By Hella Winston (The Jewish Week)
January 14, 2013
For Jews, Chanukah is a season of light and miracles. It wasn’t like that last month for Sam Kellner, a chasidic resident of Brooklyn’s Borough Park.
Unemployed and facing mounting debt from his lonely fight against both the powers that be in his community and the Brooklyn district attorney, Kellner, 50, was contemplating a Chanukah in darkness: he had pawned the family silver, and the menorah along with it, to free up some cash to pay his attorney.
When his wife found out, she was upset, so Kellner trudged back to the silver shop on 13th Avenue to retrieve the menorah.
If anyone could use a miracle, it’s Sam Kellner.
“They took everything from me,” Kellner says. “They’ve killed me on the street, kicked me out of my shul. I have no job, no money, no friends. And the DA is going after me. All because I committed the sin of fighting for my son.”
In 2008, when Kellner reported his teenage son’s alleged molester to the authorities, he knew he would make enemies in his chasidic community, despite having secured permission to do so from rabbis. What he never expected was that one of the people turning against him would be the Brooklyn district attorney.
To hear him tell it, Kellner — whose son reported he had been touched inappropriately by a man named Baruch Lebovits — went from being a valued law enforcement resource to the subject of wrongful perjury, extortion and conspiracy charges, all because he sought redress in the criminal justice system. If convicted, he faces up to 21 years in prison.
Kellner’s case, for which a trial date has not been set, is dizzyingly complex and brings together a number of threads in the ongoing story of child sexual abuse in Orthodox Brooklyn: the conduct of Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes’ office, which has come under great scrutiny of late for its perceived failure to aggressively pursue prosecution of sex abuse cases in the haredi community for fear of losing a key voting bloc; the religious courts that seek to address child molestation within the community; and the workings of the Vaad HaTznius, the communal modesty patrols to whom alleged molesters are often reported.
The case reaches into the highest echelons of chasidic Brooklyn, including the powerful editor of the newspaper Der Yid, and of the legal community; Alan Dershowitz worked on the appeal of Baruch Lebovits, who, in part because of the doggedness of Sam Kellner, was convicted in 2010 on eight counts of sexual abuse (his conviction was overturned on a technicality and a new trial reordered). And now, the Lebovits and Kellner cases have become linked in a legal and moral drama.
Some observers maintain that the climate in the Orthodox community is changing when it comes to reporting sexual abuse to law enforcement, and that Hynes’ office has shed its seeming reluctance to prosecute ultra-Orthodox sex abuse cases rather than settle them with plea deals involving little or no jail time. (The recent conviction of an unlicensed counselor and well-connected member of the Satmar community, Nechemya Weberman, for sexually abusing a teenage girl has been hailed as evidence of Hynes’ new resolve, as has his arrest not just of four men for witness tampering in the case, but of others who took photographs of the victim at trial).
But Kellner’s case complicates the picture. It and the Lebovits case unfolded before pressure on Hynes’ office intensified to take these cases to trial rather than dispose of them with plea deals. In a strange irony, those who support Kellner believe that it is precisely because the Lebovits case actually went to trial and resulted in a conviction and long prison sentence that Kellner is now under indictment.
As he awaits trial, Kellner, a man who did the right thing — at least by the standards of secular society — by reporting the crime of child molestation to the police, now stands accused of being an alleged criminal, while those who tried to stop him remain unpunished.
“There’s a lot to be investigated here,” Kellner’s attorney, Michael Dowd, told The Jewish Week. “But it’s not Sam Kellner.”
A spokesman for Hynes’ office denied the charge that the Kellner prosecution was politically motivated. The spokesman, Jerry Schmetterer, also said no one in the DA’s office would be made available to speak about the case since it is an ongoing investigation.
A Father’s Fight For Justice Begins
His black velvet yarmulke slightly askew, Sam Kellner is leaning back in a chair in the lounge at the Brooklyn Marriott, twisting his wiry grey beard. Nearby, young Orthodox couples on “shidduch dates” sip soda from plastic cups.
