On Thursday, David Hellmen, a 31-year-old personal trainer from Brooklyn, became the first person to plead guilty to participating in the kidnapping and extortion scheme that targeted Orthodox Jewish men who refused to grant their wives a divorce.
Hellmen was arrested in a New Jersey FBI sting in October 2013. The sting led to charges against ten men, including Mendel Epstein, the rabbi accused of leading the operation. In addition to admitting to the October plan, Hellmen confessed to another incident: “that on Aug. 22, 2011, he and others went to a residence in Brooklyn where they restrained, assaulted and injured a man in an attempt to extort a divorce from him,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office of New Jersey said in a statement.
See also our December cover story on Mendel Epstein: Bad Rabbi: Tales of Extortion and Torture Depict a Divorce Broker’s Brutal Grip on the Orthodox Community
As we detailed in our December feature story, Bad Rabbi, members of the Orthodox community have for decades accused Epstein of exploiting the religion’s marriage customs for his own financial gain. Men accused him of kidnapping and beating them up, sometimes zapping them with a cattle prod, when they refused to grant their wives a “get,” the document required to dissolve an Orthodox Jewish marriage. Women accused him of threatening to ruin their reputations in the tight-knit community if they turned down his services.
The operation had been an open secret since the 1980s. The U.S. Attorney’s Office of New Jersey began investigating Epstein since October 2010, when a group of men allegedly attacked a man named Yisrael Bryskman in Lakewood.
On August 14, 2013, an undercover FBI agent posing as a desperate Orthodox wife met with Epstein. She’d contacted Epstein through Martin Wolmark, an upstate NY rabbi who’d advised her that “there’s another way” to pull a get from a recalcitrant husband: “You need special rabbis who are going to take this thing and see it through to the end. . . . Getting a guy like Mendel Epstein who’s a hired hand,” he said, according to a federal indictment filed in October. A voice recorder captured the conversation.
“Basically what we are going to be doing is kidnapping a guy for a couple of hours and beating him up and torturing him and then getting him to give the get,” Epstein said. “I guarantee you that if you’re in the van, you’d give a get to your wife. You probably love your wife, but you’d give a get when they finish with you.”
He told the woman that he orchestrated a kidnapping about once a year. He explained that it would cost $10,000 to pay for the rabbis to approve the coercion at a beth din, plus $60,000 to cover the “tough guys.”
Then, as Bad Rabbi explained:
On October 9, eight men piled into two minivans and gathered at a warehouse on a secluded road in Middlesex County, New Jersey. They wore “ski masks, Halloween masks, or bandanas,” according to the indictment. They brought with them the traditional tools for a get ceremony: feather quills, ink bottles, a writing board. They also had rope, plastic bags, a screwdriver, and surgical blades.
As they waited for the woman’s brother to bring the husband, a team of federal agents burst in and arrested the would-be kidnappers. Shortly afterward officers arrested Epstein and Wolmark.
Hellmen was one of the men in the warehouse. He pleaded to charges of traveling in interstate commerce to commit extortion. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 12.
Next: the indictment against the defendants.