NEW SQUARE — The FBI is working with Ramapo police on an investigation into an attack that left a Hasidic dissident with third-degree burns over half his body, authorities said Friday.
"They will assist us and will not take over the case," said Ramapo Detective Lt. Mark Emma. "If they determine federal crimes have been committed, they will make a determination on whether to pursue them."
Police and the FBI will not only investigate the attempt to burn down the home of Aron Rottenberg, 43, but also months of vandalism, harassment and threats in the Hasidic Jewish village, Emma said.
FBI spokesman Tim Flannelly declined to comment, saying the bureau's policy is not to discuss whether there is an investigation. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara also declined to comment.
If federal authorities do decide to pursue a case, they would likely look at potential violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, said a former federal prosecutor .
"I think if they have jurisdictional grounds, this would be something they would look at," said Kenneth P. Thompson, who, as an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, prosecuted five New York City police officers in the 1997 assault of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.
Since September, scores of New Square residents have protested several times outside the homes of Rottenberg and others who have chosen to worship at places other than the synagogue of New Square's Grand Rebbe David Twersky.
Windows have been broken in their homes and cars, and their children have been threatened with expulsion from local religious schools, according to police reports. They also said they received threatening phone calls.
The incidents began after Rottenberg and some friends started praying regularly at Friedwald House senior residence outside of New Square rather than Twersky's synagogue.
On May 22, Rottenberg was burned when an incendiary device exploded as he wrestled with 18-year-old Shaul Spitzer outside Rottenberg's home.
Spitzer is a butler at Twersky's home and the cousin of the village's deputy mayor. Spitzer was also burned during the incident and is at a New York City hospital. He has been charged with arson and attempted murder.
The religious component of the alleged crime could make it a federal case, Thompson said.
"If it's a federal crime to burn down a church, a synagogue, a mosque because of someone's religion," he said, "why wouldn't it be a federal crime to burn down someone's house because of their religion?"
Emma said the investigation focuses on Spitzer but that earlier reports of vandalism were also part of the probe.
Rottenberg's lawyer, Michael Sussman, who has called for a federal investigation, wrote a letter to Ramapo police chief Peter Brower on May 30 accusing the police of aligning itself with Twersky.
Sussman wrote that the department had a report of a prior act of vandalism at Rottenberg's home but made no arrests.
"We can't let him run our investigation," Emma said. "We will continue with our goal to get Spitzer convicted of the crimes he's been charged with."
Rockland Legislator Joseph Meyers, D-Airmont, threw his support behind a federal investigation into New Square. Rep. Elliot Engel, D-Bronx, who represents parts of Rockland, called the attack on Rottenberg "horrific."
"Justice must be vigorously pursued in this case," Engel said. "It is essential that this crime be thoroughly investigated to determine the extent of culpability."
No other political leaders have called for federal intervention. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, declined comment.