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A Monster Among the 'Frum'

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Looking for Leiby  

In 2006, Diunov and Shvartsman were indicted on charges of conspiring to commit wire fraud. Shvartsman was convicted and has since relocated to New Jersey. ­Diunov remains incarcerated at the Metro­politan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan and faces possible deportation. She is heavier than she used to be—a result, she says, of all the medication she is forced to take—but remains sharp. “Levi,” she says, “is perfectly sane. He was just so full of rage. The community didn’t accept him, and he knew they never would. Oh, it made him so angry.”

Meanwhile, things were getting worse for Aron at home. His mother lost a battle with cancer, a profound blow, and his relationship with his father was increasingly cold and distant. Once or twice a week, he’d eat dinner with his family, and on the weekends, he drove around Manhattan and Brooklyn, performing at karaoke bars. He favored soaring pop ­ballads—Fleetwood Mac, Lionel Richie, Journey. At some point, he acquired a computer and began spending his free nights online, listening to music or exchanging messages on Friendster. He also registered with the dating site Saw You at Sinai, which promised to help Jewish singles find their bashert, or soul mate.

One of the first women he met on the site was Debbie Kivel, a thirtysomething divorcée from Tennessee with dirty-blonde hair and a syrupy southern drawl. Insofar as Aron had a type, Kivel was it—strong-willed, outspoken, and something of an outsider herself. She was a frum Jew, but she was also gleefully profane, conversant in rock music and pop culture.

“Levi is perfectly sane,” says one of Aron’s ex‑wives. “He was just so full of rage.”

In September 2005, Aron and Kivel spoke on the phone for the first time. Kivel’s early impression of Aron was that he loved to talk—he talked for hours at a time, without interruption, usually about music. During one conversation, he shared his plans to audition for American Idol. “He thought he was the best there ever was,” Kivel says. She did not have the heart to tell him that he was basically tone-deaf.

Kivel shared a small house outside Memphis with her two children, her grandmother, and an uncle. Gradually, Aron told her more about his life. He sometimes had trouble making it to his job at Empire Supply, he confessed, although once there, he enjoyed the work well enough; it left him time to think. Kivel found herself increasingly attracted to Aron. “Levi was losing his hair, but so what?” she says. “All I wanted was a nice person.” She spoke to him almost every day, usually after her kids were asleep. After six months, Aron invited her to visit him in Brooklyn. She agreed but brought her mother along as a precaution. She found the Aron family to be a little reserved but welcoming, and she especially liked one of Aron’s sisters, Sarah. Their house was well decorated and clean.

One evening, as she and Levi drove to a nearby gas-station deli, it began to snow. Kivel turned her face up to the sky—she had never seen snow before—and began to dance across the parking lot. “It was beautiful,” she remembers.

This was the beginning of the blizzard of 2006. Kivel found herself marooned in the city. By the end of the week, she and Aron had agreed to wed. They were married in February in Memphis, but they threw a second party in Brooklyn for the Aron-family members who couldn’t make it to the ceremony. At first, Aron joined the rest of Kivel’s family in the Tennessee house. It was crowded, but they were happy, and the kids—if not particularly affectionate toward Aron—tolerated his presence. After a few months, Aron found work in the kosher deli at the local Kroger supermarket. The job shared something with karaoke: It allowed him to perform for customers, who would greet him with a smile or a wave.

Soon, Aron and Kivel found a deal on a unit in a Memphis apartment complex, $99 for the first month. They settled into a domestic routine: Aron worked from nine to five, and Kivel cooked meals and looked after the kids. Orthodox Jews are not allowed to drive on the Sabbath, and their communities are built around the shul. But living in the South, where the Jewish population is more sparse, Aron and Kivel had to make an hourlong trek to services. They returned home with their feet sore and the children achy and upset.

To help with his moods—even in Memphis, Aron complained regularly about the trauma of the bike accident—Kivel arranged for her husband to visit a family doctor. According to Kivel, Aron obtained a prescription for an antidepressant. The medication seemed to improve his demeanor. “When he didn’t take his pills, it was the same old stories, harping on the same old things,” Kivel says. “When he took the pills, he was pleasant to be around.” But the medication wasn’t enough to preserve their relationship. Aron was testy around the kids, and they fought regularly. By early 2007, Kivel and Aron were divorced.


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