Late in the evening of July 11, Yaakov German, a 47-year-old Bobover Hasid, received a call from his brother, Benny. “Yanky,” Benny said, “a boy is lost in the community. You’ve got to come help.” German, who is short and thickly built, sprang from his chair and headed out into the heat.
Borough Park was already thrumming with somber activity. Men in black coats and black hats waded through backyards and back alleys, flashlights in hand. On adjoining balconies, women in trim dark dresses worked their phones, prodding friends and family for information. The bookstores and kosher restaurants filled with concerned citizens. In the cavernous shuls on Thirteenth Avenue, the high street of the Jewish settlement, rabbis urged prayers for the missing child. Borough Park, which sits between Flatbush and Bensonhurst in southwest Brooklyn, is by some estimates the most densely Orthodox neighborhood outside of Israel, and residents are accustomed to looking after their own. “We are all of one face,” goes a popular saying. “We are like tea bags,” goes another. “When it gets hot, we stick together.” The first call placed by Esther Kletzky, the mother of the missing child, had been to the Borough Park Shomrim, a Hasidic anti-crime patrol.
It was the offices of the Shomrim—Hebrew for “watchers”—that German initially visited. From the search coordinators he learned the basics: The boy, an 8-year-old named Leiby, was short and slight, with dark peyos, or side curls. He had disappeared on his way home from day camp at Yeshiva Boyan, a large neighborhood Jewish school. It was Leiby’s first time making the trip alone, but that his parents had allowed him to do so was not unusual. In Borough Park, crime rates are low, residents are trusting, families are large (Leiby was one of six kids), and children earn their independence at a very young age, the better to help their overworked mothers watch their even younger siblings. Moreover, Leiby’s intended route was simple and short: one block southeast from the yeshiva, on 44th Street, before turning right, onto Thirteenth Avenue, where he would meet his mother. His parents had practiced with him.
German, a father of twelve, is well known in Borough Park both for his real-estate holdings and his indelicate demeanor. He had himself been involved with the Shomrim as a younger man, but he chafed at the patrol’s protocols and came to conclude that his energies would be better deployed on a freelance basis. By his own count, he has tracked down “a lot of criminals.” In 2003, when a neighborhood house went up in flames, he famously barreled past a wall of angry firefighters and carried the waiting children to safety. (“My wife worries,” he says. “But I know that when my time comes, it comes.”) Now German was about to clash with the Shomrim again. The search coordinators, German remembers, were casting a wide net. To him this made little sense. “I tried to think logically. Like a detective,” he says. “I thought, Well, we have to go to the last point he was seen alive.” But the Shomrim were unyielding. After a few minutes, German threw up his arms. “I knew I’d have to do it myself.”
He made it to Yeshiva Boyan around 11:30 p.m. With the help of his son Avrumy, who worked as an instructor there, German accessed the footage from a camera facing 44th Street. For two hours, his eyes reddening with the effort, he pored over footage of teeming masses of boys in yarmulkes. Then, finally, he spotted Leiby, carrying a backpack and holding a satchel in one hand. German formulated a plan: In the morning he would work his way down 44th Street and demand that its business owners turn over their security tapes, so that he could look for that satchel and piece together where the boy had gone. Back at home, German spent a sleepless night pacing the floor of his basement, reading aloud from the Torah to calm his nerves.
After setting out the next morning, German called Leiby’s father, Nachman, to report his progress. “I’m going to find him,” he promised.
German had heard the speculation—Leiby had been snatched by an outsider, perhaps a Hispanic or black man from one of the adjoining neighborhoods. But he did not despair. Years earlier, he had been involved in the hunt for Suri Feldman, a young girl who had vanished on a field trip to a Connecticut park. Then, too, some searchers feared that the child had been abducted and killed, probably by a non-Jew. They were looking for a corpse. German had been among the men who found the girl, alive and shaken, praying under the boughs of a tree. “Have faith,” he told himself.
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.
