In fact, Sheinbein and Needle had driven to New York in Sheinbein’s green Pontiac and then phoned their parents. Needle’s parents wired their son money for train fare and told him to return to Maryland. He was hiding under a blanket in his mother’s car, en route to see a lawyer in the District, when police apprehended him.
Sheinbein’s father, Sol, and older brother, Robert, responded differently. They came to New York, bringing the teenager’s passport, airfare and a change of clothes, then drove him to the airport to get on a flight to Israel. Less than a year later, Sol Sheinbein would be charged in Maryland with obstruction of justice.
In a November 1998 interview with Israeli television, Sol Sheinbein explained his thinking at the time. “Our attorney told us we were not committing any crime if we talked to him, and he made these dire threats that he planned to commit suicide if we returned him to Maryland,” Sol Sheinbein said. So “I sent him to his family here in Israel, and I just wanted him to calm down.”
Sam Sheinbein was apparently anything but calm, however. His lawyer said that on Sept. 25, 1997, he attempted suicide with wine and sleeping pills in his Tel Aviv hotel and was placed in a psychiatric hospital. Israeli authorities later found what they believed to be a suicide letter in the room.
“I’m sorry for everything…that I put you through,” Sheinbein wrote to his family. “I love you so much and I hope that everything will be o.k., after I’m gone. …Just know that you were the best family that any kid could have. …Please move on with your life and start a new one. The world is an unfair place but make the best of it.”
Back in Montgomery County, McCarthy was preparing extensively for Aaron Needle’s trial. Jury selection was to begin on April 20, 1998. But on April 18, during the Jewish holiday of Passover, the young man hanged himself with a bed sheet in his cell at the Montgomery County jail on Seven Locks Road. Just an hour earlier, his lawyer said at the time, Needle had ended a session of several hours with a psychiatrist.
Meanwhile, Sheinbein remained in Israel, where he set off a diplomatic firestorm by claiming citizenship—despite having been in Israel just once, on vacation as a child—in an attempt to avoid extradition.
The Sheinbeins originally came from Stepan, a village in Ukraine where as many as 3,500 Jewish residents, including Sheinbein family members, perished during the Holocaust.
Transported in carts from their hometown, they were taken to open pits where they were shot and buried, some still alive. Sol Sheinbein’s parents, however, were among those who had emigrated before the war to what was then British-ruled Palestine.
Sol was born there in 1944, but at age 6, he and his family immigrated to the U.S., where he would go on to graduate from The City College of New York, earn a law degree from George Washington University, and serve as a patent examiner for the U.S. government and as a senior patent attorney for the Navy and NASA. Throughout, he retained his Israeli passport, and that became the basis of his son’s claim.
Then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright weighed in on the matter, as did Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.), then chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Some $76 million in foreign aid was temporarily withheld from Israel for its refusal to extradite the teen to the U.S., where prosecutors fully expected to obtain a sentence of life without parole.
Over a period of months, McCarthy flew to Israel to observe lower court proceedings on Sheinbein’s extradition. By then, the teenager’s parents were living in the Tel Aviv area.
Coincidentally, McCarthy already knew both: He’d presented cases to a grand jury that Sol served on, and tried a murder case in which Victoria, Sheinbein’s mother, was a juror.
During breaks in the Israeli hearings, McCarthy recalls, “we’d all go to lunch. I remember one time in the Tel Aviv Hilton, one day after court, having tea in the lobby bar with Sol, Robert and Mrs. Sheinbein. We sat for hours. There were conversations and tears shed. There was no animosity. We spoke as human beings.”
Among the attorneys hired to defend Sheinbein was David Libai, a former Israeli justice minister. “He did his job for his client, but was very respectful of what we were doing,” McCarthy says.
Eitan Maoz also served on the defense team, and a decade and a half later still recalls his first meeting with Sam Sheinbein. “I was stunned,” Maoz writes in an email last fall from Israel.
“…He looked like a very nice guy. Very shy, very polite. His family, as well. I couldn’t dream that such a boy [would] commit such a horrible crime.”
Two courts ruled against Sheinbein. Then the Israeli Supreme Court heard the case, deciding in his favor in a 3-2 vote on Feb. 25, 1999. With the chief justice in sharp dissent, the majority asserted that Sheinbein’s lack of ties to Israel did not negate his claim of Israeli citizenship through his father. Chief Justice Aharon Barak worried that the majority ruling “turns Israel into a sanctuary state” for criminals.
The Sheinbein case inspired several articles in scholarly journals in this country, including the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, the New England Law Review and the American University International Law Review, which called it “a model of complexity.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister both then and now, declared that Sheinbein’s attempt to avoid extradition “has appalled the government and the people of Israel.” So much so that the Knesset, the country’s parliament, later would enact legislation aimed at preventing individuals who committed heinous crimes in other countries from finding a legal refuge in Israel. But the law would not be applied retroactively.
On Sept. 2, 1999, Samuel Sheinbein pleaded guilty in Israel to 10 charges related to the slaying of Freddy Tello Jr.
Earlier, Sheinbein had told his father and his Israeli lawyer that Needle did the actual killing—and that it was self-defense after Tello tried to rob them—though he confessed to dismembering and burning the body himself. But in entering his guilty plea, he admitted to fatally choking Tello with a rope and hitting him several times with a sharp object.
The sentencing judge called the murder and dismemberment “a shocking act of desecration…too horrendous to describe.”
Late the following month, Sheinbein was sentenced to 24 years, with credit for time served. After four years, he was to be granted 12-hour furloughs, followed by longer weekend “vacations.” He was to become eligible for parole in 2013.
Irit Kohn, then the director of the Department of International Affairs at the Israeli Ministry of Justice, suggested that the bar would be set high for any parole request. In a letter to Doug Gansler, the State’s Attorney for Montgomery County at the time, Kohn wrote: “The horrendous facts of this murder will be taken into consideration by the committee in making a decision on his early release from prison.”
By Israeli standards, the sentence was harsh, the maximum that could be given, since Sheinbein was a juvenile at the time of the killing. But Gansler, currently Maryland’s attorney general and a gubernatorial candidate, called it “an insult to justice.”
“He will serve his time,” Nathalie Sheinbein told CNN at the time. “He’s not going to be out walking free. Hopefully, he will get some of the help that he needs while he’s in there.”
Hayoun, Sheinbein’s attorney since 2010, says her client never did receive psychiatric counseling in prison. “They said he did not suffer from a psychological illness and he did not need treatment,” she says.
Initially held in a detention center outside Tel Aviv, Sheinbein was moved to a juvenile facility and then, when he turned 18, to a prison in Ramla, in central Israel. Finally he was transferred to Rimonim, a state-of-the-art prison that opened in 2004 near Netanya, on the Mediterranean coast. It is Israel’s largest maximum-security prison, with 13 wings accommodating 1,133 prisoners and monitored by 700 surveillance cameras and a staff of 300.
Each wing has a dining room, courtyard, club room, kitchenette, laundry room and canteen. An education center includes classrooms, activity rooms, a library and gymnasium. Cells are said to resemble dorm rooms, with a separate closet and bathroom, and bunk beds. “Residents,” as prisoners are called, are allowed to have televisions, videos and CDs in their rooms.
In a special televised report on Israeli prisons, MSNBC said it had a “country club atmosphere.”