Now that the murderer has been caught and confessed, and, ironically, it turns out that this was not a business matter, but a robbery gone horribly wrong, the vitriol is even more appalling.
Menachem Stark, the father of seven young children, was working late at his office on 331 Rutledge Street in Williamsburg on the snowy Thursday night of January 2, 2014. He left his office at around 11:45 p.m., but never made it home. His wife waited anxiously and finally called family members, who alerted Shomrim and police.
The security cameras near Menachem’s office provided a chilling clue. In grainy black and white, they showed Menachem leaving his office and immediately being accosted by two tall men, who had been lying in wait. He struggled with the attackers for nearly five minutes before being forced into a silver Dodge Caravan, which sped away. All signs pointed to an abduction.
A massive manhunt was immediately launched, with police searching throughout the tri-state area all night. As the shocking news spread, Klal Yisroel united in heartfelt tefillos as a zechus for Menachem ben Pesia Ettel.
Sadly, it was too late for Menachem, a gentle baal chesed who always had a smile and all the time in the world for another Yid.
On Friday afternoon, his body, hidden in a Great Neck dumpster, was found by a gas station owner who saw smoke coming out of the receptacle. The family was notified and the news spread like wildfire.
Those who took part in the levayah on Motzoei Shabbos heard the wails and cries of the grieving family and the heart-rending Kaddish of the orphans, the youngest barely a year old.
Pictures of the smiling family, taken at the eldest son’s bar mitzvah only months earlier, showed a loving father who was unusually attached to his children. The Yated spoke to Reb Yitzi Stark, Menachem’s younger brother, who described his brother as the crown of the family.
“He was so close to every one of us, and especially to our father,” said Reb Yitzi. “He spoke to our parents at least five times a day and to each of us more than once a day. He had his finger on the pulse of our family. He knew what everyone needed and tried to help them. Whenever there was a problem or an issue, we instinctively called Menachem. He handled everyone’s problems with a smile. If he was taking care of something, we knew it was as good as done.”
Menachem was so vibrant and so full of life. He lived to help others, to bring a smile to the face of a struggling meshulach, and to learn with his children and speak to their rabbeim.
The tragedy hit the Jewish community very hard, but was an especially painful blow to those who knew him. As Reb Yitzi explained, “It’s very hard for our family now. My father is no longer young. He still goes to his shiur every day, but he’s very broken. He was so close to my brother. They went to the bungalow colony together during the summer, living side by side. He thinks about Menachem and cries over the loss all the time.
“The almonoh is also very broken, but she is trying to be strong and to take care of her beautiful children with tremendous strength. We are all trying to be there for her, the way Menachem was there for us, but it’s very hard. No one can replace such a caring, devoted father. He loved his children so much. When they needed anything, he would drop everything to take care of them. I’ve never met such a devoted husband and father.”
In the aftermath of the tragedy, calls for justice abounded, as did rampant speculation about the motives of the killers. Was this a professional job by a hit man? How did the team pull it off? Rumors began to spread that this was a mafia job, that they had been following Menachem for weeks, etc.
The secular media had a field day with the story, trampling on a noble man’s reputation.
In addition to the odious Post article, most of the news outlets gave themselves free license to discuss Menachem’s business at length and conjecture about the crime. People suddenly became experts, stating exactly how, when, where – and why. In the meantime, the family suffered terrible pain, knowing Menachem’s reputation was being heedlessly destroyed.
All this time, the police were silent, conducting their investigations away from probing eyes, reassuring the public that arrests were forthcoming. When Pesach passed with no news, some were worried that it was all a wild goose chase and that the perpetrators might never be caught.
And then, a week after Yom Tov, came the long-awaited news. On Wednesday, April 30, police arrested Kendal Felix, a 26-year-old black construction worker from Crown Heights who was employed by a contractor who had worked with Menachem.
