If Earl Krugel stood for anything, it was the principle that Jews should never retreat, never back down from a hostile world. The former Jewish Defense League (JDL) stalwart and his cohorts vocally, provocatively and sometimes violently fought back over decades of political activism.
But no one was watching Krugel's back Friday afternoon at the Federal Corrections Institute in Phoenix, when another inmate, apparently, swung a bag containing a cinderblock into the back of Krugel's head, killing him.
Krugel's death brought an abrupt close to a high-profile terrorism case that attracted nationwide attention in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Krugel was arrested, along with his friend Irv Rubin, for allegedly plotting to bomb the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City and a field office of Arab-American congressman Darrell Issa (R-Vista).
Both middle-aged defendants faced life terms. But neither lived long behind bars. Irv Rubin, 57, died in November 2002 in what officials ruled a suicide. His family has challenged that conclusion. There's no doubt, however, that Krugel, 62, was murdered, less than two months after being sentenced as part of a plea bargain.
While awaiting the disposition of his case, Krugel, a dental technician from Reseda, had been in custody four years at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in downtown Los Angeles. One concession that he got for pleading guilty was a pledge from U.S. District Court Judge Ronald S. W. Lew to serve time in California near his family.
But the judge's pledge was unenforceable, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Jessner, who prosecuted Krugel. It was ultimately up to federal prison authorities to decide where Krugel would serve the remainder of his 20-year sentence.
Krugel was transferred from Los Angeles in the early morning hours of Oct. 27, according to his family. From there, U.S. marshals first moved him to a prison in Victorville, where he stayed from Friday to Tuesday. From there he was transferred to the small, medium-security detention center on the outskirts of Phoenix.
Although Krugel missed his family -- he called his wife twice a day -- he was reasonably upbeat, said Lola Krugel, who learned some details about her husband's death in a series of calls with prison authorities and clergy.
The health-conscious Krugel, gray-haired and balding, had become a workout fanatic, focused on staying in shape and outlasting the expiration of his sentence in 2019. On Friday afternoon he decided to try out the exercise equipment at the Arizona facility. As he went through his reps, a still-unidentified assailant stepped up behind him and reportedly swung the concrete block, which was hidden in a paper sack. Krugel could still hold his own in a fight, family members say, but he never had a chance. Some reports describe his attacker as a possible neo-Nazi. Krugel also could have been a target if he'd been branded as an informant, said prosecutor Jessner.
The details of what happened next are murky, but it appears the crushing blow killed him instantly. Questions abound about the identity and motive of Krugel's killer and the actions of prison personnel. The FBI and prison officials remain tight-lipped about the incident. Even Krugel's family has received little additional information beyond what has been publicly released. FBI agent Richard Murray in Phoenix provided a terse announcement to the media, saying little else except that Krugel was killed Friday evening and that the incident was under investigation. According to an autopsy performed on Monday in Phoenix, Krugel died from "blunt force trauma to the head." His time of his death, officially a homicide, is listed as 6:03 p.m. Friday.
"I spoke to him last Wednesday morning around 9:30 a.m.," a shaken Lola Krugel recounted. "He had just gotten to FCI Phoenix around 4 that morning. On the phone he told me it was OK there. He could see the sky and feel grass again. Earl was very upbeat when we talked."
"We always talked twice a day," she continued, fighting back tears. "Once in the morning and then again at night. We talked Thursday morning and he said he had just gone through some kind of orientation and would be applying for a prison job on Friday. Then we talked again that night. I just didn't know that would be the last time I talked to my husband," she said.
"He was strong," said Lola Krugel, who married her husband in 1997. "He was still optimistic and upbeat even though he was there in prison. He told me, 'Don't worry. I will ask for a transfer to a facility in California. I will take care of myself. I will follow the rules and I will be home before you know it.' That was Earl. That was my husband."
"He wasn't a monster, a killer. He wasn't the person the media has made him out to be," she added. "My husband was a caring person. He wasn't about the JDL anymore. That was old news. We didn't have a JDL life. JDL was dead."
And Krugel seemed to have accepted this reality. At his sentencing he vainly pleaded to Judge Lew for leniency.
"This was carried too far," he said in court. "It became a plan for violent protest and not civic protest. Violence only begets violence."
After "much soul-searching" in prison, he concluded, he had come to realize there are "good Arabs and bad Arabs just like there are good and bad Jews."
The JDL was started in 1968 by Meir Kahane, a Brooklyn, N.Y., rabbi who preached self-defense to combat anti-Semitism. Kahane moved to Israel in 1970 and called for forcibly removing all Arabs from Israel and the disputed territories. An Arab extremist assassinated Kahane during a trip to New York in 1990.
When he left for Israel, Kahane had handed over the JDL to Rubin, although factions have long advanced competing leadership claims. Ruben, Krugel and a small band of West Coast followers were seemingly inseparable and became fixtures at rallies, where they'd shout their beliefs out through megaphones. But the group also was linked to acts of violence, including the unsolved murder of Alex Odeh, 41, the western regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Odeh was killed by a pipe bomb as he tried to enter his Santa Ana office.
Krugel's reported cooperation with the FBI sparked a break with Shelley Rubin, Irv Rubin's widow, who publicly branded him a "traitor" for implicating her husband in the 2001 bombing plot.
What's left of the JDL is open to debate -- at least two factions are fighting over the remnants. In Israel, militant, extremist groups retain a small but devoted following.
Linda Krugel said her brother was miscast by critics: "My brother was bright. He was articulate. He loved to read. He loved politics. He loved to collect gems and he was devoted to his family."
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