Rabbi and man from Kiryas Joel area charged in 'chilling' murder plot to get religious divorce

ByEyewitness News WABC logo
Wednesday, September 7, 2016

ORANGE COUNTY, New York (WABC) -- A rabbi and another man have been charged in New York City in a plot to kidnap and murder a man so his wife could be divorced consistent with her religious beliefs.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Shimen Liebowitz and Aharon Goldberg were arrested Tuesday in Central Valley, New York, while they met to plan what he called a "chilling plot."

Bharara said they planned to pay $55,000 to someone they thought would commit the murder. Instead, that person contacted the FBI.

The plot started as a kidnapping, according to prosecutors, where Liebowitz and Goldberg would possibly lure the victim to Pennsylvania where he would be captured, tortured and forced him to give what's called a "get."

But over time, the plot escalated to murder, and the two asked the person they thought would carry out their plan to kill the victim -- and upped the amount they were willing to pay.

"A woman whose husband will not consent to a divorce is known as an "agunah," the U.S. Attorney's Office explained. "In the absence of the husband's issuing a get, an agunah may be released from her marriage only through the husband's death."

The code name for the plan was a "wedding," prosecutors said.

"As if the plan to kidnap the victim and force him to divorce his wife in this alleged conspiracy wasn't bad enough, the plotters allegedly decided halfway through the arrangement to go a step further and add murder to the list of their planned crimes," said FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William Sweeney Jr. in a news release. "Our country protects freedom of religious beliefs and practices, but no one is allowed to plot a kidnapping and murder regardless of their motivation."

It wasn't immediately clear who would represent the men during a Manhattan federal court appearance.

Prosecutors said the 25-year-old Liebowitz belongs to the Satmar community in Kiryas Joel, New York, while the 55-year-old Goldberg of Bnei Brak, Israel, is a prominent rabbi in Kiryas Joel.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.