“A neighbor described the missing youth as a shy and conscientious teenager, the youngest of three children, who was ‘extremely handy with tools.’ ”
Samuel Sheinbein, then 17, a senior at Montgomery County’s John F. Kennedy High School, was suddenly a murder suspect on the lam. “I can’t believe this,” the neighbor went on to say. “I know of nothing untoward about this boy.”
But there was plenty untoward about Sam Sheinbein, as it turned out. Three days earlier, the charred and dismembered torso of a 19-year-old man had been found in the garage of a vacant house in Sheinbein’s Aspen Hill neighborhood. Also in the garage, a few feet from the corpse: a Makita-brand electric circular saw.
Police quickly got a warrant for Sheinbein’s arrest — but his parents managed to hustle him off to Israel, his lawyer-father’s childhood home. His flight, and a protracted extradition effort that ultimately failed, turned a local homicide case into a sensational legal tug of war involving Congress, the State and Justice departments and the upper echelons of Israel’s political and judicial establishments.
He never did come home. Because his father, Sol Sheinbein, was technically an Israeli citizen, the son was prosecuted in Jerusalem under Israeli law for a murder committed 6,000 miles away.
More than 16 years after the brutal killing of Alfredo Tello (possibly carried out for an insanely casual reason), the once seemingly shy and conscientious Sheinbein, 33, was killed Sunday in a shootout in an Israeli penitentiary.
There was plenty of outrage in the Washington area over the convoluted Sheinbein legal saga, especially among Latinos. In a plea bargain, he was sentenced to 24 years in an Israeli prison. For some folks, it was a case of justice denied, and their anger hasn’t dissipated.
“He went out like a coward,” said Juan Pineda, 37, a high school buddy of Tello’s in the mid-1990s. “What would you suspect? He was a coward from the beginning.”
Sheinbein’s accused murder accomplice, Aaron Needle, who was 17 in 1997, also died behind bars, hanging himself in the Montgomery jail months after the killing. He and Sheinbein had befriended each other as kids at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville. Acquaintances described them as two privileged suburban teenagers with troubled family lives and histories of drug use and petty crimes.
“Karma,” Pineda said after learning that the imprisoned Sheinbein somehow had gotten a gun and, after wounding three guards, had been shot in his cell by Israeli counterterrorism officers. “What goes around comes around,” said Pineda, who painted a mural of Tello at a Hyattsville gas station after the murder.
“You can run,” he said, “but you can’t hide.”
The crime was as sloppy as it was grotesque.
On Sept. 19, 1997, police Detective Paula Hamill was summoned to an unoccupied house on Breeze Hill Lane in Aspen Hill, about five miles north of the Capital Beltway.
Two real estate agents, having gone to the house to get it ready to show to potential buyers, had traced a foul odor to the garage. There, the agents saw a large, black plastic bag with what appeared to be blood seeping out of it.
Gingerly slicing part of the bag with a knife, Hamill found the charred torso of a man with no limbs and what looked to be a rope around his neck.
“The worst thing I had ever seen,” she recalled Monday.
Next to the victim, Hamill noticed a garden cart and a blue tarpaulin. The Makita power saw was atop the tarp. Also in the garage were a few propane cannisters, rubber gloves and some pieces of duct tape. There was a big, freshly dug hole in the back yard, suggesting the killer or killers had planned a burial but abandoned the idea.
Tello hadn’t been killed in the garage, detectives later theorized. Witnesses reported seeing teenagers matching the descriptions of Sheinbein and Needle struggling to push a tarp-covered garden cart toward the vacant house. A blood trail stretched around a corner to Sheinbein’s home.
Found in the Sheinbeins’ garage were the empty carton for a Makita saw, rubber gloves, a container of black plastic bags like the one that held the torso, a box of store-bought fireplace logs like some logs scattered near the body, and the remnants of a small fire, according to a police affidavit.
Missing from the Sheinbeins’ garage: the family’s garden cart.
As for what motivated the killing, prosecutor John McCarthy, now the Montgomery state’s attorney, said Monday that Sheinbein wanted to kill someone else — a young man who liked the same girl he liked — and needed help to carry out his plan. Around the same time, Needle got into an argument with Tello, who punched him. So the two teenagers apparently hatched an agreement, according to McCarthy: Sheinbein would help Needle kill Tello, and Needle would help Sheinbein kill his romantic rival.
The pair picked up Tello from his job and attacked him inside the car, McCarthy said, possibly using a stun gun to daze him. An autopsy showed Tello suffered blunt-force trauma, strangulation and cuts to his neck and chest.
“This is a case that never left the collective conscience of the community,” McCarthy said Monday. “It’s a shocking and unsatisfying end to the case.”
The burned torso was discovered on a Friday. But in short order, the suspect fled to Israel, his flight having been arranged by his parents, Sol and Victoria Sheinbein. The couple joined him there and remain in Israel today.
Sol Sheinbein — a patent lawyer since disbarred in Maryland for having aided his son’s escape — was born in 1944 in what was then British-controlled Palestine. He immigrated to the United States at age 6, two years after the founding of the Jewish state. Although he returned only occasionally in the 1950s, he continued to be listed as a citizen by Israel’s Interior Ministry.
The legal fate of Sam Sheinbein would depend on how the Israeli government and judiciary interpreted the nation’s citizenship laws.
Initially, Israeli authorities told U.S. diplomats that Israel considered Sol Sheinbein a citizen. Under Israeli law, if a father was a citizen, so were his children, no matter where they were born. And Israeli law barred the extradition of citizens, regardless of their alleged crimes. In such cases, Israel handled any prosecutions.
“My sensitivities as a citizen of the United States have been violated,” declared then-Rep. Robert L. Livingston (R-La.), joining an angry chorus on Capitol Hill. As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Livingston threatened to withhold financial aid to Israel. Madeleine K. Albright, then the secretary of state, pressed the issue with the Israeli government, seeking “maximum cooperation.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the crime “has appalled the government and the people of Israel” and that he hoped Israel’s judiciary would find a legal avenue by which Sheinbein could be returned to the United States.
Israel’s Justice Ministry reversed its earlier opinion and argued that Sol Sheinbein was not a citizen, meaning his son was not, either. On Sept. 6, 1998, a year after the murder, a judge in Jerusalem District Court sided with U.S. and Israeli prosecutors and ordered that Sheinbein be extradited.
Five months later, Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the decision.
Israel’s Ynet news Web site reported that the special police forces, called to Rimonim Prison in central Israeli on Sunday, fired many shots at Sheinbein. The medical conditions of the three guards whom Sheinbein allegedly shot were improving Monday.
Lt. Gen. Aharon Franko, head of the Israeli Prison Service, said he had established two committees to investigate the incident, including how Sheinbein managed to get a gun inside the prison. Sheinbein had been accused of trying to buy a gun on the Internet, during a recent furlough, officials said.
“We are shocked and very upset,” Sol Sheinbein said in a statement. “We wish the injured a speedy recovery and healing. We express deep sorrow and shock at the sequence of events.”
However, the family’s Israeli attorney, Orit Hayoun, suggested that Sam Sheinbein was a victim.
“What is becoming clear is that the events might not have needed to end with the authorities shooting him,” Hayoun said. “From what we understand, they used more than one bullet to kill him. . . . Nobody tried to talk to him or to calm him down.”
She said that Sheinbein was generally a well-behaved inmate. “Maybe someone was threatening him? Maybe he needed to protect himself?” she said.
“He was supposed to be released in another year from now,” she said, referring to his parole eligibility. “Why would he do this?”
Zach C. Cohen, Ruth Eglash, Victoria St. Martin and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.