Posted on October 06, 1997 in Washington Watch
A brutal case of murder in a Washington, DC suburb has developed into an international incident that is causing new strains in the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Two seventeen year-old Maryland males have been accused in the murder of Alfredo Tello, 19, also of Maryland.
One of the suspects has been arrested in the U.S. The other suspect, Samuel Sheinbein, fled to Israel after the murder. Last week, an Israeli court refused to honor an U.S. extradition request, invoking Israeli law that forbids the extradition of Israeli citizens for trial in other countries.
The Israeli decision has outraged Maryland officials, angered the White House and State Department, and caused the powerful Chairman of the Congressional Appropriations Committee to write to Secretary of State Madeline Albright demanding that pressure be placed on Israel to turn Sheinbein over to U.S. authorities.
“It is an outrage that Israeli authorities are refusing to extradite Sheinbein . . . furthermore, the youth’s father and older brother should also be returned, since it appears they may have a role in hindering the investigation by helping Sheinbein flee the country.
“In the absence of a resolution, I intend to introduce the issues into consideration of the Foreign Operations spending bill.”
The murder itself was gruesome and the evidence that has been released in the daily papers seems quite clear.
On September 19, Maryland police found a badly burned and dismembered body in the garage of a vacant home in suburban Washington.
Three days later, September 22, police issued warrants for the arrests of two young men: Benjamin Needles and Samuel Sheinbein.
On September 23, Needles was arrested, but the search continued for Sheinbein. At that point, police revealed that they were led to suspect the two young men by a strong trail of evidence that led directly to them.
*Sheinbein’s home was around the corner from the garage where the body had been found;
*A trail of blood led from Sheinbein’s home to the garage;
*Numerous witness saw Sheinbein and Needles pulling a cart with blue plastic covering from Sheinbein’s house to the vacant garage;
*Sheinbein had called the owner of the vacant house asking for the key to enter it;
*In Sheinbein’s garage police found materials similar to those used to burn the body, plastic bags similar to those which were found covering the body, and an empty box for the electrical saw used to cut the arms and legs from the dead body.
The limbs have not been found yet and the torso was so badly burned that police were unable to identify the victim until September 24. Alfred Tello, the victim, was a friend of Needles and Sheinbein. He had last been seen on September 16, leaving work with his two “friends.”
As clear as the case seems to be, it was dealt a severe blow when on September 28, it was reported that Sheinbein had flown to Israel, apparently to escape arrest.
After some negotiations, Maryland officials appeared confident that Sheinbein would return voluntarily to the U.S. to face trial. But on September 25, Sheinbein took an overdose of drugs and had to be hospitalized in Israel. Upon leaving the hospital, the Israelis arrested Sheinbein. He is in custody in a psychiatric unit.
On September 28, Israeli authorities notified the U.S. that they would refuse to extradite Sheinbein and will, instead, try him in Israel as an Israeli citizen. In announcing the decision, an Israeli Ministry of Justice spokesperson said, “An investigation has been opened to put him on trial here. He can not be extradited. He was an Israeli citizen when the crime was committed.”
It is not only the Israeli refusal to extradite Sheinbein that has caused public outrage in the U.S.; it is also the basis of Sheinbein’s so-called Israeli citizenship and his family’s obvious use of this loophole to avoid prosecution in the U.S.
Sheinbein is considered an Israeli citizen because his father was born in British Mandatory Palestine in 1944. The father emigrated to the U.S. in 1950 and has lived there ever since. Samuel Sheinbein was born in 1980 in the U.S. He has never lived in Israel and speaks no Hebrew.
Americans seeking to avoid trial in the U.S have used this Israeli law before. In 1987, for example, two American Jews who murdered an Arab American couple in California fled to Israel. As “Israeli citizens” they were tried and sentenced to prison in Israel. Similarly, FBI officials have told Arab Americans that the murderers of the Arab American activist Alex Odeh are also living in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank where they fled to avoid extradition.
As if to establish the obvious intent of this ploy, Sheinbein’s Israeli lawyer has been quoted as saying, “my client prefers the Israeli justice system to that of the U.S. and he prefers the conditions of Israel’s prisons as well.”
If convicted in the U.S. Sheinbein faces the death penalty. In Israel, he would only serve 25 years in prison.
At the same time Sheinbein’s lawyers have begun an effort to claim their client acted in self-defense – a bizarre claim given the condition of the victim.
On the other hand, Sheinbein’s lawyers have recently been quoted saying that their client might agree to return to the U.S. voluntarily “if the U.S. courts will make us a better deal.”
By the end of last week, what had begun as a local murder had become a diplomatic crisis. Congressman Livingston reported that his plan to punish Israel had won strong support from his colleagues. Other Congressmen have spoken out calling on Israel to extradite, as have the White House and State Department. And the Israeli Embassy reported that it has been bombarded by angry phone calls.
The last word out of Israel is that the Israeli government is taking a second look at the “citizen” issue. Said one Israeli official; “Sheinbein may not be a citizen after all.”
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