Police told of several attacks before New Square man was burned
12:42 AM, Jun. 2, 2011 | Written by Jonathan Bandler, Shawn Cohen and Steve Lieberman
Aron Rottenberg's home in New Square. Rottenberg is recovering from burn injuries after an attack at his home. / File photo by Peter Carr/The Journal News
Rottenberg and his friends called Ramapo police eight times in the fall, claiming they were being tormented for opting to pray outside of the Hasidic congregation, a Journal News review of police records shows.
But although patrols were increased, detectives did not get involved until last month — when windows were smashed on the family's Truman Avenue home.
That probe was still going on when Rottenberg was seriously burned early May 22. He remains at Westchester Medical Center, where he underwent additional surgery Tuesday.
The suspect, 18-year-old Shaul Spitzer, is charged with attempted murder and arson. Spitzer, a butler at the home of New Square Grand Rabbi David Twersky and cousin of the village's deputy mayor, was also burned during the incident and is at a New York City hospital.
Detective Sgt. John Lynch of the Ramapo police said he became aware of the other incidents — most of which he described as minor — only after the Rottenberg house was vandalized May 14.
"A call like a broken window, a standalone case like that is not going to make it to the detective bureau," Lynch said Wednesday. "We have approximately 55,000 calls a year. In the real world here, if there's no forensic evidence or need for a further investigation, the investigation is conducted by the police officers handling the incident."
New Square is run by the Skver Hasidic sect, whose leadership and rabbinical court issued a letter in November warning that it was a serious violation not to worship in the main synagogue and that anyone who prayed elsewhere must be stopped from using the community's facilities.
But the first signs of internal strife came two months earlier, in mid-September, shortly after Rottenberg and some friends started praying regularly at the Friedwald House senior residence outside the village.
On Sept. 13, he and two other men reported that windows on their cars had been smashed.
Five weeks later, on Friday, Oct. 22, another friend, Jacob Surkis, reported that the license plates were stolen from his van. He told police that whoever stole his plates was trying to "make his life difficult" because of his decision where to pray.
That same day, Rottenberg called police to report harassment and suspicious activity around his house.
He said there was a knock on his upstairs bedroom window at 4:30 that morning and when he looked outside, he found a block of wood that he assumed had been used to reach the window.
He claimed that three days earlier, someone had left a message on his phone at 5:11 a.m. advising him not to send his 15-year-old daughter to school so she would not be embarrassed.
When he opened his front door at 8:45, her school desk and other belongings were on the front porch.
He told police he stopped sending her to school at that point and asked if they could increase their patrols in the village, with emphasis on his neighborhood — especially early Saturday mornings.
"Rottenberg advises that there is a small group of men who have decided to attend schul (sic) outside of the village and that all of these men have been tormented ever since," police said in an Oct. 22 report.
The next night, as many as 50 men gathered outside Rottenberg's home and he called police.
The group dispersed when cops arrived and the officers warned Rottenberg to stay out of harm's way and not confront the group.
Police suggested Rottenberg videotape such gatherings in case suspects ever needed to be identified.
Rottenberg asked the officers to speak with Mendel Berger, who lived around the corner, suggesting that Berger held some sway over the group and could get them to stop. But Berger told the officers he wanted nothing to do with the situation.
An hour later, the block was filled with hundreds of community residents who had blocked the road with metal barriers.
Most were there protesting Rottenberg, his wife told police, but there was also a group supporting him. The officers eventually got the crowd to leave the area.
Rottenberg's wife called police just before 1 a.m. Oct. 29 to report that someone had smashed a rear bedroom window.
She said people in the community were trying to force the family to move out.
That Sabbath, a friend, Mordechai Surkis, stayed at the house while the Rottenbergs were away.
An officer was patrolling Truman Avenue just after 3 a.m. Oct. 30 when Surkis approached to say that a window in the house had been broken. The officer reported that he had seen a group of about a dozen Hasidic teenagers just before Surkis came outside, but that the group had left the area.
The next day, Jacob Surkis told police that his car windshield was smashed on Washington Avenue.
That was the last report to police until May 14, when three windows were smashed at the Rottenberg house around 3 a.m.
Detective Sgt. Lynch said police do not believe that Spitzer was involved in that incident and that they have two teen suspects and expect to make an arrest.
The May 14 vandalism prompted the family to install video surveillance cameras and — for the first time — led to an investigation by Ramapo detectives.
Lynch said detectives get called in only when crimes have patterns or when there are higher level felonies involved.
"In some cases, the challenge is the lack of evidence, the lack of witnesses," Lynch said. "The fact is we don't have enough evidence or witnesses to prosecute offenders in some of the cases. I mean — the police officers weren't present when these crimes occurred."