July 11, 2011, was the first and last day that little Leiby Kletzky would try all alone to walk the 7 blocks from his day camp at Yeshiva Boyan Tiferes Mordechai Shlomo to his home on 15th Avenue. Leiby had practiced the walk with his parents, yet he got lost. Brooklyn’s Borough Park is one of Brooklyn’s safest neighborhoods, thanks to its watchful and tight-knit Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community — Leiby’s family belongs to the Bobov branch, the area’s largest set of Hasidim. Still, a child disappeared from its streets and lost his life.
By 6:15 that evening, his mother, Esther, was worried enough that she phoned for help. The call she made wasn’t to 911 or to Brooklyn’s 66th precinct. Instead, she called the Brooklyn Shomrim, a volunteer protective organization. Supporters say the Shomrim responds more quickly than the police and that knowing the area, its people and the Yiddish language means they’re more effective than any outsider could be; critics allege that Shomrim members have treated non-Jewish suspects roughly, and that reliance on the Shomrim can foster a secrecy that means that crimes aren’t always reported to secular authorities.
Sam and Mendy Rosenberg answer the Shomrim’s calls from their tire repair shop on Wallabout Street, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The group immediately organized Borough Park residents and concerned parties from well beyond Brooklyn to scour the neighborhood for the boy.
It was two and a half hours before the child was reported missing to the NYPD. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly later complained about the delay, but said it did not affect the progress of the case.
Yaakov German, a Borough Park private investigator, was among the searchers. He focused on the area where Leiby was last seen alive, securing camera footage from Yeshiva Boyan and from the 44th Street businesses Leiby would have passed while trying to find his way home. German found footage showing the boy leaving day camp as planned, and spotted him again on footage from a locksmith shop at 44th Street and 15th Avenue, where he should have turned. But the boy also showed up at the terminus of 44th Street, on cameras owned by Economy Leasing, where he got into a Honda Accord with a man. Another tape showed that same man entering a dentist’s office; a credit card charge record nailed the man’s identity. Another camera confirmed it: He was seen exiting a hardware store, where his coworkers named him as their back-room clerk.
The Butcher of Borough Park
The man who’d paid his dentist’s bill before driving off with Leiby Kletzky was Levi Aron, then 35. Many of Leiby’s neighbors had assumed that the abductor must be an outsider; it was a shock and disappointment to learn that he was one of their own, that the evil they feared came from within the community.
Levi Aron’s Orthodox family had moved between Brooklyn and Monsey, a largely Jewish community upstate, before buying a building in Kensington, just east of Borough Park. His father, Jack, worked at Orthodox-owned B&H Photo, a large camera shop in Manhattan; his mother, Basya, had succumbed to cancer a few years earlier. His sister committed suicide in 2009 after being diagnosed with schizophrenia, survived by two other brothers.
Aron was a solitary man, set apart from his more observant neighbors He, too, had a history of mental illness. He’d also suffered a traumatic head injury as a boy, something family—and his lawyers—said changed his personality. As a teenager he’d developed a love for pop culture, something largely forbidden to his Hasidic peers.
In 2004 he married a Moldavian immigrant named Diana Diunov, who had a young daughter. But Diunov continued to live with her ex-boyfriend during the short marriage. After their divorce, Aron experimented with online dating, and met Debbie Kivel, a divorced mother of two. He married her and moved to her native Memphis, only to divorce in 2007.
He moved back to his father’s building in Brooklyn and led a quiet life until a little boy got lost and asked him for help.
Crime and Panic
Within 48 hours of Leiby Kletzky’s disappearance, video records and the work of Hasidic volunteers led police to Levi Aron’s door.
It was too late.
Cops found Leiby’s severed feet in Aron’s freezer; the man then led them to a dumpster a few miles away in Greenwood Heights, where he’d stashed a suitcase holding the rest of the hacked-up pieces that had made up Leiby’s body. He hadn’t meant to hurt the boy, he insisted; he panicked when he saw the missing-child posters and realized that an intense search was on.
When the boy asked for help finding the Jewish bookstore that marked his turn, Aron promised to take him home but, inexplicably, he instead took him to a Rockland County wedding. Some relatives were getting married in Spring Valley, a Hasidic community about half an hour north of the city. Aron left Leiby in the car with the windows cracked while he joined the celebration. None of the guests noticed the child, and after a while Aron returned to the car and drove Leiby back to his Kensington apartment.
The next morning he made breakfast for the kid, and left him with the television while he covered his usual shift at the hardware store. A neighbor later told The New York Times what a surprise it was to look up Aron’s online profile, where he listed “American Idol” and “Glee” among his interests. Most people in the neighborhood, she explained, don’t watch entertainment TV: The community believes television distorts reality, and shows too much violence and sex.
By the time he got home, after seeing the frantic search for the missing boy in his apartment, Aron was scared. He made Leiby a tuna sandwich and laced this last meal with painkillers, muscle relaxants and antipsychotic drugs that may have sped his death. Then he smothered the boy with a towel. The child struggled, Aron said later, but not too much. Leiby Kletzky died quickly. Aron chopped the small body into pieces to make it easier to hide and get rid of.
Levi Aron said later that he’d been hearing voices that guided him through these acts and told him to kill himself. It’s not an explanation that got much sympathy from his grieving neighbors. Or from the judge.
Insane, Guilty or Both?
Levi Aron quickly wrote and signed a confession, then retracted it. He complained of hallucinations; a court-ordered exam confirmed he had psychological disorders. A team of lawyers prepared to fight for him and planned to focus on an insanity defense. Jennifer L. McCann was a young firebrand known for taking on cases others didn’t want (Gerard Marrone had already quit, citing his discomfort with the case as a father); she brought in Pierre Bazile and Howard Greenberg. The uncontainable Greenberg drew attention to Aron’s mental health history and to his childhood head injury, and drew ire and accusations of anti-Semitism when he tried to suggest that inbreeding might be responsible for Aron’s violent behavior.
State Supreme Court Justice Neil J. Firetog announced that he would not consider an insanity defense viable if the case went to trial.
State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represented the Kletzky family to the press, and Julie Rendelman of the prosecution pushed for a plea agreement to spare the Kletzkys the pain of both a trial and further media intrusion.
On August 9, 2012, at a hearing with Justice Firetog, Levi Aron pleaded guilty to one charge of second-degree kidnapping and one charge of second-degree murder. On August 30, the judge sentenced Aron to 40 years to life. Greenberg warns that Aron will be in danger of retaliation in the general prison population.
Response to the tragedy has helped Assemblyman Dov Hikind and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos secure a million-dollar grant for the Leiby Kletzky Security Initiative. The grant will permit ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America to install and oversee a system of surveillance cameras in Borough Park and nearby Midwood. Opponents have accused the group of standing between the Jewish community and the police, alleging that, for example, Agudath Israel suggests that victims of alleged sex crimes should talk to a rabbi before contacting the police.
Shomrim took itself out of the running for administration of the camera system, but Shomrim founder Jacob Daskal agrees that the camera initiative should be “a private thing”—meaning that its footage would be filtered through Agudath Israel rather than going directly to police. Daskal told the Daily News that it was important to have this extra barrier so that, for example, a woman reporting domestic violence would have a chance to drop the charges against her husband. If she changed her mind but the police had footage incriminating him, they would prosecute him anyway.
Meanwhile, Leiby’s father, Nachman Kletzky, has filed civil lawsuits against Levi Aron and his father, Jack Aron, seeking $100 million in damages.
And Leiby’s four sisters will have a new sibling soon: Esther Kletzky is pregnant.
Sources on following page.