Thursday, February 02, 2012

New Square arson trial starts Tuesday; teen charged with attempted murder 

An 18-year-old New Square man who worked for the Hasidic Jewish community's rabbinical leader is scheduled for trial next week on a charge of attempted murder stemming from accusations that he set fire to a fellow village resident who had defied the edicts of the community's spiritual leader.

Shaul Spitzer waived his right to a pretrial hearing Wednesday in state Supreme Court. Justice William A. Kelly scheduled jury selection for Tuesday in his fourth-floor courtroom at the Rockland County Courthouse in New City.

Spitzer opted for trial because he faces five to 25 years in state prison if convicted of the top charge of attempted murder, the only offer made by Rockland County prosecutors in exchange for a guilty plea.

Spitzer and his lawyers can change their minds about going to trial, but Spitzer likely would face up to 15 years in prison from the justice if he pleads guilty.
Rockland District Attorney Thomas Zugibe said prosecutor Stephen Moore has made no special plea offer and that a sentence is at the justice's discretion upon conviction.

Spitzer is accused of setting Aron Rottenberg on fire after trying to burn down the family's Truman Avenue house at 4:15 a.m. May 22, tossing a homemade incendiary device onto the back porch of the house, Ramapo police investigators said.

Because of months of threats — including telephone calls days earlier — and vandalism, Rottenberg's son had been monitoring surveillance cameras installed on the house.

The elder Rottenberg then confronted the masked man and during a struggle another incendiary device carried by the man detonated, burning Rottenberg and Spitzer. Spitzer ran off and a resident treated him for his burns.

Rottenberg, 44, a plumber, suffered third-degree burns across 50 percent of his body, leading to skin-graft surgeries and months of hospitalization.
Spitzer, who lived with Grand Rebbe David Twersky and did butler work for him, suffered third-degree burns to his arms and after several weeks of hospitalization returned to school in the community.

Rottenberg and several other village residents were targets of street protests and vandalism for not praying in the grand rebbe's synagogue, less than 100 yards from Rottenberg's house on Truman Avenue.

There is one synagogue in New Square, and the grand rebbe wants all his followers to pray with him. Weeks after the attack, Twersky condemned the violence and offered prayers for both men to recover.

Rottenberg led a weekly Sabbath service at the Friedwald Center rehabilitation facility, about a mile from the center of the Ramapo village.

One other family moved out of the village following the protests they and Rottenberg said were orchestrated by minions who enforced the grand rebbe's edicts.
Rottenberg has filed a civil lawsuit against Twersky and Spitzer. The grand rebbe's followers were supposedly raising money for a settlement offer, but Rottenberg is ready to testify at the criminal trial, his son-in-law Moshe Elbaum said Wednesday.

"We're ready to go, and we're happy that it's finally starting," Elbaum said. "Hopefully they will finally learn their lesson that they are not above the law."
Following a Ramapo police investigation into the May incident, a Rockland grand jury indicted Spitzer in June on charges of second-degree attempted murder, second-degree attempted arson and two counts of first-degree assault, all felonies.

On Wednesday morning, defense lawyer Kenneth Gribetz told Kelly that Spitzer waived his right to a hearing on the admissibility of statements he gave to police.

Spitzer's defense lawyers are not challenging that the teen was at Rottenberg's house during the early morning hours. Gribetz has contended that Spitzer did not intend to harm Rottenberg or to set his house on fire.

The night of the confrontation coincided with the Lag BaOmer festival, when religious Jews have bonfires marking the anniversary of the death of a leading rabbi and a revolt against the Roman Empire. A community group circulated a letter in August claiming Spitzer just wanted to make mischief that morning.
Gribetz and co-defense lawyer Paul Shechtman said the defense case will develop during the trial.

"The defense will come from the lips of the witnesses," Gribetz said after Wednesday's court appearance. "We don't want to make any other statements."
Spitzer also faces a charge of second-degree criminal contempt, a misdemeanor, in New Square Village Court. On Oct. 26, a photograph taken by a village resident surfaced, showing Spitzer in front of Rottenberg's Truman Avenue home about 3:15 p.m. Oct. 4. That case is scheduled for this month.


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