September 11, 1997
Cleared of Charges?
Charges against a Brooklyn Chassidic rabbi of groping a 15-year-old girl during a transpacific flight were part of an extortion plot and will be dismissed by federal prosecutors.
So states prominent Washington attorney Nathan Lewin, who's representing Rabbi Israel Grunwald, leader of a group of Pupa Chassidim in Brooklyn's Borough Park section.
"The government has agreed to dismiss the misdemeanor charge [of abusive sexual contact with a minor] against Rabbi Grunwald, who is totally innocent of the allegations made against him," Lewin declared in a written statement.
The U.S. government, at this point, is less certain. "The charges are still pending and trial is still set for Sept. 22," said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles.
Lewin reaffirmed, in a phone interview, that he has a written agreement with the U.S. Attorney to drop all charges. Mrozek said that he could neither confirm nor deny this assertion.
Grunwald and his assistant, Yehudah Friedlander, both 44 at the time, were arrested on May 31, 1995, as they stepped off their plane at Los Angeles International Airport, following an overnight flight from Melbourne, Australia.
The arrests were based on allegations by a 15-year-old girl -- who has residences in Australia and the United States -- that during the darkened flight, Grunwald had fondled her breasts and Friedlander had touched her private parts.
Friedlander, facing a felony charge, subsequently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a 22-month imprisonment. He is currently incarcerated at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center and is due for release in November.
Charges against Grunwald were dropped at the time but reinstated last October.
According to Lewin and a source familiar with the case, the father of the girl contacted a Jewish community leader in Australia last month and said that his daughter would retract her court testimony in return for a $1.2 million payment from the Chassidic communities in Australia and Brooklyn.
The demand was relayed to Australian lawyer Norman Rosenbaum, brother of yeshiva student Yankel Rosenbaum, who was killed in the 1991 Crown Heights riots, and the information ultimately reached Lewin.
Lewin notified federal authorities. On Aug. 24, two days before a previously scheduled trial date, a FBI undercover agent, posing as a friend of Rabbi Grunwald, turned over a "down payment" of $50,000 to the girl's father in Burbank.
Kiara Andrich, spokeswoman for the FBI's Los Angeles office, said that while the FBI was involved in the initial investigation of Grunwald and Friedlander, she could not comment on the alleged undercover operation.
Lewin said that he hoped that the U.S. Attorney's office would "vigorously prosecute all parties involved in the attempted extortion of the Jewish communities in Melbourne and Brooklyn."
The New York Post reported "real anger" in the Brooklyn Chassidic community over the government's failure to arrest the father.
Grunwald leads a faction of some 100 Pupa Chassidim in Borough Park. He is the son of the late Josef Grunwald, the Hungarian-born founder and grand rabbi of the 12,000-member Pupa movement. On the founder's death, the title devolved on his older son, Yakov Grunwald, who heads the main Pupa community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.