The good fight

Thank God for Johnny Ray Haskins.

Haskins was a towering man, a hardcore criminal who had spent years in a state penitentiary for violent crimes. But on that night in the lawless, rundown housing projects of the American Deep South, old Johnny Ray was the only thing standing between Jeff Hochman and death.

Hochman was staring down a loaded handgun being pointed at him by a furious drug dealer certain that Hochman, his client in a sizable drug purchase, was an undercover cop. He was right – but just before he carried out a death sentence on the unarmed pseudo-junkie for that betrayal, Haskins intervened, claiming the dealer had it wrong and that Hochman was a “legit” dude from the area.

“I asked him later why he had saved my life,” Hochman says from his rented Ramat Gan apartment, recalling that long-ago incident. “He said, ‘Man, I’ve done a lot of shitty things in my life. I’ve hurt a lot of people. But you were trying to help people you didn’t even know… so I figured you didn’t need to die.’”

No, Hochman didn’t need to die. He would come close on many other occasions, though, in the course of a career that saw him take on drug gangs, weapons dealers, armed robbers, murderers, mob goons and even Iraqi terrorists and insurgents – and nearly drown in his own attic during Hurricane Katrina.

“Many times, people have asked me to write a book about my life,” he says. “After all, not many Jewish guys have been with the Marines, the cops, the FBI, and hunted IED (improvised explosive device) cells in Iraq – and made aliya.”

Still, Hochman dismisses the notion of penning a memoir, saying simply and somewhat gravely, “Some things are better left unsaid.”

Not that Hochman is anything but outgoing and cheerful. Shortly after having left Iraq, the 43-year-old talked with The Jerusalem Post about settling down to the relative serenity of a new life here in Israel – a life, he says, that he has dreamed of ever since he was a kid growing up in Mobile, Alabama.

AS A CHILD, Hochman was keenly interested in police work; throughout school he was part of the local law enforcement explorers, “a sort of Boy Scouts for police,” as he says. But after graduating high school, Hochman joined the Marines. He would serve just over two years in the corps. It’s an affiliation that means a lot to him.

“The Marines’ Eagle, Globe and Anchor insignia is dear to me and, like a lot of guys, I contemplated having it tattooed. In fact, I almost did it one night when I was out drinking with the guys,” Hochman recalls. “But then I remembered my mother telling me that if I ever got a tattoo, she’d never forgive me.”

Growing up, he says, “the only time I saw tattoos on Jews was the numbers on Holocaust survivors’ forearms.”

Immediately after leaving the Marines, the tattoo-less Hochman sought out a police job. Just then, he says, a narcotics squad was being put together for an undercover federal task force in western Alabama. Hochman jumped at the chance. It was not, however, a glamorous – or an easy – job.

“In order to look the part, I had to live in the projects, drive a shitty car, live a shitty life,” he explains. “I had a cover job as an assistant to a veterinarian, who was a former cop and who knew about my undercover role. But at night, after work, I would buy drugs, set up buys, whatever was necessary” to arrest drug dealers and weapons dealers.

He did this for close to three years, sometimes driving hundreds of kilometers to consummate a drug deal.

“I had to look like a junkie,” Hochman says, “so I’d mix beer and coffee and drink a whole bunch of that, to make me jittery and kind of out of it. I would walk into crackhouses – this white guy, in the South, in a house full of black drug dealers and junkies. I couldn’t look like a cop, so I couldn’t go around with a weapon, or a wire, or anything like that. There was no support waiting right outside for me, the way they do it nowadays. It was crazy.”

It was during this period that Haskins saved Hochman from ending up dead in a housing project. But there were other dangers as well, unbeknownst to Hochman.

“When I came out from undercover, one of my bosses was immediately arrested for drug distribution. Another was suspected of doing the same, though the suspicions were never proven. He later went to jail on corruption and extortion charges. When a third died, some said it was suicide.

“It was a big part of my career and taught me how important it is to be an honorable police officer, even when it’s the hardest to be. As an undercover cop there were a lot of things you could have done and gotten away with. It’s easy to do… My bosses were dirty when it was easy, and it put my life in danger.”

