A 26-year-old Kiryas Joel man and two other defendants are due to be sentenced in federal court on Thursday for their parts in an alleged plot to kidnap and kill a fellow Hasid who had refused for 10 years to give his estranged wife the permission she needed under Jewish law to divorce him.
Shimen Liebowitz pleaded guilty in July to conspiracy to commit extortion and faces a sentence of 33-41 months in prison, minus the more than 14 months he has spent in the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center since his arrest in September 2016. His lawyers urged Judge Sidney Stein to show leniency in court papers filed last month, portraying Liebowitz as a young, impressionable man who was swept into a shady scheme by older, more worldly men, and who is now racked with remorse.
“Mr. Liebowitz is ashamed that he did not have the moral clarity to dissociate himself from people who were discussing murder, mistakenly thinking that he could logically convince them not to kill (Joseph) Masri,” attorneys Susan Necheles and Gedalia Stern wrote.
Prosecutors say the suspects enlisted a private investigator and initially plotted with him to abduct and coerce the husband into granting a Jewish divorce consent, known as a get, but then talked about killing the husband instead to dissolve the broken marriage. No such plans were carried out. The investigator recorded their conversations and gave the recordings to the FBI after the group hired him, and the three defendants were arrested just two months after they began hatching their plans.
Both of Liebowitz’s co-defendants have pleaded guilty and will be sentenced in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on the same day. Aharon Goldberg, an Israeli rabbi whom prosecutors blame the most for the scheme, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit kidnapping and murder-for-hire and faces up to five years in prison. Binyamin Gottlieb, a Monsey man who introduced Goldberg and Liebowitz to the private investigator, has pleaded guilty to concealing a felony and could be sentenced to eight to 14 months behind bars.
In court papers, defense attorneys portrayed the investigator, Avraham Lehrer, as a “small-time fraudster” who disliked the Satmar Hasidic sect and goaded the defendants into plans they would not have concocted on their own. But in their own statement to the judge last month, prosecutors scoffed at the idea that both Liebowitz and Goldberg had suffered “simultaneous episodes of inexplicable aberrant behavior” - or that Lehrer had used pressure to “overbear their wills.”
That the two men saw what they were plotting as an act of altruism is “deeply troubling,” and “underscores the necessity of a substantial sentence to deter them and others who may share their views,” assistant U.S. attorneys Paul Monteleoni and Scott Hartman wrote.
According to his lawyers’ account, Liebowitz was raised in a Satmar Hasidic community in Melbourne, Australia, and came to Kiryas Joel at age 16 to attend the Satmar rabbinical college there. He is now a married father of one, and was earning a modest income by selling pet supplies on Amazon while acting as an intermediary in bitter divorce and custody cases in the Satmar community. That sideline is apparently how he would up involved in the Masris’ lives.
The wife in that case lived in Kiryas Joel, and the husband lived in Brooklyn. State Supreme Court records indicate they divorced in March, about six months after the arrests.