TRENTON, N.J. — Three rabbis were convicted in federal court Tuesday of conspiring to kidnap Jewish men in order to force them to grant their wives divorces.
Rabbi Mendel Epstein, 69, of Lakewood, New Jersey; Rabbi Jay Goldstein, 60, of Brooklyn; and Rabbi Binyamin Stimler, 39, also of Brooklyn, were all convicted of conspiracy to commit kidnapping, according to New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman. Goldstein and Stimler were also convicted of attempted kidnapping.
Epstein’s son, David, was acquitted at trial.
Jurors deliberated for three days after an eight-week trial before Trenton U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson, prosecutors said.
Epstein and his colleagues were accused of employing a kidnap team to force unwilling Jewish husbands to grant a get, or a religious divorce, to their wives.
At trial, prosecutors accused the defendants in four incidents – one of which involved undercover agents after the FBI had begun a surveillance operation.
• On Dec. 1, 2009, Israel Markowitz, an Orthodox Jewish man from Lakewood, was assaulted, placed in a van, tied up, beaten and shocked with a stun gun until he agreed to grant a divorce;
• On Oct. 16, 2010, in Lakewood, another Orthodox Jewish man from Lakewood named Ysrael Bryskman was assaulted, tied up and beaten until he agreed to grant a divorce;
• On Aug. 22, 2011 in Brooklyn, another Orthodox Jewish man, Usher Chaimowitz, and his roommate, Menachem Teitlebaum, were both assaulted, tied up and beaten until Chaimowitz agreed to grant a divorce.
The FBI began an undercover operation in August 2013, in which two agents posed as a wife seeking a get from a husband who was not willing to grant one, and her brother who tried to help her obtain the divorce document, prosecutors said.
The agents recorded several phone calls and in-person meetings with Epstein, who arranged to have his team kidnap the husband in a warehouse for $60,000, prosecutors said.
On Oct. 9, 2013, Goldstein, Stimler and six others went to a warehouse in Middlesex County, New Jersey where they planned to kidnap the husband and force the get, prosecutors said.
They arrived at the warehouse around 8 p.m. that night with the undercover agent posing as the brother, and put on ski masks, Halloween masks and bandanas as they talked about their plan for kidnapping and assaulting the husband – including grabbing him, pulling him down, tying him up, and taking his phone, prosecutors said.
The kidnap team brought along a 30-foot nylon rope, a blindfold, vodka, license plates that had been switched out, and items to record the get ceremonially, prosecutors said.
At 8:23 p.m. that night, law enforcement stormed the warehouse and arrested three men – including Goldstein and Stimler – while Epstein was arrested at his Brooklyn home that night, prosecutors said.
The high-profile Epstein case went on to make the cover of the Village Voice in December 2013, and was featured in a segment on the radio program “This American Life” – featuring clips from a CBS2 report by the late John Slattery – a month later.
Only a husband can initiate divorce by issuing the get, but a wife has the right to sue for divorce in rabbinical court, according to the complaint against the defendants.
“Without a get you are still married in the eyes of the community,” Benny Rogosnitzky, a New York cantor and a representative of the Frum Divorce organization, told CBS News’ Crimesider back in October 2013. Even if a civil court grants the divorce, a woman without a get is forbidden to date or remarry within the religion.
If convicted, the three defendants could face life in prison.