He had become convinced that Leiby had followed 44th Street all the way south to its terminus, where the offices of Tri State were located. Bernstein’s tapes would show which way the boy had gone next. Unfortunately, Bernstein was a security freak who could not operate his own security apparatus. He slapped anxiously at his computer before bounding, with the jerky grace of a giraffe, to the phone, where he summoned Heshy Herbst, a friend and Protel employee
Herbst, like everyone in Borough Park, had been following the news of Leiby’s disappearance, and he dropped what he was working on and drove straight over. Inside the office, he hooked up the cameras to Bernstein’s desktop and showed German and Bernstein how to stream the footage. It did not take them long to find Leiby.
In the clip, the boy, clearly disoriented, lingers by the chain-link fence at the corner of the Tri State lot. A man, bearded and wearing a newsboy cap, approaches, and he and Leiby have a brief conversation. The man departs. Seven minutes pass. Leiby remains in place. The man returns and walks with Leiby to a nearby Honda. The car, in a stroke of awful luck, sits partially hidden by a bush, its license plate out of view.
“Did you see that?” German asked.
“See what?” Bernstein said. “The car?”
“No, the guy, in the cap. He was Jewish.”
In Borough Park, most marriages are arranged with the help of a shadken—a professional matchmaker who performs a kind of due diligence on his or her clients, sweeping the ancestral closet for skeletons. Criteria include the social position of the family and the perceived piety of the bride and groom. The most promising men and women are generally married early, around the age of 21 or 22. For the next decade, they concentrate on building the biggest possible family—a mitzvah in the eyes of God.
Levi Aron remained single for the bulk of his twenties, a sign that he was considered by both his family and the neighborhood shadken to be of lesser stock. For companionship, he turned to a group of like-minded Jews, most of them also single men. They called themselves rebels, one friend remembers. They raged against the strictures of the frum, or pious, world and gathered at restaurants and bars around South Brooklyn—their go-to spot was a dimly lit kosher Japanese steakhouse called Fuji Hana. Aron could be a hard person to talk to, by turns aggressively chatty or heavy-lidded and silent. “His head would just drop down and his face would go blank,” one former friend remembers. “We’d ask him if he was okay, and he’d lean over and show us the scar from the bike accident.” He seemed to have trouble “distinguishing emotional distance,” one acquaintance said. “He could tell you if he knew someone, but he couldn’t tell you who’s a friend, who’s just some guy he barely knows.”
In 2002, Aron met Diana Diunov, a young Israeli émigré who had become romantically involved with a friend of his named Jay Girshberg. As a teenager, she claimed, the Israeli government had smuggled her out of her native Moldavia. But soon, Diunov said, she was diagnosed with a fatal liver condition and, with the help of a Brooklyn Jewish group, moved to the United States with her daughter Edita to receive a transplant. When the operation was over, she decided to stay in New York. Diunov could be charming and fiercely funny, and she quickly found work in the diamond district.
“Everything for Diana is big,” says someone who knows her well. “When she’s up, she’s on top of the world, and when she is down, she can take the entire cosmos with her.” To Aron, she must have seemed exotic indeed. Diunov, for her part, initially thought of Aron only as a friend, but when her relationship with Girshberg began to sour, she took a second look. Asher Girshberg, Jay’s father, vouched for Levi, saying he was a “nice boy.” According to Diunov, she and Aron married in 2004, embarking on an unconventional union: She was still living with Girshberg, and Aron would come out to their Brighton Beach apartment to see his bride. During that time, Aron also spent time with young Edita, apparently without incident.
At one point, Diunov remembers, she and Diunov considered renting an apartment together. For Aron, the benefits of the arrangement would have been obvious: He could escape Borough Park, find permanent companionship, cure his isolation. But after just three months, the marriage began to fray, and by the end of the year, Diunov and Aron were divorced. They remained friends, however, and when Diunov married a man named Boris Shvartsman, Aron made a brief appearance at the wedding, where he dropped off some spare audio equipment for the D.J.
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.
After their split, Aron showed up one day on Kivel’s front doorstep holding a pile of dirty laundry. He was headed back to Brooklyn, he said, but first needed to wash some clothes. He stayed for a few hours, then he was off again in his beat-up Honda Accord, bound toward his old life.
