How can it be, they say they wonder, that their quiet, obedient child committed such a horrendous act?
Two years after their son killed, dismembered and burned the body of an acquaintance, the parents of convicted murderer Samuel Sheinbein say they are still trying to answer that question.
They are alternately ashamed, hurt, shocked, angry, relieved and hopeful, the couple told an Israeli newspaper, speaking for the first time publicly since their son was sentenced to 24 years in prison--among the longest prison terms given in Israel to a minor convicted of murder.
"Today, I speak to myself and try to understand how it is possible my son--quiet, obedient and talented--could kill," said Sol Sheinbein, interviewed with his wife, Victoria, in the daily newspaper Maariv. "I don't know where I erred and cannot in any way understand how it happened. I never raised a hand on Sam. There was never tension between us. His brother and sister are so talented and successful. So why did I fail with him?"
The couple is just now beginning to see how their son's murder affected them, they told the newspaper. Until now, they said, they were too busy fighting his extradition to Maryland and then arranging for a plea bargain that would give him some hope of a life after prison.
"I feel a huge embarrassment that my son, a part of me, did what he did. I hurt in a way that cannot be described," Sol Sheinbein said.
At first, when he found out his son was involved in the slaying of Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr., he was shocked, Sol Sheinbein said. He could not believe his son committed murder.
That was in September 1997. After the younger Sheinbein became a suspect in the slaying, his parents sent him to Israel. In February, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that Sheinbein could not be extradited because he is a citizen through his father, a native Israeli. Israel does not extradite its citizens.
Two months ago, Samuel Sheinbein arrived at the plea agreement with the state prosecutor's office and received the 24-year sentence. The punishment was criticized by Montgomery County prosecutors and Latino activists. Had Sheinbein been tried in Maryland, he could have faced a life term.
Now that the trial and sentencing are completed, his parents say they are putting their lives together again. They bought a new apartment in Tel Aviv and plan to remain in Israel. His mother says she is even optimistic at times.
"Today, Sam is only 19. Because of good behavior they will take one-third off his prison sentence, and he can be released in another 16 years, at age 35," she said. "That is still young. Maybe it is possible to forget. Maybe it is possible to start over."
While they say they are astounded that their son could commit such an atrocity, the Sheinbeins acknowledge they didn't have a close relationship with him, as they say they do with their two older children.
When Sam was 12, his mother became concerned about his behavior--this quiet boy who almost never laughed and never cried. She consulted psychologists, some of whom advised her to leave him alone, while others urged her to watch him closely. She didn't know what to do, she said.
Even today, Sam has difficulty expressing his emotions, his parents said. During the two years of court hearings, his expression didn't change. He sat stone-faced, never cracking a smile or shedding a tear, barely blinking when the dozens of cameras flashed in his face.
"We were stormy, and he was alert and quiet," his father said. "He understood exactly what was happening and the danger in the decision, which from his point of view was between life and death."
Victoria Sheinbein blames the murder on her son's friendship with Aaron Needle, his alleged accomplice in the killing who hanged himself in a Montgomery County jail in April 1998. Prosecutors argued that her son was the ringleader.
Still, she says, she was also angry with him. She tried to talk to him, to find out what led him to kill. But her son told her he would not speak about that night.
After their initial anger, the Sheinbeins said, they decided that Sam was their son no matter what and that their first priority was to protect him.
That act came at a price: Sol Sheinbein, a former patent and trademark lawyer for the U.S. government who now represents U.S. companies in Israel, has been charged with obstructing a police investigation in connection with helping his son flee. Because the charge is a misdemeanor, however, he would not be prosecuted unless he returned to the United States. Montgomery prosecutors have explored the possibility of attempting to revoke his law license in the United States.
"I did some simple soul-searching," Sol Sheinbein recalled. "And I came to the conclusion that with all due respect to the law, I am first of all a father and only after that a citizen."
He added, "Despite everything, Sam is my son and I love him."