His motive had nothing to do with Menachem’s character, business dealings, or background. It was a robbery gone wrong. The suspect said during his arraignment that the group of three accomplices – Felix was the mastermind – planned to rob Menachem, empty his pockets, perhaps ask the family for a ransom, and then let him free.
Their plans hit a snag when Menachem began to scream and shout, fighting for his life and freedom. The three punks were desperate to keep him quiet, so they sat on him, choking his airway until he stopped breathing.
When they realized what had happened, the crooks say they panicked and tried to dump the body without thinking of the consequences. They planned to drive to Long Island, but the bad weather impeded their progress, forcing them to go to Great Neck, where their car got stuck in the snow. In fact, experts say that it was this important clue – the location where the body was found – that first indicated that this was not a professional job.
During months of investigations, including tracking down the getaway car and finding a cell phone taped to its underside, police painstakingly compiled bits and pieces of evidence, carefully building their case. They originally arrested several other suspects, who were released for lack of evidence. More arrests might follow in the near future.
Askonim and family members gathered at the arraignment, which took place in Brooklyn Criminal Court, and expressed their bittersweet emotions: gratitude and appreciation to the police for tracking down the killers, yet incredible sadness that Menachem is no longer with us.
“It’s a very big relief for the family that everyone saw what really happened,” said Reb Yitzi Stark. “The ugly rumors they were spreading, none of it was true. The arrest of the killer, who was just out for money, gave Menachem back his good name. At the same time, this is very painful for the family. We are really struggling, we miss him very much, and the arrest will not bring him back.”
Assemblyman Dov Hikind had praise for Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson and the New York City Police Department and criticized the sensationalists who exploited the tragedy.
“By removing those responsible for this heinous crime, the DA and the police are helping everyone in our community sleep a little better,” said Hikind. “We hope all those responsible will be brought to immediate justice.
“As we are now learning,” continued Hikind, “Menachem’s tragic murder seems to have resulted from a botched robbery. Some people knew that he was a man who carried significant amounts of cash. The tragedy of his death was bad enough, but his family needlessly endured an endless barrage of innuendos as Menachem’s name was dragged through the mud. It wasn’t enough that this young father and husband lost his life. Sensationalists also attacked his character, which was irresponsible and insensitive and caused unnecessary suffering to his bereaved family.
“And now, as we see, none of what appeared had any bearing on the cause of Menachem’s murder. The additional pain caused to his parents, wife and children, as well as our community, by people jumping to conclusions could have been avoided. My heart goes out to the Stark family, who has endured more than most of us can imagine. My thoughts and prayers continue to be with them.”
The Yated spoke to Gershon Schlesinger, board chairman of UJ Care of Williamsburg, who expressed the community’s relief at the news.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Schlesinger. “We know that other people were involved, and they were picked up by the District Attorney, though no arrests were made. We received a commitment from the DA that he will pursue every one of those responsible, and we feel confident that he will seek full justice.”
Rabbi Moshe Dovid Niederman, executive director of the UJO, also expressed his gratitude to the devoted men in blue.
“Today is a bitter sweet day,” Rabbi Niederman told the Yated. “It’s bitter because Menachem is no longer with us, and he is missed. Yet it’s sweet because the law enforcement community has made an arrest in this heinous crime.”
The family has found a measure of solace in the acts of Torah and chesed being performed in memory of Menachem ben Yisroel. These include a Sefer Torah being written in his memory and the Menachem Stark Clinical Genetics Fund, a Bonei Olam project, to help young couples achieve the blessing of children. Bonei Olam’s work was very close to Menachem’s heart. Shortly before his petirah, he uncharacteristically agreed to be honored at a Bonei Olam dinner.
This initiative, to bring more Yiddishe neshamos into the world, will serve as a nechomoh to the family, who are mourning a precious life cut down in its prime. May the neshomoh of Reb Menachem have an aliyah and may the family find a measure of comfort in these wonderful acts of chesed being done l’illui nishmaso.