These gritty experiences opened doors for Hochman with the New Orleans Police Department, and allowed him to flourish there. From 1991 through the end of 2007 he tackled robbery, homicide, drugs and local mafia, rising through the ranks to become a detective sergeant and the head of a combined FBI/New Orleans Police Department task force on gang violence.

“All told,” he says, “I’ve worked about 1,000 murders in my career. I can’t even count how many shootings and armed robberies… It’s safe to say I’ve worked more violent crime than most Israeli police.”

YET AFTER all that, after facing all those bullets and blades and needles, it was water that nearly brought Hochman down. Lots and lots of water.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Hochman had been sick at home with a stomach virus. Rather than evacuate, he stayed home with his German Shepard, Thor, thinking he could weather the storm. And at first, he later recalled in a written account, he had – his home had suffered only minor damage, and flooding in the neighborhood had been minimal.

When the levees keeping the Mississippi River at bay burst, however, Hochman’s – and New Orleans’ – situation quickly took a turn for the worse.

“I had been lying in bed asleep and gotten up for something, going to the front bay windows of my house,” Hochman wrote. “Water was up about 15 centimeters, up to about the beginning of the hubcaps of the tires on the cars.”

Fifteen minutes later, water was pouring through his home.

“I quickly ran to the front bay windows again. The water was already over the tires and going up over the hood of the cars and was coming up underneath my house. I watched the current of the water, watching stuff flow down the street. I watched the water continue to rise and rise and rise, and I pretty much knew I was in trouble.”

Hochman had trouble communicating with colleagues on his radio, “but I could hear other officers screaming for help as the water was coming up into their attics. They were already up in the attic and they were having trouble and couldn’t get out.”

Hochman brought Thor up to his own attic, but still wasn’t panicking. He had sealed rations, water, a sledgehammer and crowbar, and a flotation vest for himself and the dog.

“I pretty much determined that I was going to tie the rope to a joist in the attic, hook it to me and Thor, bust out the ceiling and go sit on the roof with the dog. That was my plan.”

Downstairs, Hochman was amazed as the water level continued to rise.

“The water was finally around my chest, and I knew I was in serious trouble. I was going back and forth through the water to the attic to check on Thor, and I kept coming down to see if the water would go away, but it didn’t. It just kept coming up. I started hearing the refrigerators and washers and dryers and everything floating around and banging into each other… The house was filled with water.

“I had thought the plan I had was good, but then I realized it wasn’t and I pretty much knew me and the dog were dead. I was going to die. I told [my colleagues] to go to other areas and get people that had a chance. There were already dead people floating around me, so I figured the jig was up for me.”

For more than 1,800 people in the area affected by Katrina, the jig was indeed up. But in the moments went hope seemed lost, Hochman wrote, “I thought about everything I had been through – with law enforcement, the military – and I thought, ‘[Screw] this, I’m not dying. Not letting some water kill me.’”

Within a few hours a fellow officer who had found a boat made his way to Hochman’s house. Together they broke through a small window and the wall around it. Hochman swam through his house and back into the attic, where Thor was waiting.

“I went to the attic and cut the rope I had Thor secured with, but he wouldn’t swim. That dog was crawling on my back trying to make nice when I was dragging him under water and through the house; I was his raft. I finally had to push him through the window… and onto the roof.”

The policemen made their way to a highway overpass where dozens of citizens were waiting for rescue. Once they were taken care of, Hochman joined up with the rest of his police unit and went to work “patrolling and pulling people from houses and stopping looters.”

In the aftermath of the storm, with most of the city underwater and paralyzed, Hochman kept the peace as much as he could by day, and slept in a Wal-Mart parking lot by night. For several days, he didn’t even have shoes.

“Some New York policemen came down to help out,” he says, “and after taking a look around, they told us that what we were dealing with was much worse than 9/11.”

TWO YEARS later, Hochman had put in enough time with the police and the military to retire. But he wasn’t done working, and the Department of Defense was looking for people with his kind of background to join counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. So he took an offer to hunt down IED cells and suicide bomb units with the National Information and Intelligence Agency (“kind of a combination of the FBI and the CIA in Iraq,” Hochman says). He was embedded with their operators every day for a year.

“We used the same mentality and approach that I used in my police work,” he says, “because they used the same approach as gangs and organized crime. IED cells operate according to the same principles as the mafia – they smuggle, they lie and they cheat. The only difference is that, in the States, you have large organizations fighting in a large system. In Iraq, you could be looking for a lone operator riding a motorcycle through a wadi, dumping bombs in the sand for $100 apiece.”

