On October 9 2013, the FBI arrested eight men inside a warehouse in New Jersey. Inside, the men had with them feather quills, ink bottles, and a writing board. They also had rope, plastic bags, a screwdriver, and surgical blades. The men, federal prosecutors charged, were planning to kidnap an Orthodox Jewish man and assault him until he agreed to grant his wife a get, the document required for a divorce under Jewish law.
The man they were allegedly targeting, however, did not exist. The men had been pulled into an FBI sting operation focused on Mendel Epstein, the suspected leader of the divorce extortion operation.
Sholom Shuchat was one of the eight men arrested in the warehouse. On Monday he became the fifth among them to plead guilty to charges that he participated in the plot.
See our December feature story on the subject: Bad Rabbi: Tales of Extortion and Torture Depict a Divorce Broker’s Brutal Grip on the Orthodox Community
Shuchat, who is from Brooklyn, pleaded guilty in federal court in Newark to traveling in interstate commerce to commit an act of violence.
David Hellman, Avrohom Goldstein, Moshe Goldstein, and Simcha Bulmash had already pleaded guilty to extortion charges earlier this year. Bulmash, who copped a deal in late March, had been the most recent conviction. The five men, all in their early-to-mid 30s, admitted to working as enforcers for Epstein.
Hellman, the Goldstein brothers, and Bulmash, also admitted that the October plot was not the first time they participated in an attempt to physically coerce a man into divorcing his wife. They each stated that they assaulted another Brooklyn man on August 22, 2011.
Epstein described the men in the warehouse as the “tough guys” tasked with beating the victim until he agreeed to grant the get. In August 2013, he told an undercover FBI agent, who posed as a desperate wife seeking his services, that the the job would cost as much as $70,000: $10,000 to pay for the rabbis to approve the coercion in an official rabbinical court, plus $60,000 to cover the “tough guys.”
“We take an electric cattle prod,” Epstein said, according to FBI transcripts of the recorded conversation. “If it can get a bull that weighs five tons to move, you put it in certain parts of the body and in one minute the guy will know.”
New Jersey prosecutors had begun investigating Epstein a year before, in October 2010, when a group of men allegedly attacked a man named Yisrael Bryskman in Lakewood.
As we detailed in a 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. Some tales of kidnapping and torture at the hands of Epstein go back as far as the early 1980s.
Shuchat faces a maximum prison sentence of 20-years.
Next: the indictment against Shuchat, Epstein, and eight others.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 24, 2014