Monday, May 15, 2017
Joe Levin told the rabbi that the man he'd kidnapped was "half dead already."
Levin was talking about Joseph Masri, a Hasidic man who refused to give his wife a religious divorce. Rabbi Aharon Goldberg, who specialized in such cases in Israel, had been in contact with him about the situation. That day, they said they were going to "do the bullet"—kill Masri—but that alone wouldn't be enough. Goldberg said he would need proof of death so he could testify before a rabbinic court that the husband was deceased and the marriage was over.
The third man at the meeting, Shimen Liebowitz, was anxious.
"So there's going to be a video and you are going to give it around to the world or what?" Liebowitz asked Goldberg. "Are you prepared that if the government knocks on the Rabbi's home he will say that Aharon Goldberg is the witness?
"You don't grasp what is going to happen here," he added, ignoring Goldberg's plaintive pleas that the situation will "calm down." The body had to be found, they discussed, so that DNA could be used to identify it. Levin even suggested they'd have to lead police to the body.
He promised Goldberg a video of the victim with a bullet in his head.
Then the FBI burst in.
Esther Masri married Joseph in a religious ceremony, with a contract saying the marriage was bound by the Satmar Hasidic sect's interpretation of Jewish law. She'd met him once, for about 20 minutes, before she consented to the marriage.
"What did I know? I was an 18-year-old child. I didn't know what people are," Esther told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview. "He had two hands, two feet, he had a mouth. I didn't know what to look for."
The relationship was rocky from the start. Esther says she blamed herself, and tried to fix it. Things got harder when they had their first child, born premature and with serious disabilities. A second, healthy, son was born soon after, but the marriage didn't improve.
"I didn't have communication with him. It's not like the communication was bad, I didn't have any communication at all," Esther said. "And I said that's it, if I'm not going to do it for myself, I'm going to do it for my kids."
It was 2007 and she wanted a divorce.
Ten years later, she's still waiting.
Masri has refused to give her a "get," a religious divorce that will allow her to remarry in the Orthodox community and move on with her life. The impasse has left Esther, a 34-year-old teacher's aide, to support herself and her younger child; The older one has disabilities, and lives in a taxpayer-funded institution, according to court papers. Without the get, she cannot remarry in a community that centers on family. In fact, Rabbi Jeremy Stern of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot told The Daily Beast that he considers get refusal itself as a form of spousal abuse.
Religious divorces in the ultra-Orthodox corners of Brooklyn, New Jersey, and upstate New York are litigated by rabbinic courts. Modern Orthodox couples may get "halachic prenups" that bind the couple to arbitration before a rabbinic court in the case of a dispute. Those are too innovative for Esther's "frum, frum, frum" community, she said, using the Yiddish word for "devout." Yet everyone still tried to pressure Masri into letting her go.
"The get itself does not take too long. And it goes by appointment, and rabbis, rabbinical courts do this all day every day," she explained. "It's not like you have to bring down the moon."
But Masri refused to appear before the court, which issued a seruv, or contempt order, against him. The community plastered the order all over Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel.
Esther's appeal to the secular court in 2016, then, was twofold: First, she asked for a secular judgment of divorce and got it. Then, she asked that the court to make Masri pay her $2,000 in spousal support, every month, until he grants her an acceptable religious divorce. It was her third time pursuing a civil solution.
Orange County Supreme Court Catherine M. Bartlett was sympathetic to her plight, but said her hands were by the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Unlike other spouses, Masri didn't seem to be withholding a divorce for the "advantage" of lower support payments. Rather, while it was unfortunate that Esther needed his consent for a get, Bartlett said "the unfairness comes from [the wife's] own sincerely-held religious beliefs," as a court in a similar case found.
Bartlett did dismiss Masri's claim that he makes a paltry $3,813 a year and ordered him to pay more than $1,600 in monthly spousal and child support payments. Esther's family was supportive. A brother drove her to court each time.
"I believe in God that the day will come soon, that [Masri]'s gonna, for himself, he's gonna want to be out of this," she said. "He's gonna want to feel free."
She still doesn't have her get. But four months before that judgement, three men were arrested for trying to solve her problem.