The significance of the location — the hotel abuts the Brooklyn district attorney’s office — is not lost on Kellner. “That’s where they had me locked up for 14 hours after I was arrested,” he says, pointing out the window.
Kellner’s saga began in early 2008, the day his teenage son disclosed that Baruch Lebovits, 61, a travel agent and cantor from a rich and well-connected family, had given him a ride home the night before and touched him inappropriately in his car.
Furious, Kellner wanted to file a police report, but would not do so without first securing the permission of a rabbi. So he sought — and received — approval from Rabbi Chaim Flohr, a highly regarded rabbi who presides over a religious court in Monsey. In consultation with the Vaad HaTznius in Borough Park, Rabbi Flohr established that there were credible accusations against Lebovits going back years.
Nervous to report on his own, Kellner contacted the Williamsburg Vaad HaTznius, which he was told had a good relationship with the Brooklyn DA’s office. (Attempts to reach members of the Vaad by phone were unsuccessful.) Kellner says they put him in touch with an attorney, Asher White. (An e-mail to White was not returned.) White’s wife Henna is the DA’s liaison to the Jewish community. She also heads his office’s Kol Tzedek hotline, established in April of 2009 to encourage haredi victims of sexual abuse to report these crimes to the authorities.
After speaking with Kellner, Asher White took him to Henna’s office.
Kellner recalls the meeting. “Henna told me, ‘Sam, are you going to go all the way with this? I will take you to an ADA [assistant district attorney], but don’t screw me. We’ve had problems with [haredi] witnesses dropping out.’ And I told her, ‘Henna, I am going all the way.’”
An ADA interviewed the boy and determined the alleged abuse was a misdemeanor. Because of that, along with Lebovits’ age, clean record, and the lack of additional victims, the DA’s office wouldn’t pursue the case.
Kellner was crushed. But on the advice of Henna White, he reached out to then-sex crimes detective Steve Litwin.
Litwin interviewed the boy and concurred with the ADA. But he offered a way forward: based on his experience, Litwin believed that Lebovits was a serial offender. If Kellner could find and encourage other victims to report, they would have a better chance of bringing a case. It was the beginning of a working relationship that would last several years.
‘People Were Coming After Me On The Street’
“At first I tell him, ‘Steve, you’re the detective, how is it I should find victims?’” Kellner recalled.
But Kellner mulled the idea and hit the streets. His first stop was the Williamsburg Vaad to obtain the name of another boy who had made credible allegations against Lebovits. The Vaad directed Kellner to a young man, Yoel (not his real name), who told Kellner he had been molested by Lebovits. Kellner asked Yoel if he wanted to go to the police, and when the young man said yes, Kellner secured rabbinic approval from Rabbi Shraga Hager, a chasidic leader.
Police records indicate that Yoel was interviewed by Litwin, the sex-crimes detective, on March 6, 2008 and disclosed multiple incidents of being sodomized by Lebovits, starting when he was 12. The acts alleged included felonies.
On March 11, 2008 Lebovits was arrested. He was indicted on the grand jury testimony of Kellner’s son and Yoel. The two cases were severed and Kellner worried his son’s misdemeanor case might be prosecuted first, forcing the teenager to take the stand, something Kellner hoped to avoid. If Lebovits were tried and convicted on a felony first, Kellner reasoned, the DA was unlikely to subsequently pursue a misdemeanor charge. Kellner also worried that the DA might not go forward with Yoel’s case, given the young man’s tenuous emotional state. (Yoel was so damaged emotionally he was often unable to meet his basic needs and Kellner says he occasionally bought the young man food; Litwin also took him out for meals, according to law enforcement materials.)
So, Kellner obtained permission from the Borough Park Vaad to track down yet another victim, Zev (not his real name), whose information Kellner obtained from Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s office. Hikind received calls from hundreds of sex abuse survivors after he did a series of radio shows on the issue in 2008.
Kellner approached Zev, who disclosed that he, too, was a Lebovits victim, and struggling with drug addiction. Kellner got rabbinic approval for Zev, who then made a report to Litwin on Sept.16, 2008; his allegations were also felonies.
