Protesters chant outside as Werdesheim brothers plead not guilty to beating black teen

Members of Shomrim patrol set for trial on May 2; case marks racial and religious divisions

February 16, 2011|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

As supporters and protesters chanted outside, Avi and Eliyahu Werdesheim, members of a Park Heights citizens patrol, pleaded not guilty Wednesday in Baltimore Circuit Court to beating a black teenager last fall as he walked through their neighborhood.

Passions raised by the case were plain in the dozens of placard-bearing demonstrators who, separated by sawhorses and sheriff's deputies, shouted out their positions from the sidewalk on North Calvert Street. One group, composed of Jews, agitated in support of the two men. In the other group, African-Americans railed against what they said was a violent act of racism.

Avi Werdesheim, 20, and his brother, Eliyahu, 23, dressed in dark suits, white shirts and ties, were mobbed by sympathizers as they emerged from the courthouse with their lawyers. The men are charged with false imprisonment, second-degree assault and possession of a deadly weapon in the Nov. 19 incident, and could receive up to 10 years in prison if convicted. They are scheduled for trial May 2.

"Avi and Eli are heroic young men," Reuven Poupko, a Jewish lawyer and former member of the Baltimore Board of Ethics, said outside the courthouse. "They keep us safe. We are grateful to them, and we are sure that justice will be served."

Leo W. Burroughs Jr., a black community activist, saw it differently. He said that the attack on the 15-year-old boy was "symptomatic of the racial divide that still exists in this country," and that everyone should "continuously strive to eliminate it."

According to charging documents, the teen told police that he was walking in the 3300 block of Fallstaff Road when a vehicle appeared and followed him for a short distance before two men jumped out. One grabbed him and threw him to the ground, the documents say, and the other — who police believe was the elder Werdesheim — struck him on the head with a two-way radio and asked if he "had anything on him."

After uttering an expletive, according to police, one of the men shouted, "You don't belong around here — get out of here!"

A felony assault charge against Eli Werdesheim, a former Israeli special forces soldier, was dismissed last month. Andrew Alperstein, a lawyer who represents him, said Wednesday that neither of the men now participates in the patrol group, known as Shomrim, whose Orthodox Jewish members keep watch on parts of Northwest Baltimore.

Susan R. Green, who represents the younger brother, asked the public "not to rush to judgment."

But members of the black community said the way the case is being handled is in itself evidence of racism. Dropping the most serious charge, some of them said, shows that State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein is placing the interests of Jews ahead of those of blacks.

Burroughs, the community activist, said dismissing the felony was a "travesty," and he carried a sign with the words "Bernstein Promotes Black Holocaust." People around him held placards that said "Prosecute Shomrim for Hate Crimes" and called it a "vigilante group."

A statement from Bernstein's office said that charging decisions in the case "were based on a careful and thorough investigation of the facts" and that "no factors beyond the facts and the law were considered."

For some residents of Park Heights, the issue is simply one of safety. "It's important to have the right of self-defense," said Isaiah Cox, who attended the rally with his children. "People should have the right to live in safe communities."

Another participant in the rally, Rabbi Mendel Gafny, said that despite the "hysteria" surrounding the incident, there are many instances of cooperation between the black and Jewish communities. He said two synagogues on Park Heights Avenue, Temple Oheb Shalom and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, regularly allow the buildings to be used for Christian services by black churches with no homes of their own.

"These two boys, I'm not going to tell you they did the right thing," Gafny said. "But these are not two gangsters."

Marshear Marsh, director of alumni affairs at Sojourner-Douglass College, disagreed. She said the youth had been attacked "just for walking through a neighborhood."

"How," she asked, "can we live with that as a society?"

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