New Square victim hires lawyer; suspect arraigned in hospital
Steve Lieberman and Shawn Cohen • Journal News
NEW SQUARE — An attorney hired by the family of a man severely burned during an alleged arson attack early Sunday said he will ask for a federal investigation as he reiterated the family's accusation that the incident had resulted from intimidation by religious leaders of the Hasidic Jewish village.
Aron Rottenberg's family hired Orange County lawyer Michael Sussman to ensure the investigation stays on track and the family's interests are protected.
Sussman, known for his civil rights advocacy, is holding a news conference today at Rottenberg's 29 Truman Ave. home, where the attack occurred.
"We know the history, and they (New Square leaders) always find a way to make things go away," said Moshe Elbaum, Rottenberg's son-in-law. "Even though the detectives are now involved, we want to make sure things go right."
Rottenberg, 43, suffered third-degree burns across 50 percent of his body during a confrontation after 4 a.m. Sunday with Shaul Spitzer, 18, of 7 Adams Lane, Ramapo police said.
Rottenberg, his wife and three children were at home. He and his son Jacob confronted Spitzer and flames from an incendiary device burned all three men.
Rottenberg, a plumber, said his decision not to pray in Grand Rabbi David Twersky's synagogue on Truman Avenue led to months of protests outside his house. Last fall's protests had dissipated until Sunday.
On Tuesday, Rottenberg underwent hours of skin graft surgery at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, Elbaum said.
Spitzer was ordered held on $300,000 bail during his arraignment at Cornell Medical Center's burn unit in Manhattan, where he's being treated for burns to his arms and hands. Late Tuesday afternoon, he posted bail, Sheriff's Department Chief Louis Falco said. Spitzer also had to surrender his passport.
He remains hospitalized, but because he posted bail, the Sheriff's Department will not have to deploy its plan to have the six corrections officers guard him 24 hours a day — two per shift in three shifts — at a cost estimated at $4,000 per day, Falco said.
Spitzer works as a butler in Twersky's house and is a cousin of Deputy Mayor Israel Spitzer, said Elbaum and several other residents.
Police charged Spitzer with second-degree attempted murder, first-degree attempted arson and first-degree assault. His lawyer, county public defender James Licata, didn't return a call seeking comment.
Very few New Square residents will talk about the incident or Twersky's decree that all of his followers pray at the village's synagogue.
"The old rabbi made these rules," Zalmen Rosen, who works at the New Square Fish Market on Adams Lane, said Tuesday. "If you don't like it, move out of here. What, do you want to fight with these people? If you live here, you have to pray here."
Rosen is friends with Rottenberg and said the Spitzers are popular in the village. He said the suspect is a cousin of the deputy mayor.
Rosen said the violence is wrong and that Twersky's religious court — called a Beth Din — should have handled the dispute. He said some young hotheads looking to support Twersky went at the Rottenbergs and that he doesn't believe Spitzer purposely hurt Rottenberg.
Rottenberg told The Journal News in November that he felt his family was being terrorized by supporters of the grand rabbi. He and nearly two dozen other residents boycotted the rabbi's synagogue over the tight control that leaders hold over the community. They instead walked nearly a mile to Friedwald Center to pray.
Hank Sheinkopf, a renowned Democratic consultant, released a statement late Tuesday on behalf of a "group of New Square residents." He would not specify who retained him, but contacted a Journal News reporter by cell phone after the reporter provided his number to a New Square man who said he and other residents would have someone call on their behalf.
"No words can express the sadness we feel over the recent events," the statement reads. "Such behavior has never been tolerated and will never be tolerated. We pray for the healing of those injured, and our communal hearts stay with their families at this very difficult time.
"In our school systems, we intend to renew our commitment to reinforcing our well known ethos of Shalom, peace, and love," the statement continues. "Our pain knows no end."
The statement adds that New Square, historically, has been a "place of peace, charity and kindness throughout the world" and that for more than 60 years, "we have spent our time creating a community that fosters harmonious relationships between residents."
Shaul Spitzer is accused of trying to kill Rottenberg after throwing gasoline-soaked rags onto the rear deck of Rottenberg's house.
Sussman said Rottenberg had no personal issues with Shaul Spitzer, contradicting what Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence said on Monday that he'd been told by Israel Spitzer. St. Lawrence called the attack "horrific."
Sussman said Rottenberg's rights to practice his religion had been violated and that the possibility of federal conspiracy charges existed.
"Rather, this event culminated months of increasingly violent and coordinated religiously biased attacks on Mr. Rottenberg triggered by the victim's choice of synagogue and religious leader," Sussman said.
Elbaum said that if Ramapo police and the town had acted more aggressively last fall with New Square, his father-in-law might not be hospitalized.
"What we want first is everything should be all right with my father-in-law," he said. "We want to know who was behind this and for it to stop."
Rockland District Attorney Thomas Zugibe said a grand jury would hear evidence against Shaul Spitzer.
Zugibe and Ramapo Police Detective Lt. Mark Emma said that if there's a violation of federal law, they wouldn't hesitate to go to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"Mr. Rottenberg's a working class guy," Emma said. "It's a shame what happened to this guy. We definitely want justice for this guy."
Many people are worried the Spitzer will jump bail and flee to Israel, Belgium or South America with the help of Skvere leaders, just as other prominent Skvere criminals have done.
And this could very well happen.