Thursday, September 08, 2016
It seemed at first like an old-fashioned, only-in-New York murder mystery. On a snowy day in January 2014, the charred remains of Menachem Stark, a Hasidic landlord from Brooklyn, were found in a trash bin at a gas station in Great Neck, on Long Island.
There was tantalizing evidence: surveillance video of a minivan hurrying away from Mr. Stark's office in the Orthodox enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and a trail of financial improprieties, including the fact that the landlord and his partner were in bankruptcy and that $2 million had recently vanished from one of their accounts. There was even some classic tabloid news coverage: The New York Post featured the story with a front-page photo of the victim in his traditional fur hat beside a headline that read: "Who Didn't Want Him Dead?"
On Wednesday, however, as the trial of the man accused of killing Mr. Stark, Kendel Felix, began in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, what had once appeared to be a puzzling whodunit was presented to a jury as a bungling, if tragic, robbery gone wrong. Prosecutors described how Mr. Felix, a journeyman carpenter who had once done work for Mr. Stark, and "a team of kidnappers" — many from his own family — had taken part in a plot to abduct Mr. Stark and shake him down for money.
Mr. Felix, 28, is facing life in prison in the case, and the central evidence against him is a videotaped confession. In the confession, parts of which were played during pretrial hearings, Mr. Felix described how he had been approached by his cousin Erskine Felix, another laborer who claimed that Mr. Stark owed him money, and had been persuaded to participate in a scheme to scare the landlord and recover the debt.
Prosecutors from the Brooklyn district attorney's office added details to the narrative in their opening argument. They said that in the middle of the snowstorm, the Felix cousins forced Mr. Stark into the minivan after a violent struggle on the street outside his office and drove him to the home of another relative of theirs named Irvine Henry. When Mr. Henry noticed that Mr. Stark was dead, Kendel Felix and a fourth relative drove to Great Neck, doused the body with gasoline, set it on fire and left it in the trash bin, the prosecutors said.
After a four-month investigation, Kendel Felix was questioned in April 2014, and over the course of a nightlong interview, confessed to his role in the abduction. But Mr. Felix's lawyer, Jack Goldberg, said during his opening argument that the confession had been coerced. Mr. Felix suffered brain trauma from a motorcycle accident six years ago, Mr. Goldberg told the jury, leaving him "vulnerable to this type of intense interrogation." He attacked the prosecution's theory of the case, saying that there had been no request for ransom and that no money had been taken from Mr. Stark.
The trial is expected to run throughout September, and Emily Dean, an assistant district attorney, told the jury on Wednesday that it would be presented with evidence beyond Mr. Felix's confession. Ms. Dean said traces of Mr. Stark's DNA had been found inside the minivan along with an envelope containing rent from one of his tenants. She also said cellphone data had been used to track Mr. Felix at the scene of the abduction and at the gas station where Mr. Stark's body was found.
There are also likely to be heated arguments over the confession. Mr. Goldberg promised to call as a witness a psychologist who would testify that Mr. Felix had been manipulated by the police because of his brain injury and low I.Q. Ms. Dean told the jury that she would call an expert witness who would testify that Mr. Felix's confession was legitimate.
So far, none of Mr. Felix's purported accomplices have been charged in the case, but officials have said the investigation is continuing.
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