YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A personal trainer from Brooklyn today became the first defendant to plead guilty in an FBI sting that charged eight men and two rabbis — one from Rockland County — in a scheme to kidnap and torture a Jewish man into granting his wife a religious divorce.
A federal judge allowed 31-year-old David Hellman to remain free on $500,000 bond, with electronic monitoring, after he pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Trenton today to “traveling in interstate commerce to commit extortion.”
Hellman said he and seven co-conspirators went to a warehouse in Edison with the intent of forcing the man into a “get” — a divorce document that, under Jewish law, must be presented by a husband to his wife in order to divorce her.
Some wore Halloween masks and another a Metallica T-shirt, while carrying rope, flashlights, surgical blades, a screwdriver, and plastic bags, authorities said.
The group met at the warehouse with a man they thought was the woman’s sister — actually, an undercover FBI agent.
There, Hellman admitted today, they “discussed a plan and prepared to confine, restrain and threaten the victim.”
When the undercover agent left — purportedly to fetch the reluctant husband — agents moved in and arrested the group.
Soon after, they took rabbis Mendel Epstein, 68 ( above, left ), a prominent ultra-Orthodox divorce mediator in Brooklyn, and Martin Wolmark, 55 ( above, right ), the head of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Monsey, into custody in connection with the torture-for-hire scheme.
The defendants live in Brooklyn, except for Wolmark and 40-year-old Ariel Potash, who are from Monsey. Federal authorities said Potash was to be the “shliach,” the person assigned to take possession of the signed religious divorce document.
Others charged with participating in the “get gang”: Jay Goldstein, 59, Moshe Goldstein, 31, Avrohom Goldstein, 34, Simcha Bulmash, 30, Binyamin Stimler, 38, and Sholom Shuchat, 29.
Federal authorities said the unholy crew didn’t operate out of religious conviction to free women from dead marriages but for the money. Defense attorneys have countered that such “pressure” is part of tradition and that federal and religious laws have collided.
According to an FBI complaint, at least one of the defendants spoke of forcing compliance using electric cattle prods and plastic bags put over reluctant husbands’ heads. Each job paid $50,000 to $60,000, with most of it going to the “tough guys” — or enforcers, the FBI said.
“Basically what we are going to be doing is kidnapping a guy for a couple of hours and beating him up and torturing him and then getting him to give the get,” Epstein is quoted as saying during a conversation recorded by the FBI.
As for the cattle prod, Epstein was quoted saying: “If it can get a bull that weighs 5 tons to move … you put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute, the guy will know.”
Under Jewish law, a wife has the right to sue in rabbinical court if a husband refuses to grant her a “get.” In fact, as part of the sting, such a court (known as a “beth din”) was held in Rockland — where the FBI said the use of force was OK’d.
The sting had its roots in the 2011 case of a David and Judy Wax of Lakewood, who were accused of kidnapping an Israeli national in an attempt to force him to divorce his estranged wife in Israel.
Wolmark was the initial contact for an FBI agent posing as an unhappily married Orthodox woman. Her “brother” came along the next time, when both offered to pay for help, the government said.
He hooked them up with Epstein, the federal complaint says.
Federal prosecutors in New Jersey and New York have said that they believe group members were involved in as many as 20 such shakedowns before the sting. According to nj.com , Epstein and Wolmark were both accused in a 1998 civil racketeering suit with taking part in the abduction and torture of a Brooklyn rabbi who refused his wife’s request for a “get.” No criminal charges were filed and court records show the lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, nj.com reported.
Hellman told the judge today that he and others three years ago went to a residence in Brooklyn where they “restrained, assaulted and injured” a man in an attempt to extort a divorce from him.
The judge set sentencing for June 12.
Fishman credited the FBI and thanked Lakewood (NJ) police for their assistance. Handling the case for the government is Assistant U.S. Attorneys R. Joseph Gribko and Sarah Wolfe of Fishman’s Trenton office.
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