Zev and Yoel went to the grand jury in November 2008.
By then, Kellner was experiencing severe harassment in his community for “informing” on Lebovits. Many people accused him of fabricating the allegations for money.
“People were screaming at me, coming after me on the street, blowing out my tires,” Kellner says. “I was kicked out from my shul, my kids kicked out of school, nobody would hire me.”
Kellner says a variety of people in the community, including rabbis, began transmitting monetary offers to him to drop the case. He rejected all of them. He then got pressured to withdraw the charges and go to the beit din, or religious court.
Kellner was summoned to, but did not attend, a beit din in Monsey. Then, Kellner says, Yisroel Makavetzky, who has a beit din in upstate Monroe, demanded Kellner adjudicate his son’s case against Lebovits there. (Makavetzky had already issued rulings forbidding Kellner and Zev from pursuing justice in criminal court.) Kellner agreed to go to beit din, but made it clear he would not drop the criminal charges. He also insisted that Rabbi Flohr and attorney Michael Dowd be present (the latter to ensure everything would be done in accordance with secular law), and that his beit din legal expenses and fees be paid.
According to Kellner, a chasidic businessman got involved, promising to pay Kellner’s beit din fees. He also told Kellner that if he dropped the criminal case and the beit din found in his favor, he could receive up to $400,000 in damages. Kellner told the businessman he wasn’t interested: Rabbi Flohr had given him permission to go to the police, and he wasn’t dropping the criminal charges. And if he did go to the beit din and won, Kellner said he would accept only funds to cover treatment for his son — estimated at $30,000 by a rabbi who does medical referrals for the community.
Ultimately, Kellner’s conditions were rejected and the beit din never convened, though Kellner was billed $1,800 for its consultation work “in the matter between Shlomo Aaron Kellner and the Lebovits family related to damages to his son.” When Kellner approached the businessman to honor his agreement to pay the bill, the man sent him to Lebovits’ son, Meyer; the businessman told Kellner he had been fronting for Meyer all along.
Kellner approached Meyer and began the conversation by telling him that his only complaint against him was the unpaid beit din-related fees. Meyer then castigated Kellner for going to the police instead of coming to him, accusing Kellner of ruining his reputation. A wide-ranging conversation ensued that touched on the abortive beit din, the criminal cases against Baruch Lebovits (and specifically Kellner’s wish to see Lebovits take a plea in Kellner’s son’s case) and other attempts to get Kellner to drop the charges.
Unbeknownst to Kellner, Meyer was recording the conversation.
More Payoff Offers
Kellner says he also got a payoff offer from Moshe Friedman, a cousin of Baruch Lebovits. Friedman, also known as Moshe Gabbai, is a longtime power broker in the Satmar community, going back to when he was the personal secretary (or gabbai, hence the nickname) of the previous Satmar rebbe, Moshe Teitelbaum. He is also the editor of the main Satmar newspaper, Der Yid. An article in an Israeli paper noted that Friedman has “many senators and politicians flocking to his door throughout the year, especially before elections.”
Kellner says Friedman contacted him in 2009 with a job offer selling advertising for Der Yid. Kellner, who had worked selling toner cartridges and paper goods, began making calls on the paper’s behalf. During that time, Friedman ordered Kellner to drop his criminal case. Kellner refused. Friedman came back with an offer: “the family” had had a meeting and was prepared to fine Baruch Lebovits $250,000 as an “apology” to Kellner if he dropped the charges. Kellner rejected the offer and quit.
“My son is not a prostitute,” Kellner says. “There is not a price in this world that is going to justify [what Lebovits did].”
Kellner informed Detective Litwin — with whom he was working closely — about attempts to buy him off. He says he also met with sex crimes Bureau Chief Rhonnie Jaus and assistant district attorneys Miss Gregory and Chris LaLine about the witness tampering and intimidation.
Reached by phone Litwin declined to speak with The Jewish Week.
