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Friday, June 24, 2011

New Square teen indicted in arson attack on Aron Rottenberg

A Rockland County grand jury on Thursday charged an 18-year-old New Square man with attempted murder in an arson attack on a village man who refused to abide by the edicts of the Hasidic community's rabbi.

Shaul Spitzer, who worked for Grand Rebbe David Twersky and lived in his house, will plead not guilty to a four-count indictment during his arraignment today in the county courthouse, said his lawyer, Kenneth Gribetz.

In New City, the grand jury charged Spitzer with second-degree attempted murder and second-degree attempted arson and two counts of first-degree assault. The case is before Supreme Court Justice William A. Kelly.

"All I can say is Mr. Spitzer had no intent to injure or try and kill anybody," Gribetz said Thursday. "He's remorseful and contrite. On a daily basis, he cries and prays for Mr. Rottenberg's well-being."

Gribetz, a former Rockland district attorney, declined to discuss Spitzer's motivation. Spitzer is accused of trying to burn down Aron Rottenberg's house at 4:15 a.m. May 22.

Gribetz said he has asked the court for a Yiddish-speaking interpretor for his client. Gribetz is representing Spitzer with his partner, Deborah Loewenberg, and attorney Paul Shechtman of Manhattan.

Rottenberg is recovering from third-degree burns to 50 percent of his body. He underwent two skin graft surgeries before being released from Westchester Medical Center this week.

During an interview Wednesday, Rottenberg blamed Twersky and the Skver Hasidic religious leadership for the attack and the months of harassment against him and others for refusing to pray in the community's synagogue. Twersky has denied Rottenberg's allegations.

Rottenberg said that people in the community suffered from "brainwashing" and that Spitzer was a pawn in the rabbi's attempt to control how people lived and prayed in New Square.

"They are so isolated that they have no idea what is going on in the world outside," he said. "These people feel they are the world.

"They only know the grand rebbe, New Square, the grand rebbe, New Square," Rottenberg said. "They don't know the outside, what freedom is all about."

The indictment accuses Spitzer of bringing incendiary materials to Rottenberg's home. Rottenberg's son Jacob was watching surveillance monitors and saw a man with a bag that turned out to be soaked in gasoline. He was watching because the family had received telephone threats the previous week and rocks had been thrown at their windows.

When Aron Rottenberg tried to stop the masked man, the accelerant burst into flames. Spitzer suffered third-degree burns to his hands and arms.

After spending weeks in a New York City hospital, Spitzer returned to New Square. Rottenberg's family criticized how easily Spitzer was accepted back in New Square.

District Attorney Thomas Zugibe called the attack "senseless."

"If not for the quick response of other residents in the home, this accelerant-fueled arson attack had the potential to injure or kill several people," Zugibe said. "When crimes such as this regrettably occur, they will be vigorously prosecuted and severely punished."

Spitzer faces a maximum of 25 years in state prison if convicted of the top charges.

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