The Most Successful Freon Salesman Ever 

The feds claim Mark Kesel's Hayward business kept the state's speed factories awash in their favorite solvent. Kesel says they're just out to get him 'cause he's Russian.

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"That it would turn into [speed] did not even enter my head," Kesel says.

Early one morning that same December, Kesel's home in Kensington was raided by federal agents who rousted him out of bed and arrested him. That was just the first indignity he suffered. The man who once headed his neighborhood association and was well-known for his generous donations to charities and arts programs now drew awkward stares from people who used to wave to him on the street. "I lost many acquaintances, business associates, customers, and vendors. My family undergoes horrendous strain," he says. "I still have not told my mother what has happened. She is old and frail; the news would kill her."

The case against Kesel, which used agencies from every level of law enforcement over the course of three years, includes 100 video surveillance tapes, 150 cassettes from wiretaps, and 10,000 pages of documents -- a huge, expensive undertaking by any standard. The length and scope of the query suggests that while authorities were more than pleased to follow freon buckets off the ADLS lot and directly into meth labs, they were also hoping to worm their way into a larger target: the Russian mob.

In recent years the so-called Russian mafia has become an obsession for law enforcement authorities, and no more so than in Northern California. According to the FBI, the Russian mafia is considered "the most feared crime organization in the world," and according to its reports, as many as three hundred "known Russian criminals" currently reside in the San Francisco Bay Area.

During the Soviet Union's collapse, an estimated 200,000 émigrés fled to the United States, and some of those who had criminal connections in their homeland set up syndicates here, authorities say. Crimes include everything from prostitution rings and trafficking in stolen goods to Medicare fraud and stock manipulation. State Attorney General Bill Lockyer announced in 2000 that prosecuting Russian and Eurasian organized criminals was one of his priorities.

But while several Russians have been convicted for crimes locally, the big catches that would unveil a criminal conspiracy have proved elusive. To change that, the US Attorney's office in San Francisco named Martha Boersch as chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force last September, marking a serious pump-up in the government's attempt to corral Russian crime. Boersch, who is fluent in Russian and once worked at the American Embassy in Moscow studying Russian syndicates, has prosecuted a string of Russians in San Francisco, mostly in isolated racketeering cases. But Boersch's team has yet to invoke RICO statutes to sweep up Russian mob bosses in the way federal agents on the East Coast have used this anti-organized-crime legislation to take down Italian crime families.

In all of the documents on Kesel, there's not one mention of any link between the businessman and the Russian mafia, nor would there be even if he were connected; those records would be sealed and locked away. Agents and prosecutors who worked on the case wouldn't go on record to either confirm or deny whether the scope of the Hayward investigation included mob activities.

Yet Kesel still claims the government is playing the ethnicity card to anchor its case. He cites, for instance, a dubious reference to his company in a Channel 5 series on the Russian mafia that aired last year. Following a segment about a Russian-flagged boat caught trafficking cocaine into the San Francisco Bay, a voice-over mentions the ADLS raid, and a man identified as DEA agent Robert Silano says on screen, "It was a business owned by ... Russians." The agent's pregnant pause suggests that something more menacing was afoot.

Kesel keeps a videotape of the report, which he offers to bolster his argument that American fears of a Russian mob have led to erroneous conclusions. He has Russian friends who dare to be entrepreneurs, and have been investigated as a result. "And what do they get for running a business?" he asks. "A bunch of trouble."

ADLS is still in operation, but it's struggling without its most popular chemical moving off the shelves as it did in the past. Freon is now all but nonexistent in the meth-making scene, says Ron Gravitt, special agent in charge of the state's Precursor Compliance Program. But it's not because ADLS got busted, he says. Instead, the chemical's high cost finally outpaced the manufacturers' willingness to buy. Meth chemists have turned to standard Coleman-brand camping fuel, a far cheaper -- and more flammable -- solution. "No doubt about it," Gravitt says. "We have witnessed an increase in the number of lab fires breaking out, and it's largely because they've moved away from using freon as their solvent of choice."

Kesel pays no attention to such trends. He spends most of his waking hours considering his fate with the courts. In a pretrial hearing February 24 in Oakland federal district court, Tony Serra's posse plans to argue that the federal auditors who visited ADLS weekly and allegedly gave company employees the thumbs-up were actually guilty of entrapment.

To succeed on an entrapment defense, Serra "must show that an authorized government official told the defendant that certain conduct was legal and the defendant believed the official." Kesel believes the agents' remarks meet these criteria, but will a judge? Or a jury?

If Kesel's lawyers aren't convincing, he faces the prospect of life in prison. He'll never take a guilty plea, he says.

Coincidentally, according to Kesel, the first time he heard of his alleged mafia connection came while he was sitting in an Oakland jail following the raid on his house. Other prisoners deferred to him respectfully. One brought him coffee. Another brought sugar. "I thought all of this was a heartwarming gesture," he says, recalling his loneliness at that moment. "But then one of them says to me, 'We heard you were a Russian hitman.'" Kesel drags on his cigarette, then blows out laughter along with the smoke.


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