“I tell them, ‘You don’t know what’s going on on the street. Rhonnie, they’re offering money,” Kellner recalls. “We’re going to lose every witness. I’ll wear a wire.’” But Kellner says the office never took him up on it. “From that meeting on,” Kellner continues, “she ‘[wouldn’t take] my [calls].”
A spokesman for the DA’s office told The Jewish Week that Jaus was not at liberty to comment on a pending case.
There were also attempts to pay Zev to drop his charges, some documented in Litwin’s notes (one came from a man named Beryl Ashkenazi). Kellner feared that, needing money for drugs, Zev would succumb to temptation and take a payoff. With Kellner’s encouragement, Zev held firm.
In February 2010, Lebovits went to trial in Zev’s case. Yoel’s case had been scheduled to go first but he abruptly stopped communicating with prosecutors and transmitted his refusal to cooperate through an apparently newly retained attorney.
Lebovits’ defense argued that Zev had fabricated the allegations in order to extort money from the Lebovits family. The jury didn’t buy it, and Lebovits was convicted on March 8, 2010.
Before sentencing, Lebovits’ lawyer brought in a new witness who claimed Zev had told him he had fabricated his allegations in order to get money. The judge, Patricia DiMango, expressed skepticism about this 11th hour revelation and ultimately found the allegation without merit. She sentenced Lebovits to 10 2/3 to 32 years in jail on the eight sex abuse charges.
The sentence sent shockwaves through the chasidic community, where no one convicted of this kind of crime had ever faced such a stiff sentence (Jerry Brauner, convicted on sex-abuse charges in 2002, was sentenced to 11 years probation). Lebovits’ lawyers vowed to appeal.
Kellner Arrested: ‘It’s Mind-Boggling’
About a year later, on April 12, 2011, Sam Kellner was arrested. The arrest came as a shock, as did the charges, whose substance he learned only after he had been bussed to and from Rikers and done a perp walk in front of assembled media the next day, when Hynes held a press conference. By that time, Kellner had already been indicted, charged with extortion, perjury and conspiracy.
The following day, an appellate judge ordered Lebovits released from prison on house arrest on $250,000 bail pending the appeal of his conviction.
Kellner was charged — along with five unindicted co-conspirators — with attempting to extort money with a promise that, if paid, Kellner would get the complaining witnesses not to testify and prevent a third victim from coming forward (the indictment also charges Kellner with threatening to bring a fourth victim).
The case is being handled by the Rackets Bureau, headed by Michael Vecchione.
While not named in the indictment, it is clear from the grand jury minutes that the co-conspirators are: Leizer Wolf Hager; Yidel Wolf of the Borough Park Vaad; Wolf Wertzberger; Yakov Leizer Horowitz, an anti-informing activist who had harassed Kellner; and Simon Taub — all of whom Kellner allegedly sent as messengers to get money from Meyer Lebovits. All of these men’s names were mentioned in the tape-recorded conversation between Meyer Lebovits and Kellner and in Meyer Lebovits’ grand jury testimony. (Taub was arrested in July 2010 — and later pleaded guilty —for attempting to extort money from Meyer, who had allegedly molested Taub’s son.)
Kellner was also charged with using Moshe Friedman, the editor of Der Yid, to convey his demand to Meyer Lebovits for a monetary payment in return for a guarantee that Kellner would stop the complaining witnesses — whom he allegedly controlled — from testifying.
Additionally, Kellner was charged with paying Yoel to lie before a grand jury and falsely accuse Lebovits of molesting him.
The only people to testify at Kellner’s grand jury were Meyer Lebovits, Moshe Friedman and Yoel. In his testimony, Friedman alleges that Kellner came to him, “That I should convince Lebovits’ family that they should give him [the] $250,000.”
“It’s mind-boggling,” Kellner says of the charges. “All these people offering payoffs, and I’m telling this all along to Detective Litwin, and now I’m the extortionist?”
The DA’s Case Against Kellner
Indeed, the timing, quality and sources of the DA’s evidence against Kellner all raise questions about the legitimacy of the charges, say observers, as does evidence in the DA’s possession that is favorable to Kellner.
