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Jewish Journal

Masada Madness

By J.J. Goldberg

June 11, 1998 | 8:00 pm

Kostner's children were found dead in the back of a borrowed Isuzu Trooper on June 26, 1994, killed by a combination of tranquilizers and suffocation. Both showed signs of struggle. Kostner was in the front seat, unconscious from an overdose of the same tranquilizer. He confessed to the slayings two days later from his hospital bed.

 

Masada Madness

Avi Kostner, the New Jersey man who said he killed his two children because he couldn't bear to let his ex-wife raise them as Christians, is himself dead. He died in prison of cancer on June 1. He was 53. Death came just 13 months after Kostner began serving two consecutive life sentences for the 1994 murders of his children, Geri Beth, 12, and Ryan, 10.

A jury had voted to spare him the death penalty after accepting his lawyer's claim of mitigating circumstance: that Kostner's religious belief in his deed showed he was insane. "I prepared a defense based on what would save my client's life," the lawyer, Cathy Waldor, said last week. "Some One else, higher than I, made a different judgment. And She took just 13 months to render it."

Kostner had refused for nearly two years to let Waldor mount an insanity defense, seeking repeatedly to dismiss her as his counsel. He wanted to stand trial to defend his actions. But the court rebuffed him. He finally pleaded guilty in February 1997 to forestall an insanity plea.

Even then, he tried to use the sentencing hearing as a soapbox. He insisted to the end that he killed the children as a religious duty. Nobody took it seriously. Prosecutors called him a vengeful, self-absorbed man who murdered his children to get back at his ex-wife and then tried to hide behind his religion.

As for Jewish community leaders, they uniformly expressed horror at Kostner's religious claims. "No one wanted anything to do with him," Waldor says.

Kostner's children were found dead in the back of a borrowed Isuzu Trooper on June 26, 1994, killed by a combination of tranquilizers and suffocation. Both showed signs of struggle. Kostner was in the front seat, unconscious from an overdose of the same tranquilizer. He confessed to the slayings two days later from his hospital bed.

Kostner had taken the children out for dinner, a movie and bowling. He was to have handed them over to their mother the next day, after losing a seven-year custody battle that centered on their religious upbringing. Instead, he handed them Xanax over dessert, telling them it was vitamin C. Their mother, Lynn Sturman Mison, had converted to Judaism shortly after her 1979 civil marriage to Kostner, but returned to Episcopalianism following their 1986 divorce. She later remarried. In her divorce petition, she called Kostner an abusive, self-centered, manipulative man.

Few disagreed. His own children once begged the judge not to make them stay with their father. His allies in a local "men's rights" group, where he sought support in his custody battle, described him as a "taker" who tried to manipulate everyone he met.

Kostner lived for two decades in and around Teaneck, N.J., becoming a fixture in the local Jewish community. He was a regular at several synagogues and a volunteer scoutmaster with a Jewish Boy Scout troop. Most knew him as a college-educated, impeccably dressed businessman who had served with distinction in the Israeli army. The truth was very different. Long Island-born, Allen Carl Kostner was a high school dropout, abandoned by his father and raised, he said, by an alcoholic mother and an abusive stepfather. He served briefly in the U.S. Navy but was convicted of dereliction of duty and discharged in 1963. He moved to Israel but never took citizenship or joined the army. He left after the Six-Day War, settling in New Jersey. He subsisted for long periods on a psychiatric disability pension, with stints as an Amway salesman, cab driver and Hebrew teacher. He often turned to synagogues for handouts or odd jobs to pay his rent and family-court costs, claiming that he was a victim of his in-laws' supposed anti-Semitism. "Everyone helped him out," says Rabbi David Feldman, of Teaneck Jewish Center.

Feldman knew Kostner better than most. He stuck with him, visited him in prison, agreed to say "Kaddish" for the children. Feldman says: "[Kostner] was not a religious man. Dealing with the man, knowing what moved him, I can tell you it was not religion. He did those terrible things for reasons of domestic strife, not religion. To say otherwise is a disgrace to religion."

Kostner wanted to prove otherwise. He wanted a trial to air the "issues" in his case: fathers' rights, unfairness in the family courts, his in-laws' supposed anti-Semitism and, especially, the religious duty of Jews to resist apostasy at all costs.

It would have been a grotesquely interesting trial. Kostner would have tried to have rabbis and historians testify to the ancient, honored Jewish tradition of mass suicide in the face of forced apostasy. He would have cited Masada, the medieval martyrs of York and the Maccabean tale of Hannah and her sons as precedents. Witnesses might have been called to testify to the modern consensus that the loss of children through intermarriage is today's Holocaust.

The prosecution would have had to reply that times have changed, that Jews are no longer at war with the non-Jewish world, that intermarriage and even religion-switching are now facts of life. That, Kostner must have hoped, would have won him some grass-roots Jewish support.

Broader questions would have been raised outside the courtroom. Some might have argued that Kostner's fragile mental state left him vulnerable, like Yigal Amir, to the inflammatory rhetoric around him. Some would have urged reflection on the danger of angry words, with predictable retorts blaming Kostner's deeds on liberal permissiveness.

But there was no trial. No one explored the meaning of Kostner's crimes. No one wanted to. Now he's dead. We're off the hook.

Kostner was buried on June 5, after a delay while Feldman hunted for a cemetery. The body was refused at the cemetery Kostner had requested. He wanted, Feldman said, to rest near his grandfather, "the only one who ever showed him love."

Feldman found another cemetery and buried Kostner there, at the edge of the park, away from other graves, because he "was not repentant," Feldman said. "He regretted the loss of the children, but he didn't regret the deed. He continued to believe that he was justified."

Kostner considered himself a martyr in the Jewish war for survival against apostasy. He was monstrously misguided. But he didn't invent the war.

J.J. Goldberg is the author of "Jewish Power: Inside the Amercan Jewish Establishment." He writes regularly for The Jewish Journal.

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