Murder suspect Samuel Sheinbein acknowledged to an Israeli court yesterday that he burned and dismembered the body of Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr. in a gruesome 1997 Montgomery County case, but he admitted no role in killing Tello.
His stance surprised Montgomery's chief prosecutor, who said it contradicted earlier statements by the teenager's attorney and his father that Sheinbein would admit committing the murder if he were tried in Israel instead of Maryland. Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler (D) said those statements were made during arguments before the Israeli Supreme Court as Sheinbein, 18, successfully fought extradition to the United States.
"They reneged on that promise today," Gansler told reporters. The apparent shift, he said, shows "Mr. Sheinbein's continual ability to manipulate the Israeli legal system to his advantage."
In a trial set to begin Oct. 10, Israeli prosecutors will seek to prove to a three-judge panel that Sheinbein, rather than his co-defendant, Aaron Needle, strangled Tello in a car before torching and mutilating his body. Needle, the only other person alleged to be present at the slaying, hanged himself in his Montgomery jail cell on the eve of his trial in April 1998. Gansler said yesterday that Montgomery prosecutors had evidence to show that Tello's slaying was a "thrill kill" for Sheinbein and that the teenager had planned to kill someone else but started with Tello as a "practice murder." Gansler declined to name Sheinbein's other alleged target, except to say it was an "acquaintance."
Sheinbein's hearing in Tel Aviv yesterday, similar to an arraignment, was the first step in his trial in a slaying that shocked the Washington region. Many Americans and Israelis were angered when Sheinbein successfully claimed Israeli citizenship, and its protection from extradition to Maryland, through his father.
Sheinbein was not required to enter a plea to the murder charge against him. He admitted to all or part of five statements of fact in the indictment, including that he saw Tello before the slaying and that he helped dismember and conceal the body afterward.
As Sheinbein sat placidly, dressed in a plaid rugby shirt and fidgeting with his handcuffs, his attorney, David Libai, said Sheinbein and Needle picked up Tello from his job at a Montgomery shopping center on the evening of Sept. 16, 1997, within hours of when prosecutors said Tello was killed.
"We admit that around 6 p.m., Sam and Aaron Needle collected [Tello] in a car -- that's all," Libai said. "We're admitting that the body was in Sam's garage, and then moved to another garage, and it was cut and burned. We've admitted nothing with regard to the killing -- where it was done, who did it, when it was done."
What happened between the time Sheinbein and Needle picked up Tello from work and when Sheinbein helped mutilate Tello's body "is a mystery," Libai said.
Sheinbein fled to Israel three days after a real estate agent found Tello's charred torso wrapped in a garbage bag in the garage of a vacant Aspen Hill home.
"It is not helping," Israeli prosecutor Hadassah Naor said after the hearing. "He is admitting only to facts after the murder."
Israeli prosecutors have alleged that Sheinbein and Needle agreed to kill Tello while riding in the car and then strangled him with a rope, beat him in the head and cut him on the neck and chest.
The facts to which Sheinbein admitted in the indictment were slightly different from those that Montgomery prosecutors have alleged in the past two years.
Libai said Sheinbein acknowledged that, according to the indictment, he and Needle moved Tello's body to Sheinbein's family home in Wheaton and then, two days later, moved it to the garage of the vacant home nearby. There, using a Makita power saw they had bought the day before, Sheinbein and Needle cut off Tello's limbs and hid them before burning the torso and leaving it wrapped in a black garbage bag, Libai said.
However, Montgomery prosecutors said Tello's body was actually dismembered and burned in Sheinbein's garage and then moved to the vacant house. They said last night that the indictment includes other errors and illustrates that Israeli prosecutors do not understand the case.
"They never checked with us on what specific facts they'd set forth," said Deputy State's Attorney John McCarthy.
Naor said she plans to travel to Montgomery in August to begin assembling her case with the help of local prosecutors. But Gansler said the upcoming trial will be a "procedural and logistical nightmare."
None of the 60 or so witnesses can be compelled to travel to Israel to testify, though they could be required to give depositions in Maryland. Although Sheinbein told his brother and father that he killed Tello, Gansler said, the Israeli judges may not hear that, because under Israeli law, a defendant's siblings and parents cannot be forced to testify against him.
If Sheinbein argues successfully that he merely helped Needle burn and mutilate the body, he might not be convicted of anything, because Israeli prosecutors did not indict him on charges of hindering an investigation or being an accessory to murder, Gansler said.
Libai could not be reached after the hearing to elaborate on the defense strategy.
However, lawyers familiar with the case said Sheinbein's attorney apparently found the evidence linking him to the dismemberment and burning overwhelming. The defense appears to be hinging on the fact that Needle is dead, legal experts said.
"It's `I didn't do it; he did it,' " said Paul Rothstein, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. "It'll be hard for prosecutors to prove who actually performed the murder, especially since the only other eyewitnesses are dead."
Sheinbein's attorneys would only have to sow a seed of reasonable doubt in the Israeli judges' minds that Needle carried out the killing, even if prosecutors show that Sheinbein helped plan it, Rothstein said. "It could be viewed that in Sheinbein's mind, it was some kind of unreal game and he only participated in the planning and then was shocked by the killing and had to get rid of the body," Rothstein said. "It's not a guilt-free picture, but it's certainly better than if he coldbloodedly, physically strangled the life out of a person."
Jonathan Strum, who teaches a course in Israeli law at Georgetown, said Sheinbein's attorney may merely be calling prosecutors' bluff.
"One of the issues was that it would be so inconvenient to bring all the witnesses from the United States, that the costs will be tremendous," Strum said. "Now the prosecution has to prove everything. . . . It may be `Prove to me you'll really bring everyone here to try this case.' "
But Strum said most defense lawyers wouldn't want the same judges who would sentence their client to sit through a trial in which all the grisly details of the alleged killing will come out.
"I think that's why most people expected him to plead to the facts," Strum said. "This is a particularly gruesome crime. It's not something that will lead to leniency on the part of the judges."
Schneider reported from Tel Aviv, and Shaver reported from Washington.
CAPTION: Samuel Sheinbein admitted to burning, but not killing, the victim.