In July 2016, an Israeli rabbi met with a private investigator specializing in Orthodox communities. Aharon Goldberg is a well-regarded mediator in get refusal cases in Israel, a community member told The Daily Beast. In New York, he told the private investigator, who uses the pseudonym Joe Levin professionally, that he needed help getting Masri to grant Esther a get.
"I have people in Israel, here, I don't have any soldiers," Goldberg told Levin. "I don't have soldiers here, I don't have. Here one has to work with an investigator," Goldberg said, who could follow a target. "When he wakes up, when he leaves."
It's unclear how Goldberg got involved in Esther's problem, but last July he discussed ways to free her from her predicament. All of the dialogue about the alleged murder plot comes from court filings by both the defense and prosecution.
"The Talmud says there are two ways" to free a wife whose husband won't divorce her, Goldberg told Levin.
"Yes, I know," Levin replied.
"So I am going for this and for this too," Goldberg replied. "You understand?"
Prosecutors say Goldberg was referring to forcing Masri to sign a get, or killing him. Goldberg's lawyer counters that the rabbi would never suggest that murder is permissible in their faith.
But getting to Masri, who lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with his parents, was another challenge. Goldberg and Levin discussed approaching Masri during his religious sect's annual ritual pilgrimage to Ukraine. Another possibility was enticing him to go to Mexico with a young woman.
"There are solutions also in the [United] States. You rent a house in Pennsylvania […] he gets put into a closed cage, the kind that you put a dog in, two months," Levin said. "He gets dog food, you know what a dog does—at the end—he barks."
A quicker option floated by the men involved setting Masri up for a sexual assault by having a woman accuse him in the taxi they believed he drove.
"I would prefer a girl from Israel or a girl from a foreign country," Levin said. "Why? The investigation here is very tough, when you come here with a claim, the DA sits with you and examines you, and you need to be very tough and strong that everything is true talk."
But having a tourist allege the assault would clear up many later challenges.
"If you bring a tourist from Israel with a taxi—she just happened to be in Williamsburg and she stopped a taxi, she doesn't know English well and she doesn't understand anything," Levin said. "They bring her a translator, they bring her whatever, after that she flies back to Israel and he is stuck here with charges."
"If he wants to give a get, I'll convince the girl to drop the charges," Goldberg said.
Prosecutors say this plot was hatched despite a high-profile prosecution of a New Jersey rabbi for another plot to coerce religious divorces from recalcitrant husbands. Rabbi Mendel Epstein was sentenced to 10 years in prison in December 2015, for techniques that included kidnapping and shocking reluctant husbands with cattle prods.
Levin recalled that prosecution and distinguished the methods he would use on Masri.
"There is no problem with making money," he said while criticizing Epstein. "There are also many women that paid him and he didn't do anything for them, the money blinded him completely, that was the problem with Epstein. And that's why he fell."
And Masri was apparently feeling the heat from the community. Another alleged co-conspirator said that posters had popped up around the neighborhood about him, and a friend of Masri's came to tear them down. When Masri came to the scene, the crowd turned on him.
When Masri arrived, "there were already a few people on the street that started screaming: Give a get! Give a get!" Liebowitz said. "So he ran back to his car and shut his windows."
Such actions even made him too scared to continue driving a taxi service, according to Leibowitz. But he reported that Masri lived with his father's family in a top-floor apartment on the outer edge of Hasidic Williamsburg, which Levin interpreted as a possible complication to getting a get.
"That is not good," Levin said. "If one day he doesn't come home—the people at home know about it."
"I am not so sure his father is going to rush to call," Liebowitz countered.
The operation wouldn't be simple. Levin told the men he charges $250 an hour, and any operation would need 100 hours of surveillance to start. Chartering a private flight to kidnap Masri to Israel, or "a small house with two guys" in the U.S. to hold him hostage, would be extra.
"We still have to sit on him. I have to know what the guy is doing, and how he's doing it, how he's driving, everything in his life. We are building a profile on the person," Levin told the men. "That's the way I—that's the way the FBI works. That's the way everyone in this field works."
But Masri was never in any danger from Levin. Levin knew how the FBI worked because he was working for them as a confidential source, recording the meetings.
