By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
IN JACOB BLUM'S MUG SHOT, he resembles many of the young Hasidim who adhere to his ultra-Orthodox sect's strict dress code: an old-fashioned round-brimmed hat set squarely on his head above long, twisted peyos, or hairlocks, falling from his temples, a mustache and full beard, eyes staring from behind wide-rimmed glasses in what seems to be an impenetrable mask of stoicism. But what sets Blum apart from other young men is that he is a murder suspect shrouded in mystery.
It is this police photograph of Blum, snapped during a prior arrest after he allegedly assaulted a state trooper and a civilian, that detectives in the Brooklyn North Homicide Task Force have relied on for the past two years in their efforts to track down the now 31-year-old alleged killer. Stumped for leads, some police have begun pointing fingers at each other, prompting veteran detectives to charge that cops in the 90th Precinct let Jacob Blum slip through their fingers. But a department source who asked not to be identified rebuffed allegations that the NYPD wasn't doing enough to apprehend Blum. The source noted that the department has tracked a key witness as far as Argentina, and recently sent two detectives to Buenos Aires to interview him.
According to police reports obtained by the Voice and interviews with law-enforcement sources, Blum, the son of a Williamsburg rabbi, is the only suspect in the fatal beating of Marii Zambron, a 61-year-old Polish immigrant who worked as a cleaning woman for Blum's then 90-year-old grandmother. At about 1:45 p.m. on August 29, 1997, police were summoned to 160 Ross Street, a quiet block of apartment buildings and row houses in Williamsburg where Blum lived with his wizened bubbe, Bertha Levey. Cops found Zambron near death in the rear of a first-floor hallway, blood gushing from her head. Despite the efforts of paramedics from Hatzollah, the Hasidic ambulance service, and the fire department's EMS, Zambron died of severe head trauma shortly after she was rushed to Woodhull Hospital. (A doctor would later discover, "The victim was missing a large part of the brain").
The ensuing investigation into the murder was far from routine. About 10 days after the slaying, people in the tight-knit, ultra-Orthodox community of Williamsburg began confirming to police that the killer was a Hasidic Jew who had escaped with blood on his hands. One woman who lived a few houses from Blum's grandmother told cops Blum was the talk of the neighborhood. "She heard that Mrs. Levey's grandson killed a Polish cleaning lady because she was stealing," according to a police report.
As rumors pointing to Blum grew more intense, some Polish domestic workers in the neighborhood felt they could no longer remain silent. On November 2, 1997, Crystina Redzierski led police to a possible witness. According to a police report, "She states [that] Frawkowska Czestava, her friend, tells her that she was working opposite 160 Ross St. and sees Mrs. Levey yelling out the window to call the police, 'He is killing the woman!' " Czestava denies her friend's account.
A law-enforcement source told the Voice that a key police liaison to the Hasidic community knew instantly who the suspect was because he had received an urgent call from a dispatcher with the Hasidic Shomrim Patrol. "He was at a tire shop when a call came in indicating that there was an injured woman at the home of a relative of Rabbi Blum," the source said. In one report, cops said the dispatcher told them "he received a call from a woman that someone has fallen down in front of 160 Ross St." But the law-enforcement source claims that the dispatcher placed a second call to the police liaison.
"The [liaison] says he has no recollection of it, even though records indicate that a call was placed directly to the [liaison's] line and there was a three-minute conversation," the source claims. "It should have triggered an investigation by Internal Affairs, but it didn't." Other law-enforcement sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, strongly imply that police at the 90th Precinct station house may have botched the murder investigation because it involved a member of the influential Hasidic community. Some claim that investigators backed off pursuing a tough approach to ascertaining Blum's whereabouts.
"A lot happens when a homicide occurs," one irate officer explained. "If you have no information, you flood the area with cops who summons and arrest as many people as possible. You access motor vehicle records, issue tickets for parking violations, set up checkpoints, and give summonses for drinking and urinating in publicall this is done when you have no leads. You squeeze the area until someone surrenders information. Nothing of the sort was done in this case in this politically connected area. You don't squeeze; you don't write parking summonses in that area."
But some top police brass insisted that the detectives assigned to the case have done all that they could do. They said investigators appealed for media attention through the NYPD's Crimestoppers Unit, consulted with the editor of a Polish newspaper, and distributed flyers in Polish. They added that some of Zambron's own people turned their backs on police efforts. "I was at Rutledge Street and Lee Avenue, where there were about 30 Polish women," lead detective Peter Sloan recalled in one report. "They refused to take the posters or speak to me about this homicide."