The footage from Tri State Fleet had given Yaakov German his first look at Leiby’s abductor. But without a plate number for the gold Honda, he was stuck. He phoned a man named Jack Meyer, a liaison between the NYPD and the Borough Park community. Less than ten minutes later, a small army of cops flooded into the offices of Tri State Fleet, led by Deputy Inspector John Sprague and Chief Joseph Fox, then the commander of Brooklyn South. (Fox has since been promoted to chief of transit.) “I have a bad feeling about this,” Bernstein, the Tri State manager, remembers Fox saying.
A forensics team was summoned. As NYPD analysts began sifting through the footage in their mobile lab, senior officers streamed in and out of Tri State. A stack of pizzas was ordered from a nearby kosher restaurant. The mood, one observer recalls, was one of “profound despair.” The tape was by now more than 24 hours old.
At around 11 p.m., Heshy Herbst, who had departed to finish a job, returned to the office and sat down to examine the footage. Herbst has worked in the surveillance business for close to twenty years, and almost immediately his trained eye settled on a flicker of movement. “Look!” he shouted. “The dentist’s office! He goes to the dentist’s office!”
The police crowded around to look. Herbst was right: During the seven long minutes that Leiby had stood waiting, the man in the newsboy cap had apparently entered a split-level occupied by a local dentist, Yehuda Sorscher.
By then, not only was the office crowded but so was the lot outside—the police had set up floodlights on Eighteenth Avenue and cordoned off 44th Street. A crowd of black hats, some 2,000 strong by one count, packed in beyond the police line, roiling like a storm bank. Among them was Simcha Eichenstein, a well-known Hasidic political operative. Eichenstein’s wife, Herbst knew, worked for Sorscher as a receptionist. Elbowing Bernstein out of the way, Herbst uploaded a clip of the bearded man and sent it to Eichenstein. Eichenstein sent it to his wife, at home with her small children.
“Of course,” she told her husband. She couldn’t remember the man’s name, but she was sure she had seen him. “He came in to pay a bill. He was the last one in the office.”
By 2011, Aron’s life in Brooklyn became intensely circumscribed. He had moved into the third-floor apartment of his family’s home. On workday mornings, he awoke alone, dressed carelessly, and plodded to Empire Supply, where he had reclaimed his old job. Over the clatter of the nearby F train, he would check in with his supervisor and retreat quickly to the back room. He was friendly enough to the other employees, though “there was also a sense,” one of them told me, “that he was holding something back.” Two years earlier, Aron had suffered another family tragedy: the loss of his sister, Sarah, a schizophrenic who apparently committed suicide in a New York hospital. Debbie Kivel says Aron told her about his sister’s death and his inability to prevent it.
On Monday, July 11, Aron left work at five and drove to the office of his dentist. He parked his car on 44th Street, next to the Tri State Fleet lot. At the corner of Eighteenth Avenue, he was stopped by a small boy.
For the first few blocks of his walk home, Leiby Kletzky had made good time. But at the intersection of Thirteenth Avenue, he made his first big mistake. Instead of turning right, where his mother would be waiting, he crossed over the avenue and continued on. He walked past the graffitied grates of a two-car garage, past long rows of apartment buildings, and then, as the apartments gave way, past grassy lots ringed with concertina wire. Behind a chain-link fence, a rusted van crouched in the undergrowth like a jungle cat. Soon, Leiby was several long blocks off course.
He would have been taught, from an early age, that if he ran into trouble, he should ask a fellow Jew for help. And having arrived at Eighteenth Avenue, where the borders of the Jewish enclave begin to blur with the adjoining Hispanic and Bangladeshi communities, he would have been scared, eager to see a familiar face. Perhaps Aron reminded Leiby of a family friend, a distant cousin. Or perhaps it was that Aron, having spent time around Kivel’s children and Diunov’s kid, knew how to talk to a young boy. Perhaps, as an attorney involved with the case has speculated, it was that Aron was a “child himself, intellectually speaking.” Perhaps it was merely that Aron spoke Yiddish, wore a beard. Whatever the case, Leiby saw in Aron someone who could help him.
Aron later recalled, in a written confession, that Leiby had asked him for directions to a Jewish bookstore, a landmark that would have allowed the boy to easily navigate his way home. Aron offered to drive him there but explained that he had an errand to run first and left Leiby on the sidewalk. Patiently, the boy waited until Aron returned from the dentist’s office and took him to his car. As they headed for the bookstore, Aron later wrote in his confession, Leiby now told Aron that he “wasn’t sure where he wanted to go.”