Goldberg and Liebowitz were arrested on Sept. 6 and charged with conspiracy to commit murder for hire and conspiracy to commit kidnapping. A third man, Binyamin Gottlieb, was arrested shortly after for introducing Goldberg and Levin, and allegedly participating in the kidnapping conspiracy.
Prosecutors credit Levin, who'd worked with law enforcement previously, with helping to stop a dangerous plot. But Goldberg and Liebowitz's attorneys now say the defendants were tricked into the most damning conversations.
The defense attorneys argued that their clients should be released on bail, and that they were too poor to pose a flight risk. Prosecutors countered that the men must be closely held in federal lockup because the extensive resources of the tight-knit community make them a virtually unprecedented flight risk.
The government "basically stood here and suggested that the entire community of Kiryas Joel are criminal," responded Susan Necheles, Liebowitz's attorney, according to court transcripts. "There's nowhere that someone who likes like this and who needs to live in a community like this, can flee nowadays and they know it."
Attorneys for Gottlieb, the initial connector who was arrested later, argued that he was peripheral to any plot and wasn't present at some of the most damning meetings. He was the only one of the men to be approved for $2.5 million bond, after an extensive back-and-forth.
But the controversy didn't die down with the arrests.
The case still percolates in the Hasidic enclaves of Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel. Someone set up a Facebook page in Masri's name with a goofy picture of the man, and a message in English and Yiddish: "I will not give my wife a get." (The Daily Beast was unable to track down the creator of the page, and Masri declined to comment.)
In court filings submitted by defense attorneys and first reported by The Daily Beast, defense attorneys also accuse prosecutors of inadequately providing them with all recordings of conversations. They say they're missing key early conversations that may have "exculpatory" evidence and shed light on how Levin and Goldberg were first introduced, and what Levin knew about him. Goldberg says he was led into talk of kidnapping and murder by Levin.
Available evidence "leads to the undeniable conclusion that someone had a conversation(s) with [Levin]" before he met with Goldberg, the rabbi's attorney, Robert Stahl, charged. "Did [Levin] and the person setting up the meeting agree to steer the conversation in a certain way, to set up Rabbi Goldberg and others in an illegal scenario?"
The recorded conversations were part of "the defendants' unsavory," though not illegal, "efforts to compile incriminating or embarrassing evidence about the husband's sexual or financial misdeeds," Goldberg's attorney argued in court filings. The other options, he said, were first suggested not by Goldberg, but the man he was consulting with.
The attorney for Liebowitz, a 25-year-old with an infant child, asked for recordings of calls between Levin and FBI agents to be provided to the defense, and also sought to discredit the government's source in court filings.
"In artfully crafted language, the Government in this case represents that [the source] has not 'historically' received compensation from the Government. This language implies that he might expect compensation in the future for his cooperation," Nechelles wrote. (Prosecutors said at a hearing last week that they would find out and let defense attorneys know if a one-time payment was to be made. Levin's attorney denied any compensation.)
Nechelles also mocked the idea that Levin was cooperating with the government as a "concerned member of the Jewish community," instead suggesting that he was motivated by an antipathy toward Goldberg's Satmar Hasidic sect.
"Finally, the Government represented that [Levin] has 'not requested assistance with any criminal charges,' although it acknowledges that [he] has at least one criminal conviction," Necheles added. "This language leaves it unclear whether [he] has received any assistance with criminal charges, or whether his assistance has helped him avoid criminal charges in the first place."
Reached by phone, Levin stopped responding to The Daily Beast when asked about this case.
Levin's attorney, Brian Condon, told The Daily Beast that his client does not harbor ill will toward the Satmar community. He also denied that Levin was receiving help from law enforcement, and said he could not comment on Levin's work on the Goldberg case because of its ongoing nature. (A trial date is set for October.)
Supporters of the jailed men, meanwhile, have gone after Levin. They set up a website revealing his real name—also listed in court filings by the defense—and criminal record. They accuse him of working as an unlicensed private investigator, and numerous other allegations.
His lawyer told The Daily Beast that Levin is technically a consultant, and not a private investigator, so he doesn't need a license. And the other charges on the websites, which have since been removed, are libelous, he said.
If anyone releases that information again, "I have been authorized to bring appropriate legal action," Condon wrote.
But before he hung up, Levin chuckled about the website set up to take him down.
"And then… that disappeared," he said.
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