Friday, July 08, 2011

Hasidic Sleuth’s Beat: Mean Streets of Brooklyn 

JOE LEVIN, a private investigator in Brooklyn, was waiting to meet a new client in the parking lot of a kosher supermarket in Borough Park one recent morning. Glancing in the side-view mirror of his chauffeured sport utility vehicle, Mr. Levin said he liked this particular spot because he knew the manager, the delivery man and the security guard, who lets him borrow footage from the lot’s surveillance equipment.
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Dave Sanders for The New York Times

Mr. Levin, right, and an employee, identified as No. 36, on a surveillance assignment outside a school in Brooklyn.

Most of the time, though, Mr. Levin does his own snooping. On his iPad, he scrolled through photographs of people he was being paid about $100 an hour to follow, including a rebellious Hasidic girl in a white miniskirt and a long-bearded rabbi lighting a cigarette on the sidewalk.

“He’s a bad guy,” Mr. Levin said, enlarging the rabbi’s image. “A very bad guy.”

Not your usual private eye, Mr. Levin is a practicing Orthodox Jew, a member of the Bobov Hasidic sect and the founder of T.O.T. Private Investigation and Consulting, a New York-based company that specializes in Orthodox-related cases worldwide. The company, whose focus is uncommon — and perhaps unique in the United States — hires forensic experts, former homicide detectives, photographers and even pilots, mostly on a per-case basis. Its services range from investigations into international banks and Israeli investment companies to local background checks for prospective Shidduchim, or Orthodox marital arrangements.

Since Mr. Levin started the business 12 years ago, his life has often resembled the plot of a TV crime drama. He has trailed unwitting subjects into synagogues and strip clubs, sat beside them on international flights and tracked them down in remote areas of Puerto Rico and Brazil.

While he usually wears the black frock coat and fedora of the Hasidim, when undercover he has donned stocking caps and Yankees jerseys to conceal his brown knit skullcap and tzitzit, the ritual fringes worn by observant Jews.

His organization’s mission is encoded in the name T.O.T., an acronym for the Yiddish expression “Tuchis afn tish.”

“It means ‘Put your tuchis on the table,’ ” said Mr. Levin, a bearded, powerfully built man in his late 30s, who shaved off his side locks years ago out of personal preference. “In other words, ‘Show me the proof.’ And that’s what I do. I bring my proof to the people.”

Mr. Levin has provided key evidence in dozens of high-profile cases. In November, he found Yitzhak Shuchat, a Hasidic man from Crown Heights whom the police were seeking as a suspect in the 2008 beating of a police officer’s son, in a village outside Tel Aviv. Though Mr. Levin was hired by a member of a Hasidic volunteer crime patrol, he turned his information over to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which has requested Mr. Shuchat’s extradition.

Mr. Levin said that information he learned in April led to the indictment of Rabbi Samuel Kellner of Brooklyn on charges that he had bribed a witness in a child molestation case against Baruch Mordechai Lebovits of Borough Park in an effort to extort money from Mr. Lebovits.

Mr. Levin was hired by the family of Mr. Lebovits after he was sentenced last year to up to 32 years in prison on a sexual abuse conviction. Mr. Lebovits has been released on bail pending the outcome of Rabbi Kellner’s trial.

Mr. Levin is intentionally vague about his background. He acknowledges that he served in the Israeli Army before moving to New York in 1994, but beyond that, he has managed to keep much of his life, and his livelihood, invisible.

“For years I tried to have not just a low profile, but no profile,” he said. “People would say to me, ‘I haven’t heard of you,’ and I’d say: ‘That’s great! If you’ve heard of me, you must have been in trouble.’ ”


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