Last month, as lawyers for Leiby Kletzky’s killer telegraphed their defense strategy for his upcoming trial—their answer for what drove their client to barbarism for which, they will argue, he cannot be blamed—Yaakov German reflected ruefully on his optimism on that summer night. Because as it turned out the kibitzers were right, in their own way: The boy had been taken by an outsider. Just not the kind of outsider the residents of Borough Park could imagine.
One afternoon in the spring of 1987, a boy named Levi Aron fell off his bicycle. Or perhaps the accident occurred in 1986, when Aron was 10. Sometimes Aron would recall that he had fallen of his own accord, and sometimes he remembered that he was knocked over by a passing car. Sometimes his head was sliced by the spokes of his front wheel, and sometimes he somersaulted onto the asphalt, his head breaking open in a puff of bright pink. But in recounting the incident for friends, Levi Aron always stressed the same thing: The accident changed him.
Aron was a nebbishy kid, shy and withdrawn. He was born into a large family that moved between Brooklyn and Monsey, a Jewish community in upstate New York, before settling in a three-story house in Kensington, just over the eastern boundary of Borough Park, their lives half in and half out of its tight-knit Hasidic universe. Aron’s parents, Jack and Basya, were Orthodox and exceptionally devout. He was not. He attended shul but had trouble concentrating. Scripture—the same scripture that other yeshiva students devoured with ease and pleasure—was to him an impenetrable wall. He later told friends that he felt from an early age like an outsider. “Not of that world,” he would say.
Aron clashed frequently with his father. Jack liked to talk. He liked to talk over his wife, over his children. Aron burrowed deeper within himself, becoming, in the words of an acquaintance, “a stranger in his own family.” He had two sources of solace. The first was his mother, the only relative who seemed to understand him. The second was music. Aron spent hours listening to albums: pop, disco, rock. All were forbidden commodities, anathema to Jack, who encouraged Levi to pursue a normal life of God and prayer.
Aron spent three years at a high school in Borough Park, where he was remembered as a spectral and strange presence. He watched his brother Joe, a well-adjusted and charismatic boy, depart for college, then a promising job in Arizona. Aron left high school before graduation and failed to obtain his GED. Unable to find his own way out, he moved his belongings down to the basement of the Kensington house. Despairing, Jack arranged a job for him at Empire State Supply, a Hasidic-owned hardware store about a mile from Yeshiva Boyan. Someone who remembers him from the shop recalls Aron as a lunatic genius,” completely antisocial but able to remember the location of every item in the store, down to the last screw. The managers assigned Aron to the back room, where he helped manage inventory, out of customers’ view.
By the morning of July 12, Borough Park had taken on the appearance of an armed encampment. As German resumed his search, he encountered packs of men and boys, some clutching maps, others calling out through bullhorns. The side streets, busy on normal days, were clogged with Shomrim cruisers and riot vans. German kept his head down, greeting acquaintances gruffly, rarely stopping to chat. He’d run into a problem: Most of the security cameras he hoped to check had long since been disconnected—they were mere ornaments.
At a locksmith at the intersection of 44th Street and Fifteenth Avenue, he got his hands on a rare working unit. But before he could view the tape, an employee had to summon the owner, who had just touched down at La Guardia. Two hours later, German found himself staring at an image of Leiby, who had passed the turn he was supposed to make, and headed onward into unfamiliar terrain. One of German’s next stops was Economy Leasing, a nearby car-rental outlet run by Abraham Porgesz. He gave German what would prove a crucial tip: “Why don’t you try Tri State Fleet?” Porgesz said. “Guy has more cameras than he knows what to do with.” German, sweaty and frantic, arrived there around 5 p.m. Yehuda Bernstein, the manager, met him at the door. Bernstein is a smoker and inveterate consumer of caffeine, and his office, which lies through a darkened lobby, was cluttered with cans of Red Bull and Coke Zero. Bernstein is also, by his own admission, “a security freak.” Tri State is studded with cameras; three weeks earlier, Bernstein had paid a company called Protel to install a new one on the front of his building. It was this camera that German was interested in.