TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Opening statements began Wednesday in the trial of a New Jersey rabbi who prosecutors say employed a kidnap team to force unwilling Jewish husbands to divorce their wives.
Rabbi Mendel Epstein faces charges of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and attempted kidnapping.
Prosecutors allege the Orthodox rabbi’s team used brutal methods and tools, including handcuffs and electric cattle prods, to torture the men into granting divorces. Defense attorney Robert Stahl says the Orthodox rabbi wasn’t involved in any crimes and is a “champion of women’s rights.”
Several co-defendants have pleaded guilty in the case, while others are on trial with Epstein.
During their opening statement, prosecutors played a short, grainy clip of Epstein discussing a staged kidnapping with two undercover FBI agents. He tells them: “Basically, what we’re going to be doing is kidnapping a guy for a couple hours.”
The kidnap team brought surgical blades, a screwdriver and rope to a staged kidnapping in 2013, authorities have said. Epstein, who was indicted last May along with his son and three other Orthodox rabbis, allegedly told the undercover agents he arranged similar kidnappings every year or year and a half.
“If (the cattle prod) can get a bull that weighs 5 tons to move, you put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know,” prosecutors said Epstein told two undercover FBI agents posing as a brother and sister trying to force the sister’s husband to grant the ritual Jewish divorce known as a “get.” Prosecutors say he was recorded telling the agents the effort would cost at least $50,000.
Stahl has disputed the charges against Epstein, who wrote the 1989 book “A Woman’s Guide to the Get Process.”
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