Aron explained that he had to attend a wedding up in Monsey; he suggested that Leiby come with him. It is unclear whether Leiby protested, but he and Aron made the trip, stopping along the way at a Sunoco station on the Palisades Parkway. According to an attendant, Aron and Leiby pulled in around 8:15 p.m. Aron opened the door for Leiby, and the pair walked into the bathroom, where they remained for “one or two minutes.” The attendant, who later saw stills from the security footage, said that “there was no pushing, no nothing. The little kid goes easily.” Guests at the wedding would remember seeing Aron but not Leiby, who reportedly remained in the car.
Aron and Leiby returned to Brooklyn around 11:30 p.m. Aron’s back was hurting him and he decided to keep the boy until the next day. He put Leiby in the front room, turned on the TV, and walked down the hallway to his bedroom to catch some sleep. In the morning, Aron dressed for work. He promised Leiby that he would return him to his family when he came back. The day passed normally for Aron. None of his co-workers noticed anything unusual.
On his way home, Aron spotted a large flyer, copies of which were being plastered across Brooklyn by legions of volunteers. The flyer bore the face of Leiby Kletzky. It is hard to understand why Aron reacted to this sight the way he did: Prosecutors have not alleged that he had sexually assaulted Leiby. (Nor is there evidence of such behavior in his past. “He was not a homosexual, not a pedophile,” says Diunov. Adds Kivel: “He was a regular guy, trust me on that.”) At this point he could still have taken the boy home and faced minimal consequences. But instead a different, darker thought must have crossed Aron’s mind. In his confession, he would later write: “I panicked and was afraid.”
In the Tri State offices, Yaakov German was growing antsy. His legwork had brought the search to this critical moment; the Honda driver’s identity and address were tantalizingly close at hand. But in his calculation, it was going to take too long to get that critical information from the dentist. “I felt every minute, it’s like a burning,” he remembers. “Who the hell knows what might be happening? We see him take Leiby in the car, and we know—every single second counts.” German scarfed down a slice of kosher pizza and barreled back out into the murky heat.
Outside, he ducked under the police barricade and stood at the spot where the bearded man had parked the Honda. The car had been facing east, and he decided to go east too. All of Brooklyn opened before him—a labyrinth of darkened streets, weed-filled yards. While he walked, he called a friend, who had been in touch with a famous psychic rabbi.
The rabbi was familiar with this part of Brooklyn and had come to the conclusion, after consulting a series of sacred texts, that the boy would be found in Kensington. Kensington was to the east, German thought. He was on the right track. He knew the neighborhood well—in fact, he often visited one of its stores, Empire State Supply, to pick up hardware for his properties. Because he knew the owners, he was sometimes allowed into the back room, where clerks monitored regional sales. He recalled encountering a man there, thin and balding, a “lunatic genius” who could remember the location of every object the place stocked.
German crisscrossed the neighborhood, hopping fences and wading through darkened playgrounds. Once in a while he saw a cop. Among the Kensington yards he would search that night was a plot behind a tidy three-story white house on East 2nd Street. Looking up at the lit windows on the third floor, he howled Leiby’s name and heard nothing in response.
At the same time German was scouring Kensington, Heshy Herbst and Simcha Eichenstein were on Eighteenth Avenue, peering into Sorscher’s dentist office. They were prepared, Herbst remembers, to break down the door. In the event, it wasn’t necessary. Inside they found Sorscher himself, pale and frail, surrounded by five or six detectives. The police seemed to think Sorscher might somehow be involved. “They were slamming him with questions. They thought he was a person of interest,” Herbst says.
Eichenstein stepped forward. “You’ve got the wrong guy,” he said. He relayed the information provided by his wife and pointed to a stack of credit-card slips. “It has to be the top one,” he says. The piece of paper carried the name Levi Aron and a time of purchase: 4:30 p.m.
“The time stamp is off by an hour,” a detective protested. The Tri State tape showed Leiby Kletzky being hustled into the Honda at 5:30.
“Swipe my card,” Eichenstein said.
The detective looked dubious.
“Go on. Swipe it.”
The receipt curled out of the machine.
