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Lev Tahor cult leader took 3 flights on Shabbat: Malka trial day 2 report

Background and brief synopsis of day one

In November 2018, Sara Helbrans escaped from the Lev Tahor cult's compound near Oratorio in Guatemala. She managed to rescue 6 children, including a 13 year old girl (dubbed "Jane Doe" in the trial) who had been married in a religious ceremony to Jacob Rosner. She made her way to the United States and received orders of protection.

A month later, two of her children ("John and Jane Doe") disappeared. It took several weeks to track them down and determine that they had been kidnaped by leading members of the cult, including Matityahu and Mordechay Malka, cousins who are members of Lev Tahor and opted to represent themselves in their trial. They were assigned standby council by Judge Nelson S Roman.

Day one of the trial saw the defense attempt to push an unsubstantiated narrative that claimed Sara Helbrans was an abusive mother which had not only been shot down during pre-trial (and in the trials of others involved in the abduction) but also been precluded as inadmissible during the trial.

Mordechay Malka was unable to hold himself back in his opening statement and after twice alluding to allegations of domestic abuse was warned that he would be forbidden from addressing the court.

You can read a more detailed report on day one of the United States vs Malka case here:

Judge Nelson Stephen Roman (photo: NY Courts)

Allowing member of kidnapping team to be present: pre-trial postulations

Day two opened with Justine Roman having to clarify to Matityahu Malka that mentioning the Kasho hasidic group's alleged "decades of crimes against Lev Tahor" had been precluded from the trial (Kasho is a small hasidic group who had warned its community to avoid having anything to do with Lev Tahor back around 2008), and stressed that the defense cannot argue that they were rescuing the minors or that the children had been abused by their mother unless it becomes relevant and evidence of the alleged abuse submitted.

Justice Roman read and clarified those instructions several times, advised the Malkas to use their standby council and yiddish translators, warned them that he would treat them as he would any other lawyer, and stated on the record that they consistently appeared to be attempting to delay proceedings.

The defense put in an application requesting that Mordechay Malka's wife Chaya Weingarten be permitted in court. The government requested that it be denied on the basis of her involvement in the abduction of the children by reaching out and attempting to influence Jane Doe's testimony in past trials. Justice Roman approved the application provided Weingarten leave during the testimony of all witnesses.

Revocation of self-presentation: Mordechay Malka's opening statement

When the jury was brought in, Mordechay Malka started in on a new opening statement. After several attempts to allude to maternal abuse, prosecutor Jamie Ellen Bagliebter interrupted. After sending out the jury, she put in an application to revoke Mordechay Malka from representing himself. The request was sustained and Justice Roman appointed standby council to work directly with Matityahu Malka for the duration of the trial.

Standby council was furious. After several objections, they finally proposed that instead of a total revocation, perhaps Justice Roman could instruct Mordechay to move along or simply sustain the government's objections. The judge argued that Mordechay Malka seemed incapable of abiding by court proceedings and doing so would cause endless delays.

Then standby council asked for two days (and then one day) to prepare their defense. The prosecutor argued that they had plenty of time to prepare. Justice Roman agreed and noted that he had repeatedly advised them to arrive prepared and that they had been in attendance at a previous case involving the same defendants.

Standby council asked if they can provide the language for what Justice Roman should tell the jurors when they return and the judge agreed. The text they submitted stressed that just as doctors don't operate on family members due to a lack of detachment, similarly standby council will be stepping in to work with Matityahu Malka, and the jury should not read into that decision.

Awake for a thousand nights: the defense's opening statements

The jury was brought in and Justice Roman delivered the statement. Then, standby council Susan Wolf delivered her opening statement, promising that an entire story will unfold that will prove that the government are solely focused on part of the story. She urged the jury to hold onto the presumption of innocence.

Matityahu Malka's opening statement was next. He rambled about his lack of experience in court, about "staying awake over a thousand nights wondering if I did the right thing until concluding that I did what I had to do," and promised to expose government lies. He argued that "giving someone a phone is not an attempt to kidnap!"

He concluded with the statement that "evidence will show that I gave her the phone to contact the authorities. I had no intention of removing this woman from her mother's custody, or the pills you heard about from the prosecution."

Initial abduction reports: the agent in charge of the case testifies

The prosecution then called their first witness to the stand. Joseph Nuzzo of the New York State Police, who has 15 years of law enforcement experience. He constructed an evidence-based tale of a daring kidnapping that involved numerous members of Lev Tahor's leadership.