The conspiracy charges were brought to the DA by Meyer Lebovits in May 2010 — after the guilty verdict in his father’s case. They are based on Meyer’s statements and the 2009 tape-recorded conversation between Meyer and Kellner, which occurred almost a year before Lebovits’ trial. It is unclear why, given its purported importance as evidence of an extortion plot, the tape was not brought to the attention of law enforcement before the trial.
The DA’s transcript of the tape (in Yiddish with an English translation) was reviewed for The Jewish Week by a native Yiddish speaker. Without context, the meaning of many of the exchanges is ambiguous at best; to someone with knowledge of the back story, it becomes clear that the discussion is not about attempts by Kellner to extort Meyer Lebovits using emissaries, but rather is about the beit din and those involved in it, Kellner’s desire to see Baruch Lebovits plead guilty in his son’s case, and attempts by others to get Kellner to drop the charges. (The reviewer also determined that many of the exchanges critical to the overall meaning of the conversation were distorted in the translation.)
Then there is the matter of the unindicted co-conspirators. Typically, co-conspirators are unindicted because they are cooperating with the government. It is unclear whether the DA interviewed any of these men in connection with the Kellner case (none testified at the grand jury, and two recently claimed they were unaware of their involvement in the case).
The charges that Kellner paid Yoel to lie also seem suspect in light of investigators’ reports and videos in the DA’s possession, as well as information independently obtained by The Jewish Week.
Yoel alleged to a DA investigator six months after Lebovits’ conviction, on Sept. 15, 2010, that Kellner paid him $10,000 in $100 weekly increments to fabricate the charges against Lebovits. Yoel made these allegations about Kellner in the presence of his lawyer, John Lonuzzi, a partner in Lonuzzi and Woodland and a past president of the Brooklyn Bar Association. (The DA apparently declined to charge Yoel for allegedly giving false grand jury testimony). It is not known how Yoel, who had been barely able to take care of himself, was able to secure or afford Lonuzzi’s services.
“If I’m a prosecutor trying to scrutinize the reliability of the information I am now getting, after the trial is over, I would ask, ‘Why didn’t you give this over sooner?,’” Bennett Gershman, a professor at Pace Law School and an expert in prosecutorial misconduct, told The Jewish Week. “It doesn’t add up. All of this evidence must be tempered by [each] source’s stake in the case, his motives, his biases.”
The DA also has evidence that suggests Yoel’s allegations against Kellner were made under duress. This includes several video interviews of Zev shot after Lebovits’ conviction by people who claim to be making a movie about Zev’s life. (The Jewish Week has information that this was a ruse.) The interviewers are not seen on camera, though two are referred to throughout as Sholem and Shimon Yosef. They ask Zev questions about his history of abuse and the Lebovits case.
When Zev is asked why Yoel “got out” of the Lebovits case, he replies, “They scared him, they scared him,” clarifying that “they” are the Lebovitses. “They, they terrorized him. You have no idea what they did to him.”
Zev also claims “they” got Yoel a lawyer and promised him money, which he never got.
Zev’s statements are supported by an interview that a DA investigator conducted with a woman named Natalie B., identified as Yoel’s “best friend,” in May 2012. Natalie told the investigator that Lebovits’ eldest daughter had threatened to produce two witnesses to testify that Yoel had molested them as children if he did not drop his case against her father. She also told the investigator that Yoel fled to Israel “out of fear” seven months prior.
It is not known whether the DA has ever questioned members of the Lebovits family about this alleged intimidation of Yoel, but given all this — and the fact that Litwin, the DA and two grand juries clearly found Yoel’s allegations against Baruch Lebovits credible — it is difficult to understand why the DA so uncritically accepted Yoel’s claims of being paid to lie by Kellner.
In addition, The Jewish Week has independent confirmation that Kellner obtained Yoel’s name from the Vaad, to whom Yoel had reported being abused by Lebovits prior to ever meeting Kellner. This negates the charge that Kellner paid Yoel to fabricate his abuse claim.
As for the video interviews of Zev, it appears they too were part of an effort to generate evidence of an extortion plot against the Lebovits family after Lebovits’ conviction. Chaim Levin, an abuse survivor and victims’ advocate, told The Jewish Week he learned that one of the people behind the video was a man named Sholem Weisner (presumably the Sholem referred to on the tape). Levin says he met Weisner at a gathering on the Upper West Side in March of 2011, where Weisner bragged he had recently taken Zev to Florida, bugged the house with expensive recording equipment and “made sure Zev was good and high” before interviewing him in order to get evidence that “they could take to the DA” to clear Lebovits. Levin — who knows another alleged Lebovits victim — says he was horrified.
An attempt to contact Weisner was unsuccessful.
In June 2010, apparently the same Sholem Weisner gave the DA his sworn affidavit stating that Zev told him he had lied for money about being molested by Lebovits and that he had been pressured by “powerful people” to make the false allegations. Weisner also told a DA investigator that Lebovits was well known in the community as “a man who liked young men,” but “was not a threat.” (In 2007, Weisner was arrested on felony charges of cheating and first-degree larceny as well as criminal trespass in connection with marking cards at a Connecticut casino.)
The Zev videos, possibly made to support Weisner’s affidavit, in fact contradict it. They are also favorable to Kellner. When asked whether Kellner ever tried to “shut him up,” or offer him money to drop the case, Zev responds, “No … Kellner always told me, Zev, go to court, you’re going to tell the truth, tell the truth.” (Zev also says many people offered his family money to drop the charges.)
‘I’ll Keep Fighting For My Son’
On April 25, 2012, Lebovits’ conviction was overturned by a New York appeals court on an issue unrelated to Kellner. A new trial was ordered.
The DA vowed to retry the case but no trial date has been set.
Meanwhile, Sam Kellner is still waiting to clear his name. In that effort he has found supporters outside his community.
“The whole situation doesn’t make sense,” Rabbi Yosef Blau, the spiritual adviser at the rabbinical seminary of Yeshiva University, told The Jewish Week. “The idea that major players like Moshe Gabbai would be doing Sam Kellner’s bidding is mind-bogglingly absurd to [anyone familiar with how that community works].”
Some observers fear the charges against Kellner are enough to threaten the possibility of a retrial, not to mention a conviction, of Baruch Lebovits.
“I was devastated by Kellner’s arrest because it cast doubt on Lebovits’ conviction,” the blogger and advocate known as Yerachmiel Lopin told The Jewish Week. “I strongly suspected the evidence against him was fabricated and misrepresented to get Lebovits off the hook.”
Lebovits’ lawyer, Arthur Aidala, declined to comment on the two cases.
Even if Lebovits is retried and convicted, Kellner’s attorney nonetheless believes that the prosecution of his client is politically motivated.
“I believe the DA came under such pressure from [powerful elements] in the community after Lebovits was sentenced that he didn’t want to further alienate them,” Dowd told The Jewish Week. “In order to placate them, the DA agreed to prosecute Sam [based on these incredible stories], even though he knew it could sabotage the case against Lebovits.”
That Hynes’ office has apparently not acted on allegations made to its own investigator that Yoel was intimidated by the Lebovits family, and on information reported to police that other witnesses — including Zev and Kellner himself — were harassed and subjected to multiple instances of witness tampering, lends support to Dowd’s position.
According to Pace Law School’s Gershman, all of this “seems to accord with the perception of how Hynes goes about his prosecution responsibilities, particularly as they relate to certain constituencies he’s worried about losing support from.”
Indeed, a source familiar with the Kellner case told The Jewish Week that “there were serious misgivings about it [within the DA’s office], but they were overruled,” the implication being overruled from on high. This could account for why it took almost a year after Meyer Lebovits came to the DA with information about his tape for the police to arrest Kellner.
According to Dowd, this is “one of the most stunning examples of intimidation by the government I have ever seen.”
But Sam Kellner is clearly not someone to be intimidated.
“I’m a fighter,” he said. “And I will keep fighting for my son.”