JERUSALEM—A Jerusalem judge says that Eliezer Berland, one of Israel’s most infamous cult leaders, who repeatedly slipped through the hands of law enforcement by fleeing the country and securing reduced jail sentences through plea deals, has implicated himself in two gory unsolved murders dating back to 1986.
Following the arrests in recent weeks of seven of Berland’s followers, the defrocked rabbi, a convicted sex offender, was arrested on Monday at a prison in central Israel where he is serving an 18-month sentence for fraud.
Israeli police claim that Berland, 83, was involved in two notorious cold cases: The kidnapping and suspected murder of ultra-orthodox Jerusalem teenager Nissim Shitrit—who disappeared in 1986 days after filing a police complaint claiming to have been attacked by a gang of seminary students—and the unsolved killing of 41-year-old Avi Edri in 1990.
The new accusations against Berland have been placed under a gag order, but some details have emerged following the arrest of 10 suspects for their association with violent “modesty squads” operated by Berland’s personality-cult-cum-religious-sect, Shuvu Banim, that terrorized ultra-orthodox Jerusalem neighborhoods 30 years ago.
One of the suspects, said to be men in their sixties and seventies, reportedly became a state’s witness and pointed a finger at the outlaw rabbi over the murders that shocked Jerusalem, leading to his arrest.
The sordid crimes are enough to turn bestselling mystery writer Dan Brown from the Vatican to the winding alleyways of Jerusalem’s ultra-religious courts in the lawless ’80s and ’90s.
Edri, an ultra-orthodox Jew, was found buried in a forest north of Jerusalem, pummeled to death, shortly after he disappeared. It is believed Berland’s private, mafia-like “religious police” targeted him after rumors swirled of his involvement with a woman.
Shitrit, only 17, last seen in January 1986, was allegedly thrashed to death by Berland’s goons after complaining of violence. In court hearings, police investigators acknowledged not having located Shitrit’s remains, but said they had “indications of homicide.”
In one of several investigations, Israeli national broadcaster Kann News quoted a former Berland follower saying the boy was dismembered and buried in a forest outside the city. His remains have never been found, but on Wednesday, police could be seen engaged in the grisly task of scouring woods in the vicinity of Jerusalem for any trace.
In an interview with Moreshet, an ultra-orthodox radio station, Shitrit’s brother, Meir, said he was awaiting scientific evidence obtained from “some lumps of earth,” gathered by forensic police in wooded land in the area of Beit Shemesh, 23 miles from Jerusalem, in the days leading to the arrests of Berland’s followers.
He hoped that his brother’s DNA would be identified in the soil, which would enable closure after three and a half decades and allow him to formally grieve for his brother according to Jewish rituals, including the seven days of mourning known as shiva, and the recitation of the Kaddish, the mourners lament, which cannot commence in the absence of confirmation of death.
On Tuesday, Kann News reported that under interrogation, when Berland confronted the surviving Shitrit, Berland bluntly said “you can sit shiva and say Kaddish. I am sorry I didn’t tell you that 35 years ago.”
According to the channel, Berland’s son-in-law Zvi Zucker, capo of the so-called modesty squads that enforced sexual and social standards in the hermetic community of the ’80s and ’90s, admitted in a recorded conversation that he knew who murdered Shitrit and where his body was buried.
Police neglected Shitrit’s disappearance for years, assuming he was the victim of a drug-related gangland homicide.
The revelations have rocked Israel. On Tel Aviv’s popular Radio 103, host Guy Peleg said he had heard an interview with Shitrit’s brother and asked himself, “How can two people be murdered all these years ago and almost nothing be done? There have been so many clues, so many threads, evidence that cannot be more damning. Two young men murdered in such a horrifying way, the incompetent questioning of a rabbi,” before concluding, “it is just inconceivable.”
A possible turning point was provided by the only female suspect, a former Berland cult member who revealed to police that years after the fact, she understood she had been used as bait: She said that in 1986, she called Shitrit and “enticed” him to an Jerusalem apartment at the instruction of Berland followers. There, other people she now suspects of involvement in his murder awaited.
Berland is an enigmatic and menacing figure who has stalked Israel for decades. He fled Israel in 2013, when police opened an investigation into claims of sexual abuse brought by women in his entourage, spending years roaming the United States, Italy, Switzerland and Morocco, before King Mohammed VI kicked him out in November. From Marrakech, he reportedly bolted to Egypt, then Zimbabwe, South Africa and the Netherlands.
After returning to Israel in late 2016, he confessed to rape charges but through an agreement with the prosecution, came to serve only 18 months imprisonment for two counts of “indecent acts” and one assault against the husband of one of his victims.
In court, he said: “For my deeds in the days of the Bible I would have been stoned and burned, but today laws are different—there are leniencies. I regret from the depths of my heart any harm of mine against a man or woman, that was caused directly or indirectly.”