He started by detailing when he first learned of the abduction. It was December 8th and it was reported by their mother Sara Helbrans and the owner of the residence where the children went missing.

Temporary orders of custody and protection (that were extended numerous times) were presented to the court. They clearly defined that the father of the children, Aaron Teller, was not to contact them in any way or form or through any messenger or friend. They were sent to Teller.

An expelled relative turns informer: initial suspects

Nuzzo described how he tracked down the children and their kidnappers, with over 100 agents working together from law enforcement agencies in the USA, Mexico, and Guatemala, tracking via GPS, credit cards, and missing persons flyers.

Their initial suspects were Shimon and Mordechay Malka. Shimon had been expelled from Lev Tahor and was living in the same home as the children. Mordechay had visited several times.

They located Shimon. At first he was uncooperative, but within a day or two he provided details of the planning, the people involved, and the meeting locations.

Law enforcement then tried tracking down Mordechay Malka, and eventually discovered that two days before the abduction, he had rented a vehicle. Evidence for the rental was provided to the court via documentation from the rental agency.

Tracing the UPC code: the first clue

They recovered the vehicle in Brooklyn and searched it, finding their next clue. In the trunk was a tag for a jacket purchased in a Walmart. The tag contained a UPC code which led them to a particular item (a boy's jacket) in a specific Walmart. Screenshots and video footage proved that member of "hanhala" (administration) Shmiel Weingarten had purchased the items together with Jacob Rosner, the religious husband of Jane Doe.

The two had exited Walmart and driven off in a gray van. Two weeks later, police pulled over that van at a traffic light and arrested its driver, Aaron Rosner, uncle of Jacob.

The Walmart receipt contained other items that would later be of significance. A baseball cap, a fur hat, and other identifiable clothing.

Creativity isn't a strength when it comes to pseudonyms: the second clue

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies had been tracking the GPS of Mordechay Malka's cellphone, and it led them to a Super 8 motel in Monticello, about 20 minutes or so from the home in Woodridge where Sara Helbrans and her children were staying.

The court was shown booking reservations made out to "Chaimel Weinberger." Receipt, vehicular, and video evidence seen at the trial proved that it was a pseudonym for Shmiel Weingarten.

Next, the court saw video from surveillance cameras at the home in Woodridge. Taken around 2:57am on an early Shabbat/Saturday morning, the two children are seen walking across the yard toward a road where a parked vehicle is waiting for them.

26 minutes later, security footage from the motel proves their arrival in Monticello. At 4:00am, the vehicle leaves and is next spotted at 5:22am at Scranton airport.

Cult leader gets directly involved: tracking the travels of the children

Incredibly, on December 8, 2018, a Saturday - on Shabbat, a day in which all Orthodox Jews avoid using any electricity, current Lev Tahor cult leader Nachman Helbrans took several flights, demonstrably breaking numerous basic Jewish laws during this abduction.

Evidence in the form of flight information, manifests, and video from surveillance cameras showed Nachman Helbrans going through security with children wearing the exact clothing purchased in the Walmart, and the three then traveling to Dulles, Virginia, then to O'Hare in Chicago, and finally to San Antonio. The children traveled using the passports and identities of Nachman's children Mendel and Ruth. Their actual names were not on any manifest.

Nuzzo and his team were able to track the trio to Mexico after placing a search warrant on an email address associated with a member of Lev Tahor. That led to a meeting at JFK Airport in New York with law enforcement agents from Mexico who provided photos and other evidence, some of which was presented to the court.

Reunited at last: Nuzzo's testimony concludes

The FBI also discovered a cell phone belonging to Jacob Rosner (religious husband of Jane Doe - she had been married to him when she was 13 at their Guatemalan compound) and extracted from it GPS data and lots of photographs including numerous selfies and pictures of his airplane tickets. Almost all the activity on the phone was from December 2018.

On December 31, 2018 Mexican law enforcement informed Nuzzo and his team that they had tracked down the children. Nuzzo flew out together with Sara Helbrans and she was reunited with her kids. It had been a three week nightmare for the single mother trying to rebuild her life and overcome the trauma of spending most her life in the Lev Tahor cult.

With Nuzzo's testimony concluded, cross examination was scheduled for day 3. The jury was sent out, and Justice Roman addressed an application by the defense to remove an FBI agent who had been in court and would later be testifying, asked the defense to cut their submitted list of 200 witnesses to 20 to avoid redundancies, and got permission from the marshals to allow Matityahu and Mordechay Malka to stay an extra 30 minutes to confer and strategize with their standby council.

Stay tuned for our day 3 report.

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