3,500 Telegrass dealers was leaked online, including names, personal details and incriminating videos.
In the years before his arrest, Silver, the Telegrass founder, was an activist for cannabis legalization, including organizing The Big Bong Night in 2014 — an audacious cannabis legalization protest in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem.
In March, Silver wrote a letter to the Israel Police from his Ukrainian prison, saying, “You can break my spirit and maybe even destroy my soul, but you are making a terrible mistake. The distorted and bizarre picture that you are trying to paint, while violating and trampling on my basic rights in order to have me convicted of a crime I never committed, [is destined to fail].”
Israel has taken steps in recent years to make medical cannabis available and is poised to become a major exporter of the crop. Recreational use of the drug remains illegal, though politicians — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — recently said they would consider relaxing enforcement.