An article yesterday incorrectly reported the first name of Victor Vancier, a former leader of the Jewish Defense League who pleaded guilty to racketeering charges. (Published 8/15/87)

NEW YORK, AUG. 13 -- Three former leaders of the Jewish Defense League pleaded guilty today to racketeering charges involving bombings aimed at Soviet citizens here, including a firebombing at Lincoln Center last October before a performance of the Moscow State Symphony.

Vincent Vancier, 30, whom prosecutors described as JDL founder Rabbi Meir Kahane's handpicked choice to be the JDL's national chairman, could face up to 20 years in prison and $25,000 in fines, as could codefendants Murray Young, 59, and Jay Cohen, 24. All remained free on bond.

Prosecutors accused the three of "a pattern of terrorist acts, including bombings, arsons, extortions and fraud."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory O'Connell in Brooklyn said the three also were involved in lobbing a tear gas grenade into a performance by the Soviet Moiseyev Dance Company last September but were not charged under the plea agreement. That attack at the Metropolitan Opera sent Soviet Ambassador Yuri Dubinin and 20 other people to hospitals for treatment, although no one was seriously injured.

A fourth associate, Sharon Katz, 41, pleaded guilty to one charge of assaulting a foreign official in the tear gas attack. She could face three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

O'Connell said his office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York police are continuing to investigate whether JDL members are connected to other crimes, including homicides.

The charges detail a pattern of violence purportedly aimed at protesting the Soviet Union's treatment of Jews, but the targets also included a dissident JDL member, Walter Berk, whose car was firebombed twice in Queens. O'Connell said the attacks were an attempt to extort JDL bank records and donor lists from Berk.

Vancier said in a telephone interview that "my days of participating in things like this are over." He said he became involved in such activities because he believed that "3 million Jews in the Soviet Union were being ignored." The group targeted property rather than people, he said.

The probe began in February 1984 after the firebombing of a car parked at a Bronx residential complex for Soviet diplomats, an attack cited in today's charges.

Prosecutors charged that JDL members firebombed a Pan American World Airways trucking facility at John F. Kennedy International Airport last year, apparently because the airline had resumed flights to the Soviet Union. They also charged that the JDL fraudulently raised money in the guise of a campaign committee for New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D).

In an interview with The Village Voice last year, Vancier said that Jews must take extreme measures because "crazy Jews live longer."

"If the Soviets are afraid that their diplomats in the U.S. will be killed, that their offices will be blown up and that we will take other actions that will disrupt Soviet-American relations, they'll realize that they are better off letting Jews go," Vancier said.

Young's attorney, Kenneth Weinstein, called him "a deeply committed individual motivated by high ideals" who was "overzealous" in participating in the attacks on Berk.

A search of Young's Long Island home in April uncovered a cache of weapons, including rifles, an Uzi submachine gun and tools to make explosives.

Cohen's lawyer, Mark Baker, said his client was "very impressionable and very trusting" and was "manipulated by others" in agreeing to detonate the firebomb at the Pan Am facility.

The JDL was founded in 1968 by Rabbi Kahane, now a member of the Israeli parliament, and reportedly grew to more than 10,000 members in the early 1970s before going into decline. In 1983, Vancier founded a group called Jewish Direct Action, which merged with the JDL two years later.

Prosecutors said the JDL was active at least until Vancier's arrest in May, and Vancier said it remains "active and viable." But Mordecai Levy, head of a JDL splinter group called the Jewish Defense Organization, said the league no longer exists in the United States.

Levy, who said Vancier simply appropriated the JDL's name, said his 3,500-member group favored nonviolent disruption of Soviet performances and opposed such tactics as bombings. But, he added, "we're into using force when necessary against Nazis and the Klan."