By Michael Powell (New York Times)
June 4, 2012
Charles J. Hynes, having once embraced silence on the question of his vigor in prosecuting sex abuse in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, cannot stop talking now.
In columns, in interviews, and even in an exchange with former Mayor Edward I. Koch, Mr. Hynes, the veteran district attorney in Brooklyn, has insisted that he is one tough prosecutor. He will handcuff and arrest anyone who tries to intimidate an ultra-Orthodox family into silence.
"I will not put victims at risk," he told The Forward.
If he allows ultra-Orthodox rabbis to act as gatekeepers, determining which child was and was not molested before turning to prosecutors, and if he agrees to keep secret the names of the molesters, who could argue with the results? Since 2009, he says, his office has prosecuted 99 sex abuse cases in the ultra-Orthodox community. (When my colleagues Sharon Otterman and Ray Rivera diced Mr. Hynes's numbers in a series of articles, they found at least one quarter of his prosecutions had little to do with child sex abuse.)
But let's forget the numbers.
Mr. Hynes contrasts his prosecutorial vigor with the bad old days, when his prosecutors could not persuade the insular community to speak up.
The problem, though, is that sometimes, in dealing with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, it was Mr. Hynes himself who seemed to want these cases to go away.
In 1994, William Plackenmeyer was a New York Police Department division commander in Borough Park, home to one of the city's fastest growing ultra-Orthodox communities, and a key voting bloc for Mr. Hynes.
A few years earlier, a charismatic ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Shlomo Helbrans, had agreed to tutor an Israeli couple's 13-year-old boy, Shai Fhima Reuven, in preparation for his bar mitzvah.
Instead, the rabbi kidnapped the boy and persuaded him to reject his family and embrace a zealous form of Hasidism. The police had the rabbi cornered. But the Brooklyn district attorney's office did not want a confrontation; they argued that Shai was just a runaway.
"I listened to my detective's account and I said, 'No, no, this is a kidnapping,' " Mr. Plackenmeyer recalled. "Of course, this was Borough Park, so I'm talking lose-lose."
By which Mr. Plackenmeyer meant that the local rabbis made splendid political bosses. Republican, Democrat, they can direct the votes of their adherents with striking ease.
Mr. Plackenmeyer ordered his men to make the arrest.
Two former law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed key aspects of Mr. Plackenmeyer's account.
Within 24 hours of the arrest, the captain said, two assistant district attorneys paid him a visit. They were apologetically emphatic: Your case might be strong, they told him, but our boss, Mr. Hynes, wants you to void the arrest.
Are you saying, Mr. Plackenmeyer asked, that I don't have probable cause?
We're not saying that, they replied.
The prosecutors soon released the rabbi. Mr. Plackenmeyer and the boy's mother, Hana Fhima, drove down to the district attorney's office, seeking a meeting. They sat there for hours but never got past reception.
"I was a division commander," he recalled. "I'm there with a woman willing to testify about this rabbi who kidnapped her son, and no one wants to speak to me."
Soon enough, the F.B.I. took a look at it, along with federal prosecutors. They had a meeting, there was a fair amount of yelling, and, with help from federal officials, the district attorney felt the urge to prosecute.
That was not the end of it. In March 1994, Mr. Hynes's office agreed to let Rabbi Helbrans plead guilty to kidnapping in exchange for five years of community service. Mrs. Fhima was furious, and complained bitterly to the judge of swinging-door justice.
A State Supreme Court justice, in an unusual move, agreed with her. He overturned the plea bargain. The family, he said, had given him the sense "that this is a political ploy, because Joe Hynes is running for" state attorney general, according to newspaper accounts.
Michael Vecchione, the prosecutor on that case, got on the phone on Monday, for an interview at high volume. To suggest Mr. Hynes's office was less than vigorous is a calumny, he suggested. "There's no way," he says, "based on how I practice law, that I'd agree" to probation.
Told that contemporaneous accounts in The New York Times state otherwise ("The plea was part of an intricate arrangement with the Brooklyn district attorney," the newspaper's March 8, 1994, account states), Mr. Vecchione amended his statement.
"I don't recall, honestly," he said.
In the end, Mr. Helbrans was convicted of kidnapping and shipped off to prison. He was eventually deported to Israel, and made his way to a hamlet in Quebec, where his black-clad female followers are known by some other Hasidim as the Jewish Taliban.
Mr. Plackenmeyer is content to have seen justice done. "None of the rest makes sense unless you take politics into account," he says.
"Then it all makes sense."