“See?” Eichenstein said. The machine was marking transactions an hour earlier than they’d occurred.
In a long caravan, the police proceeded to their new target, a mile away. They walked to the third floor of the house. Levi Aron was there to greet them.
Shortly after German arrived at Tri State, Aron had returned to his attic apartment. In his confession, he describes what happened next, his account chilling in its nonchalance. Leiby had not fled while he was at work. “He was still there. So I made him a tuna sandwich,” reportedly heavily dosed with a cocktail of prescription drugs, including a muscle relaxant called cyclobenzaprine, an anti-psychotic called quetiapine, and two different painkillers. (Aron does not mention the drugs in his confession, nor how he obtained them.) “That is when approximately I went for a towel to smother him,” he continues. “He fought back a bit, but eventually he stopped breathing.”
Aron—now covered with scratches and scrapes—grew frenzied anew. “I didn’t know what to do with the body,” he wrote. After about fifteen minutes, he carried Leiby’s remains into the front room and placed them on a mattress. Using a kitchen knife, he cut off one leg at the hip. He tried to fit it into a plastic garbage bag but discovered it didn’t fit. He severed it again, at the ankle. He repeated the process with the other leg and stored the parts in the refrigerator and the freezer. He took a shower, “went to clean up a little,” took a second shower, and left the apartment to dispose of the rest of the body. But in other ways he was almost casual about covering his tracks. In Aron’s kitchen, the responding officers found three bloody knives on the counter along with a telltale red smudge on the freezer door.
A friend called to tell German the good news: The police had arrested a suspect. He doubled back to East 2nd Street, where dozens of onlookers had gathered. As German watched, a pair of detectives exited the house and stood for a moment on the lawn. “Is he alive?” German remembers asking.
A few minutes later, Aron guided the police to a Dumpster in the Greenwood Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. In the Dumpster was a red suitcase. In the red suitcase, sawed into pieces and divided into separate plastic bags, was the remainder of Leiby’s corpse.
The funeral for Leiby Kletzky, held a day later, on July 13, consumed the entire neighborhood. German watched as the coffin was carried through Borough Park, surrounded at all moments by a palpitating sea of mourners, their crying faces flushed and broken.
On a humid day a few weeks after the killing, I visited a storefront shul, or shtibel, a block away from the Aron residence. Dozens like it had sprung up in Borough Park in the early part of the last century, as the area’s Jewish population swelled. Unlike the grand synagogues in the rest of the neighborhood, a shtibel usually consists of a pair of rooms and a small kitchen. I knocked at a heavy metal door and was shown into the library by Tzvi Singer, a rabbi in his forties who spends five days a week there immersed in Scripture. His black jacket was worn at the elbows. “You must understand,” he said, “Jews have lived through many atrocities. You open these books”—he waved his pale fingers at the adjoining shelves—“and you will find record of the worst of possible crimes. And yet I will tell you, I have not found evidence of an atrocity such as this one.”
“Where the murderer was a Jew,” I said.
“Where the murderer was a Jew, yes, and also a neighbor.”
Singer showed me into the plainly decorated main chamber of the shtibel. Under a row of fluorescent lights, a half-dozen men were bent in fervent prayer. Jack Aron had worshipped here, sometimes accompanied by Levi, and regularly enough that their faces were familiar. But as Borough Park has tried to comprehend what happened to Leiby Kletzky, it has looked for places to put the blame, and the Aron family has been ostracized. A family acquaintance says Levi’s stepmother has been fired from her job at a local library—she can have it back only if she can produce a note from the police certifying that she is not under investigation.
I asked Singer what should happen to the alleged killer. He paused. “It is not our role to ask for vengeance,” he said finally. “Only God can direct that. We hope only for justice.”
Justice could be a long time coming. In the days after his arrest, Aron retained the counsel of two lawyers: Pierre Bazile, a former NYPD cop, and Jennifer McCann, a young attorney with a track record of taking on clients other lawyers balk at. (Indeed, one of Aron’s original lawyers quit his defense, saying, “You can’t look at your kids and then look at yourself in the mirror, knowing that a little boy, who’s close in age to my eldest son, was murdered so brutally.”) After a rocky start—at one point, the presiding judge convened a hearing to castigate the attorneys for assorted miscues that included talking too much to the press—the duo recruited Howard Greenberg, a wild-haired veteran litigator, to join their team in October. Not long afterward, Greenberg announced his intent to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. “This is a very simple case,” he said. “Levi Aron is either evil or he’s crazy.” He went on to suggest that investigators had coerced Aron into writing the confession, which Greenberg contended was filled with “police Mandarin.” “My opinion,” he added, “is that you can get this guy to admit he shot Kennedy if you spend a little bit of time with him.”
