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 public—all 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.”
The Polish immigrants were not the only ones giving detectives the cold shoulder. The search for Blum has touched a sensitive nerve among Williamsburg Hasidic leaders, who normally would go out of their way to cooperate with police. The Hasidim allegedly wield considerable influence in the 90th Precinct; some, who act as liaisons to the NYPD, flash department-issued parking permits. “If you are looking for a particular Hasid, you get a call from a rabbi or his assistant, inquiring about the suspect,” a source claims. “He would make an appointment to walk in with the person. By that time, they would have made contact with the D.A.’s office to expedite the booking process. When you don’t prearrange an arrest, you get a call from the rabbi inquiring about the specifics of the case; then they call downstairs to the captain.”
Precinct sources say it is rare for cases to end in arrests. One cop bitterly recalled an incident in which a young Hasidic driver who had accidentally run over an elderly black woman was not even cited for leaving the scene of an accident. “He did not summon an ambulance or police and left the scene because he wanted to get home in time for the Sabbath,” the source alleged.
Detaining Jacob Blum certainly should have been an easy task for leaders of the Shomrim Patrol. “They have walkie-talkies, cars with police lights and sirens,” one station house cop pointed out. “They fly by us, speeding to the slightest incident.” Another station house insider told the Voice he wished the Shomrim had pursued Blum the way they hunted down a black burglary suspect recently. Three months ago, a pattern burglar began breaking into Jewish homes in Williamsburg.
“The Shomrim Patrol stopped everything black that moved after dark,” a police source said. “They would grab and detain suspects and turn them over to police and disappear. The burglar eventually was arrested in the area by uniformed officers. He was not a violent guy, not a crackhead; he just didn’t have a job and was supporting his family by breaking into Jewish households. He said he only stole from Jews because they beat him up one time when he was only collecting cans from their garbage bins.”
Detective Sloan would disagree with the assessment that if a crime is committed in the precinct, cops would refuse to conduct a dragnet-like investigation for Hasidic suspects. In one report, Sloan wrote: “I notified the 90th Precict Warrant Squad of this homicide and was told that all Jewish persons arested on warrants will be debriefed.”
JACOB BLUM, ACCORDING TO HIS COUSIN Isaac Brisk, “has been in trouble with the family before.” They always seemed to come to the rescue of the emotionally troubled young man “when his marriage was in trouble,” Brisk’s younger brother Moishe, told a detective. When the pressure pushed him to the edge, the twice-divorced Blum would run to his grandmother for advice and comfort.
A woman identified in a police report only as “Mrs. Greenwald” said she is the mother of Zlati Kritzler, Blum’s first wife. She said Blum and her daughter were married in 1990. “The marriage lasted for less than one year,” she told a detective. “It ended when Zlati got pregnant and Jacob couldn’t take it. He walked out and went to London.” In England, Blum met another young woman, identified only by her last name as “Weizer,” fell in love, and remarried. “[B]ut he left that woman, too,” Mrs. Greenwald said.
Blum’s ex-mother-in-law said neither she nor Kritzler, who has since remarried, had seen Blum in seven years. Mrs. Greenwald refused to allow investigators to contact her daughter, explaining that Kritzler’s “new husband is in the process of adopting her baby and if he finds out that the baby’s father is wanted for murder, he wouldn’t adopt the baby, and may even leave Zlati.”
By 1994, Blum had returned to the United States and relocated in a Hasidic enclave in Monsey, about 30 miles northwest of New York City. There Blum met Rabbi Schlomo Helbrans, who had been charged with second-degree kidnapping and conspiracy in the disappearance of 14-year-old Shai Fhima of Ramsey, New Jersey. Fhima disappeared on April 4, 1992, after his family, which is Jewish but not Orthodox, tried to withdraw him from Helbran’s ultra-Orthodox religious school in Brooklyn. According to the indictment, Helbrans, his wife Malka, and an associate, Mordechai Weisz, conspired to kidnap the youngster and then plotted their cover-up between February 15, 1991, and February 8, 1993.
In a 1998 interview with detectives, Rabbi Helbrans recalled his brief association with Jacob Blum. “He stated that he met Jacob about four years ago; Jacob was having problems at home and came to him to study,” the detectives reported. “For about four weeks he remained in Rabbi Helbrans residence. During that time, the rabbi felt that Jacob was not a stable person and [was] doing irrational things.”
One day, while driving Rabbi Helbrans to Brooklyn, “Jacob started to go through red lights and drive unsafely,” the police report said. “After this incident, the Rabbi contacted the Blum family about Jacob’s behavior.” Rabbi Helbrans told cops after the incident he had not seen Blum in three years.
