Likening a chasidic patrol group to the violent Crips and Bloods street gangs, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes has taken the rare step of ordering a grand jury to investigate the April 14 beating of an African-American man in Crown Heights, an incident in which he says members of the patrol group may be involved.
“There is an identifiable group that knows what happened to that kid and they are stonewalling it,” said Hynes of the investigation into the attack on Andrew Charles, 20, who said he was sprayed with mace and struck by two individuals described by witnesses as chasidic men. “I’m just not going to allow that.”
He hopes the grand jury will issue subpoenas requiring suspects in the case to testify under oath.
At the same time, Jewish activists in the community are claiming a disproportionate response to the crime while a series of recent attacks on Jews remain unsolved.
Charles is the son of a detective in a nearby precinct, leading some in the community to speculate that the case has therefore received greater attention from authorities.
“There were two incidents involving Jews during Passover” in which racial epithets were used against the victims, said Barry Sugar of the Jewish Leadership Council, an ad hoc group formed in response to recent crimes involving Jewish victims in the neighborhood.
“Neither of those situations got anything close to the coverage or police interest that the son of a cop got,” Sugar continued. “We’re not sure if it’s because he was the son of a cop or because the alleged perpetrator is an Orthodox Jew and the alleged victim is African American.”
Jewish community leaders said they could not remember the last time a grand jury was convened to investigate such a case. A grand jury’s role is generally to decide whether to bring charges after an arrest.
“I don’t know why they don’t do it when there are so many incidents involving people seriously injured by other groups,” said Tzvi Lang, chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. “Since this incident there have been five or 10 attacks” against Jews, he said.
Hynes alleges that the men who attacked Charles on Empire Boulevard at first stared him down, then attacked him with mace. When Charles ran, one of the attackers made a phone call to other assailants, who then appeared in a sport-utility vehicle. One of them got out of the vehicle and struck Charles with a club or bat, according to Hynes.
The GMC Envoy, whose license plate was given to police by witnesses, was registered to Menachem Ezagui, who police said was a member of the Shmira patrol. Ezagui later came to the 71st Precinct in Crown Heights with a lawyer but did not cooperate with the investigation, although he was released after being placed in a lineup and not identified by the victim, according to press reports.
Police later forcibly entered the apartment of Ezagui’s brother, Aaron, when he refused to open the door around 2 a.m. He was questioned but released without charges.
The Ezaguis have reportedly filed a case with the Civilian Complaint Review Board regarding the arrest and entry into their home. The police who entered the apartment reportedly said they were checking for a hostage, which would allow them to enter without a warrant.
Hynes said he was not familiar with the arrest because no charges were brought against the man.
In a phone interview with The Jewish Week, Hynes said the investigative grand jury is a tactic he has employed only four times in his long career, most notably during the 1986 Howard Beach trial, which brought him prominence as special prosecutor and paved the way for his later election to the Kings County DA’s office.
“I have been out there [in Crown Heights] many times, and I told Sugar that if people will step forward and tell us about their involvement, lots of things can happen that do not necessarily lead to a prison sentence,” said Hynes.
“But if I have to find out on my own who did this, all bets are off. If this was a frum kid and it was a gang circling the wagons I would do exactly the same thing. … You can’t have a group, whether it’s the Bloods, Crips or Shmira acting like vigilantes. I’m not going to allow this kid to be humiliated the way he was.”
The Bloods and Crips are violent urban street gangs that originated in South Central Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
Hynes drew a distinction between the Shmira group, whose members he described as “renegades,” and the “established” and “respectable” Shomrim Patrol, which works in coordination with the police, and whose members Hynes said he has honored at community events.
Shmira director Yossie Stern responded that it was “reckless for politicians or community leaders to name names and point fingers at people or organizations, blaming them for an incident that allegedly happened on the streets of Crown Heights without having the facts.”
He added that this may cause “anger, hysteria and acts of revenge by one community onto another.”
Stern would not comment directly on the incident because of the open investigation.
Shmira was the original name chosen by Jewish volunteers when they began patrolling Crown Heights 40 years ago, but the group later changed its name to Shomrim to align itself with other patrols with that name. In a dispute over leadership about 10 years ago, some members broke away and reverted to the original Shmira Patrol.
Stern said his group began with some 20 members and now has “hundreds.” He disputed Hynes’ assertion that Shmira does not work in coordination with police.
“The proof is in all the arrests we have made,” he said. “We go on between 25-30 calls a week.”
Lang, of the Crown Heights JCC, described the two groups as “rival patrols” but said they “all do a good job. It could be that one group has a better relationship with the police. We wish they’d work together.”
A founder of Shmira, Rabbi Israel Shemtov, said he was not familiar with the details in this incident or the people involved. Of the two patrols, he said he often joked that he would like to “lock you both in one room until you straighten it out and come out as one unit.”
A police source said the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force was investigating the Charles attack, but has not yet determined if race was a factor in the confrontation. Hynes, in the interview, declined to say if he believed racial epithets had been used during the attack.
Hynes said he had met with Charles and his family to discuss the case because he was asked to do so by the man’s family, but had not met with Jewish victims in several violent incidents because “no one asked me to.” He said he was willing to do so.
In an open letter last November, the Jewish Leadership Council cited three incidents from last summer, and early fall that remain unsolved.
In the first, on July 8, Moshe Kozlovsky was attacked and knocked unconscious by a man who demanded money before the attack and allegedly shouted epithets, including “I’m going to complete what Hitler started.”
A suspect was arrested but not charged in that case.
On Aug. 22, Yechiel Rappoport was attacked and robbed by two men on bicycles, who knocked out five teeth with a metal object. No arrests were made.
And on Sept. 23 and again on Sept. 27, objects were thrown from a roof onto the home of the Davis family on Empire Boulevard, causing damage but no injuries. No arrests were made, although some youths were apprehended by the police.
In all three cases the level of police response and follow-up was faulted by the victims, said Sugar.
Crown Heights City Councilwoman Letitia James said she had communicated her view as a lawyer to Hynes that the Charles incident was not a bias crime but an assault.
“I am asking my constituents in the Jewish community and the black community to please come forward and cooperate with the investigation and if possible identify the person responsible.” James added that she suspected the culprits were afraid to cooperate with the police because of the possible bias crime charge. Convictions on such charges carry enhanced penalties. “I am willing to walk this person into the precinct and advocate on their behalf and make sure their rights are protected,” James said.