The defense team, Greenberg told me last week, plans to demonstrate that Aron suffered a brain injury during his boyhood bike accident and that his injury, coupled with a familial history of mental illness, at some point led to what he described as “an acute schizophrenic break.” “You can quote me on this,” he said. “I will quit the practice of criminal law if Levi Aron is not found insane.”
Jonathan Silver, a clinical professor of psychiatry at NYU who wrote a textbook on traumatic brain injury, says that the scenario described by Greenberg is certainly plausible. He ticked off for me some of the early indications of schizophrenia, symptoms frequently attributed to Levi Aron: trouble concentrating, trouble relating to other people, social withdrawal. And schizophrenics are certainly capable of extreme acts of violence. Still, Silver stressed that the defense would have a lot of “details and data to round up” in order to validate their theory: Extensive family history would have to be produced, along with concrete evidence of the head injury and its aftereffects. “All the pieces have to fit together.”
Aron is being held at Rikers Island, where he has been issued a prison uniform constructed of strips of fabric velcroed together, none of them long enough to be used as a noose. His trial is not likely to start until the spring. In the meantime, the Kletzkys have filed a civil suit against Aron seeking $100 million in damages. The next step in the criminal proceedings is a pretrial motion on December 21. If past hearings are any indication, it will be a raucous event, attended by a battalion of reporters and a sprawling scrum of Hasidim, whose presence seems intended in part to keep a hand on the scales of the secular system in which they must now trust.
New York’s Orthodox neighborhoods, founded by émigrés who had weathered persecution and anti-Semitism in their home countries, were set up to be self-sufficient and largely self-governing: There are the Shomrim patrols, so that the enclaves can police themselves, the Hatzolah ambulance units to ferry Jewish residents to and from the hospital, and the beit din, or rabbinical court, to adjudicate disputes. In places like Crown Heights, where the Hasidic population is in more regular contact with outsiders and children are more likely to learn English from an early age, the walls built by such measures have begun to crumble. In Borough Park, they have remained imposing. Greenberg’s legalistic distinction—that Aron cannot be both crazy and evil, and that if he is crazy then he cannot be guilty—is not in line with how the neighborhood sees the world.
“This is our 9/11,” many residents of Borough Park told me in the weeks after Aron was apprehended. There is a new sense of vulnerability in the neighborhood, an unease that will not fade, assumptions that have been shattered. “We’ve learned that a monster is a monster. And monsters come in all shapes and sizes,” Zvi Gluck, another NYPD liaison, says. “It’s not, ‘Oh, he’s Jewish, he must be okay.’ I think we need to know that there are bad people out there, in every walk of life.”
At the tail end of July, after the seven days of shiva had concluded, Yaakov German was visited by Nachman Kletzky, Leiby’s father. Kletzky is large and broad-shouldered, with a tangled beard and a broad, stern face. German took Kletzky’s coat, and steered him in the direction of his basement office.
Kletzky had changed since German had spoken to him during the frenzied search for Leiby, when he promised to bring back his son alive. According to a rabbi close with the Kletzky family, Leiby’s death hit his father especially hard. Esther Nachman, Leiby’s mother, knows “that life has to go on,” the rabbi says. “There are more children in that house. There is a family to look after. It is different for [Nachman]. He is in a dark place.”
Once downstairs, Kletzky began to tearfully curse Aron. German walked to a nearby bookshelf and removed a copy of the Tanya, a foundational Hasidic tract. While Kletzky listened, he read aloud from one of his favorite passages. The text argues that all things under the sun, from the actions of the wisest and most righteous men to the sins of the most vicious criminals, are ordained by God.
“I told him that he shouldn’t hate,” German said, “because God is in everything.” At that, Kletzky “broke down,” German said. “And so I held him.”