What was different, Hochman adds, was the weather.

“There were what we called ‘black days,’ when it was too damn hot to work,” he says, enjoying the air conditioning in a Ramat Gan café. “It was so hot that it was like putting your face into an oven.”

Then there were the sandstorms.

“I was trapped in one so bad, and so fast, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “A red wall hundreds of feet high just engulfed me. I had a strong flashlight with me, but I couldn’t see its light, even when I held it right in front of my face.”

Sometimes, when a sandstorm struck, it stranded Hochman and his team members at the homes of their Iraqi investigators. One kept them pinned down for 40 hours straight. Iraq’s fine sand – “we called it moondust” – would penetrate weapons, gear and clothes.

When not facing unbearable heat or unstoppable sand, Hochman and his crew still had the harrowing task of shaking up insurgents. They fought back, with bombs and mortar fire. “I lost some friends,” Hochman says matter-of-factly, without elaboration.

Working in small teams deep inside a hostile population, Hochman and his men often entered homes of suspects, knowing they could be boobytrapped. “You always go into a house hoping your first step in won’t be your last,” as he says.

The team that Hochman led dismantled numerous bombing networks and won praise from commanders for its efficiency and professionalism.

“I’ve always wanted to be the guy who did some good out there… catching bad guys and teaching others how to catch bad guys,” Hochman says. “I love doing that. It gives you a real rubber-meets-the-road perspective.”

Now removed from that, he says, “I don’t miss Iraq. But I do miss the work. I miss catching bad guys – the kind of people who use kids and women to do their dirty work… and I miss the professionalism of the guys. That’s what keeps the world safe.”

After finishing his contract in Iraq, Hochman was offered the opportunity to do the same kinds of things in Afghanistan, but declined. It was time, he says, to come to Israel.

“I HAVEN’T been the best Jew as far as going to synagogue, but I have always been very Jewish and very pro-Israel. I have always been interested in making aliya and living here – and here I am.”

Hochman’s connection to Israel has been professional, with visits here with law enforcement and counterterrorism delegations in the ’90s through 2007.

“Actually,” he says, “after one trip here in the mid-90s, I wanted to make aliya and be a cop here – but Israel can not recruit foreign government workers for government positions here, so I’d have to start over. There was no ‘support basket’ for new [Western] immigrants then like there is now, so it didn’t make sense to come then.”

Long before that, in the late ’70s, Hochman had spent a few months in Israel, together with his family. His father, an engineer, built a wire harnessing factory here for an Israeli company that made battery cables and jumper cables.

His connection goes even further back, though. Hochman still recalls the awe with which, as a young boy, he greeted Israeli helicopter pilots who had come to Alabama’s Fort Rucker for training, and who would spend weekends at the Hochman home.

“Those guys are all retired colonels now,” he says. “They’re something of a friends network for me.”

The pilots can’t help with Hochman with ulpan, or with the annoying bureaucratic errands that all immigrants must complete, or with the wait for his few belongings from New Orleans to arrive. But now, as he searches for an apartment to call home and looks back on an action-packed career, Hochman has no regrets about where he’s been, or where he’s come.

“I had many goals at 17,” Hochman says. “I wanted to be an infantryman in the Marines, a law enforcement officer, a tactical (SWAT) operator, a detective, a supervisor, a part of the federal government. An I wanted, one day, to move to Israel. So of every dream I’ve ever had, almost every one has been fulfilled. The only thing I’ve ever wanted that I haven’t had yet,” he says, “is a wife and a child… and who knows?”

Hochman knows that, of all the challenges he has faced, learning Hebrew might prove to be the toughest. And he is concerned about not finding employment matching his experience and qualifications.

“I’m hoping that someone in Israel recognizes that I could be of service,” he says modestly. “I mean, I’m sure I can learn something. You can always learn. Maybe I can adapt some of the things that I’ve done to things here, and eventually teach a synthesis of those methods to some people in the States.”

No matter what, Hochman promises, you won’t catch him lounging endlessly on the beach or packing up and heading back to the bayou.

“I am determined,” he says, “to make it here.”

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