A man who has been jailed since 1990 in the killing of Rabbi Chatzkel Werzberger, Hy”d, a brutal slaying that roiled Williamsburg for months and made headlines even in the face of the city’s soaring homicide rate, will be set free Thursday after an investigation found he was probably framed.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said he will ask a state judge to release David Ranta, the only person convicted in the murder.
“What’s important to me is that this fellow should not be in prison one day longer,” Hynes told The New York Times on Tuesday.
But Isaac Abraham, a spokesman for the Werzbergers, says that while the family has no idea who actually pulled the trigger, they are sure that Ranta was at minimum, a collaborator in the murderer.
“He was an accomplice,” Mr. Abraham, Rabbi Werzberger’s cousin through marriage, told Hamodia. “We were uncomfortable [the whole time] that he was the triggerman.”
Mr. Abraham said that the family was called by the DA’s office about two months ago to update them on the investigation. But they were led to believe that it would be a retrial or a hearing for parole, not a release.
“They were not told by the district attorney what this is about,” Mr. Abraham said, a note of indignation creeping into his voice. “They were shocked when I informed them [Tuesday] night that the prosecutors are going to drop charges.”
Rabbi Leib Glancz, a leader in the Satmar community who was heavily involved in the case, told Hamodia that the family does not now know what will happen.
Rabbi Glancz, who was a neighbor of Rabbi Werzberger and was the first Hatzolah member on the scene, said that “nobody is crying over the fact that [Ranta] spent the past 23 years in prison.”
Then a newly inducted district attorney, Hynes promised at Rabbi Werzberger’s levayah to pursue the case until he would bring the killer to justice. But Brooklyn’s chief prosecutor, who is currently running for reelection for a seventh term, said that an investigation by a special unit he created to look into questionable convictions concluded that detectives who arrested him broke numerous rules.
Rabbi Werzberger, a Holocaust survivor known as Reb Chatzkel Shamash in Satmar since he was the shamash at K’hal Yetev Lev of Williamsburg, was shot on Feb. 8, 1990, by a man fleeing a botched robbery. Thousands attended the levayah, and then-Mayor David Dinkins offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
“I have not had such a good friend such as Reb Chatzkel!” cried the Beirach Moshe, zt”l, the Satmar Rebbe, at the levayah.
“The bullet was fired at Reb Yechezkel,” a member of the Satmar community was quoted as saying at the time, “but it pierced the hearts of everyone in the community.”
Ranta, a drug-addicted, unemployed printer, was convicted in May 1991 and sentenced to 37.5 years in prison. But investigators now say that prosecutors were sloppy in their handling of the trial, and that all the evidence brought during the trial was found to be trumped up.
That fits with what the family has been saying all along, that Ranta was a cog in the wheel but not the main one. Aside for the murderer, there was also a getaway driver and possibly a spotter as well.
The detectives, led by Louis Scarcella, kept few written records, coached a witness and took Ranta’s confession under what a judge described as highly dubious circumstances. They allowed two dangerous criminals, an investigator said, to leave jail and engage in behavior forbidden to prisoners in exchange for incriminating Ranta.
But no physical evidence connected Ranta to the murder. He said that his confession was coerced, coming off a long period of sleeplessness, and he insisted at his sentencing that he was innocent.
“Now you people do what you got to do, because I feel this is all a total frame setup,” Ranta told Judge Francis Egitto. “When I come down on my appeal, I hope to G-d he brings out the truth because a lot of people are going to be ashamed of themselves.”
Reached by the Times in his retirement, Scarcella defended his work. “I never framed anyone in my life,” he said.
Rabbi Werzberger was sitting in his car shortly after 5:00 a.m. on a wintry morning in Williamsburg, when a thief aiming to steal from a jeweler neighbor of Rabbi Werzberger’s outside the Clymer Street apartment building was run over by his intended target.
Furious, the panicky would-be thief forced Rabbi Werzberger out of his car, shot him in the head and dumped him on the street. He then made off with the auto.
Rabbi Werzberger was rushed to the hospital but he passed away of his wounds four days later, on 18 Shevat. Even in the New York City of 1990, as homicides crested at 2,245, Reb Chatzkel Shamash’s murder stirred grief and outrage in the tabloid press.
Hynes put Scarcella, a tough-talking Bensonhurst resident, in charge of the case. Together with a team of 40 detectives, they worked along with Rabbi Glancz to solve the murder. They soon arrested Ranta, and prosecutor Barry Schreiber got a conviction from a jury in May of 1991.
But Hynes now says that nearly every shred of evidence he had in the ensuing 23 years has fallen away. Key witnesses were coached by detectives to pick out Ranta in the lineup — police directed him to choose the “guy with the big nose” — and others who testified later said that they lied in hopes of cutting a better deal in their own tangles with the law.
Chaim Weinberger, the jeweler who was the thief’s target, said he got a good look at the robber and recalled seeing a tall, blond man. While Ranta is not tall or blond, Joe Astin, whom an anonymous caller suggested the police talk to about the story, was.
But Astin, who had several other armed robbery convictions on his record prior to the 1990 murder, died during a police chase two months after the Werzberger tragedy.
Astin’s wife Theresa, who had consistently pointed the finger at Ranta, backtracked in 1996, and testified that her husband had admitted to the murder. She said that Joe came home that morning shaking. She later found him in the bathroom, dismantling a pistol.
“He said, ‘I hurt someone, something happened,’” Astin said. “He was crying, he was scared.”
The Werzberger family dismissed her testimony as worthless. Egitto, pointing at inconstancies in the witness’s story, as well as her checkered past, refused to toss Ranta’s guilty verdict.
Mr. Abraham blames Mr. Hynes for rushing the trial and damaging the chance of convicting the real murderer until the trail turned cold.
“I attended many trials,” Mr. Abraham said. “Here in this case he was a relative, my friend and my mentor. But I have never seen a botched robbery turn into such a botched prosecution.”
“I know Rabbi Werzberger paid with his life for a botched robbery,” he said. “Who is going to pay for this botched prosecution?”