On January 1, 1997, Blum’s alleged erratic behavior finally led to his arrest on assault charges. Jacob Fisher told detectives that while attending a party in Monsey, Blum accused him of stealing his grandfather’s briefcase. “Jacob jumped him and started punching him,” the detectives’ report stated. “The police were called [and] when the briefcase was not found, Jacob assaulted [a] state trooper because Mr. Fisher was not arrested.”
In trouble again, Blum returned to 160 Ross Street, where Marii Zambron had been cleaning house for his grandmother for eight years. According to Jerry Lebredric, an ex-cop who had known Zambron for about five years, Blum had previously found fault with her. A police report stated that Zambron had complained to Lebredric “on numerous occassions . . . that the grandson . . . threatened to kill her for unknown reasons.” Zambron told her cop friend that one day Blum “started to yell and scream because she was vacumming and it was too loud.”
ON AUGUST 29, 1997, MARII ZAMBRON’S last day alive, she worked from 8 a.m. until 12:15 p.m. at the home of Sol Markowitz, and then went to her other job at the home of Bertha Levey.
On that afternoon, Mrs. Levey recalled in a statement to Detective Sloan and Moses Weizer, an interpreter, Zambron arrived at her home around noon because Zambron had been to see a doctor. “She was cleaning for about an hour when I went out to the store,” Mrs. Levey said. “My husband was sleeping when I left, he is 90 years old and doesn’t think so well.” Mrs. Levey said she could not remember locking her door but upon her return “the front door was unlocked.” She said she opened the door and saw Zambron “on the floor with all the blood.” She added that she then called Hatzollah.
But Yuda Brisk, one of Mrs. Levey’s sons, contradicted his mother’s statement, giving a much more explicit version of the circumstances that may have led to the cleaning woman’s death. Mrs. Levey, according to Brisk, had called him and he called her back. “I called my mother and she said to come over because she was afraid and [she] hung up the phone,” Brisk told Detective Sloan. “Upon calling back, my mother said that Jacob was yelling at Marii and she could not talk, [and she] then hung up. Sometime later, I called back and my mother said that Jacob had hit Marii with a bottle and she was on the floor. Jacob then ran out of the house.”
A woman by the name of “Mrs. Neiderman” told Sloan that Mrs. Levey had implored her to “call the police . . . my grandson is beating up the lady.” Esther Ostreicher, who lived at 158 Ross Street, said she was preparing to leave for the store with her children when she overheard Mrs. Levey talking to a Jewish woman she did not know. “The woman . . . said something about he had blood on his shoes,” Ostreicher told a detective. In a follow-up interview, Ostreicher added that Mrs. Levey asked her “calmly” to call police. Ostreicher went back inside and called the cops, “thinking that Ms. Levey was having a problem with her grandson.”
Police later learned from Irene Olchowski, a niece of the slain woman, that a Polish cleaning woman who was working next door to the Levey residence had claimed that “she heard a dispute and then a siren.” She looked outside and saw what appeared to be police officers “taking a man handcuffed into an ambulance.” But in one police report, another alleged witness told a friend “she saw a male Hasidic come out of [the] building with blood all over him. He ran down the street.”
Detectives have followed several leads concerning Jacob Blum’s whereabouts. One caller told a detective that Blum “is in a mental hospital in Monsey.” That proved to be false. Another alleged witness even drew a map, directing detectives to “big buildings” in Poughkeepsie where Jews, including those with “mental problems” who “get into trouble anywhere with the police . . . are sent . . . . to hide out.” In addition to the false leads, detectives hit a brick wall with crucial witnesses; some recanted their statements, some forgot key details, while others, like Esther Ostreicher, simply refused to talk anymore when cops tried to serve her a subpoena.
“She stated that she would not go to court, and her husband said I should drop dead,” according to Sloan. On December 11, 1998, Sloan served Bertha Levey with a subpoena. She told him to call her lawyer and went off to Florida. Last February 24, the detective caught up with Mrs. Levey at 160 Ross Street, but she refused to open her door. Sloan said Mrs. Levey talked to him from beind the door, claiming that her lawyer had advised her to go to Florida because “she didn’t have to go to the grand jury.” Mrs. Levey eventually appeared before the grand jury last April, but “her statement [then] was inconsistent with her statement at the time of the incident,” one police report concluded.
A dispatcher at the Shomrim Patrol, insisted in an interview with Sloan that “Bertha was home and is the only eyewitness” to the murder of Marii Zambron. He added that one witnesse’s original account of Mrs. Levey calling out, ” ‘Come . . . my grandson is killing the woman,’ should be enough to arrest Jacob.” Recalled Sloan: “I asked where he got that information and he said, ‘It is common knowledge.’ “n
Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas