By Michael Orbach (The Forward)
April 20, 2011
A landmark conviction of a prominent member of Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox community for sexual abuse faces possible reversal following the indictment of man charged with having bribed a witness to testify against the abuser.
On April 13, Samuel Kellner, 49, was arraigned in a Brooklyn court on multiple counts of grand larceny, perjury and criminal solicitation. The indictment, stemming from incidents in 2008, charges that after learning about his son's molestation at the hands of Baruch Mordechai Lebovits, a wealthy member of Boro Park's Jewish community, Kellner paid a second alleged victim $10,000 to testify falsely in front of a grand jury.
Afterward, the indictment charges, Kellner demanded $400,000 from the Lebovits family, promising that he would prevent other witnesses from coming forward if the family paid. When the Lebovits family refused, a third victim came forward and the case went to trial, which led to Lebovits's conviction in March 2010 on eight counts of sexual abuse.
One day after Kellner's indictment, an appellate judge ordered Lebovits released from prison and transferred to house arrest on $250,000 bail pending the appeal of his conviction. He has 120 days to appeal his sentence based on the new indictment.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who brought the indictment, said the new developments should not affect Lebovits's conviction.
Through a spokesman, Hynes admitted that the second victim's accusations before the grand jury were likely false. But that victim never testified at the teacher's trial, the spokesman noted. The first and third victims were legitimate, and Lebovits was convicted based on the third victim's testimony, said the D.A.'s spokesman.
The case was a milestone inside the Haredi community, which typically does not report sexual abuse to secular authorities. Patricia DiMango, the judge who presided over the case, noted as such in her ruling.
The "insular nature of the [Orthodox] community" was pierced, DiMango said. "It is important for the courts to send a clear message that abusing and harming children will not be tolerated."
The allegation of extortion is not a new one in the case. During the trial, Lebovits's attorney, Arthur Aidala, sought to portray the 22-year-old victim, who had a drug problem and a criminal history, as a con artist out to get a piece of the Lebovits fortune. During the last day of the trial, one of the victim's schoolteachers claimed that the victim had told him he was out to blackmail the Lebovits family. In a surreal turn of events, the assistant district attorney brought up allegations that the teacher had also molested children. The jury ultimately found Lebovits guilty after a short deliberation. The victim delivered a brief emotional statement during the sentencing hearing.
"Mr. Lebovits showed me no mercy," he said. "He showed no remorse."
Supporters of Kellner frame the case as a battle of the rich versus the poor, with Lebovits and his family spending millions on private investigators and top-notch defense attorneys, including Alan Dershowitz, who successfully argued for Lebovits's provisional release. Lebovits's brother is the Nikolsberg rebbe, the leader of a Hasidic sect in Monsey, N.Y.
In the wake of the Kellner indictment, charges and counter-charges are now flying in both directions within the Satmar Hasidic community. Controversial sexual abuse activist Nuchum Rosenberg claimed that the Lebovits family had tried to bribe Kellner in the past.
"Kellner always, always used to say that 'my son is not a prostitute, and I'm not selling him for money,'" Rosenberg said. "It's a baloney story from A to Z....I spoke to Kellner, and he is a very good spirits and he has no regrets. He feels that now he will be able to bring out victims."
Kellner's lawyer, Israel Fried, claimed that his client was suffering payback for being an advocate.
"Kellner was a staunch activist for victims of sexual abuse," Fried said. "He became a sort of pillar for victims, and it certainly stands to reason that people in the community could take issue with that. The people who advocate for dealing with this in-house and not going to the secular authorities see him as a kind of traitor."
Joe Levine, a private investigator hired by the Lebovits family, said the trial was a "disaster."
"I absolutely don't think he was having a fair trial," he said. "The whole leadership — the rabbis, the city councilmen — everyone came to court to put this guy [Lebovits] in jail. No one wanted to listen to what happened here. This was not the United States."
But even Levine said his objection was limited to the "unacceptable" length of the sentence, 10 to 32 years, Lebovits received for molesting one child.