Recap: After Long Trial, Kendel Felix Convicted of Kidnapping and Murder of Menachem Stark

BROOKLYN -
Menachem Stark, H"yd
Menachem Stark, H”yd

Kendel Felix was convicted Monday of kidnapping and second-degree murder in the death of Menachem Stark, Hy”d. A jury of 10 women and two men deliberated for two and a half days before convicting Felix of the most serious charges. He was acquitted of the lesser charge of attempted robbery.

Monday’s verdict was the culmination of a 13-day trial in Kings County Criminal Court. Felix is the only man who has thus far been charged in the death of Stark, which occurred on the night of Jan. 2-3, 2014.

Felix gave a videotaped confession of the crimes when he was brought in for questioning by police in April 2014, in which he implicated a number of his cousins. Felix later pleaded not guilty to the crimes, and his lawyer argued that the confession was coerced. But the jury of 10 women and two men convicted Felix of the most serious charges against him.

Here is a recap of the trial:

On the snowy night of Jan. 2, 2014, Mrs. Bashie Stark called authorities to report that her husband Menachem had not come home from work that night. Menachem, a real-estate developer, had an office at 331 Rutledge Street in Williamsburg.

Security-camera footage was soon widely released showing a man exiting Menachem’s office and being forced into a minivan by two assailants.

The next day, tragically, Menachem’s burned body was discovered in a dumpster in Great Neck, Long Island.

The trial of defendant Kendel Felix got underway with opening arguments on Sep. 7, 2016. Assistant district attorneys Howard Jackson and Emily Dean would present the case for the prosecution; Felix’s defense attorney was Jack Goldberg.

Bashie Stark gave emotional testimony regarding her husband’s schedule on the night he went missing. Other witnesses included Shomrim members and police detectives who went to Menachem’s office that night after receiving the call from Mrs. Stark, and the gas-station attendant in Great Neck who discovered Menachem’s body.

The prosecution showed surveillance video of Menachem entering his office that night, and then being kidnapped when he left.

Dozens of the Stark friends and family members who packed the courtroom burst into tears upon watching the video of Menachem — a 39-year-old father of seven — entering his office for the final time.

Jurors also heard testimony from a forensic officer who recovered the cellphone tracking device perpetrators had stuck onto Menachem’s car in order to track his whereabouts before the abduction. The cellphone belonged to Jeff Sealy, a construction foreman at Menachem’s construction sites.

Forensic officers were able to recover contact information for some members of the Felix family on that device.

The prosecution also presented testimony detailing how police officers were able to recover the car that was used in the crime. Based on security camera footage from the crime scene, police determined that the vehicle was a silver Dodge Grand Caravan. Further investigation of security camera footage of all bridges and tunnels in the area, as well as parking ticket records in New York, led to the recovery of the vehicle two weeks after the murder.

Once detectives located the vehicle, they kept it under surveillance to see who would get into it and drive it, and were thus able to connect the crime with the Felix family: Kendel’s uncle Philip Felix got into the car to drive it; police stopped him and discovered that he was not carrying a license. He later came down to the police station to show his license, accompanied by two younger members of his family.

The centerpieces of the prosecution’s case were the defendant’s confession and cellphone-tracking data.

On the night of April 29, 2014, Kendel Felix was brought in for police questioning. After several hours of interrogation, Felix finally confessed to the crime, both in writing and orally on video. The videotaped confession, conducted by Kenneth Taub, chief of the Homicide Bureau at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, was the most anticipated piece of evidence in the trial, and was played by the prosecution on the trial’s seventh day.

As the videotaped confession begins, Kendel says he “was approached by Erskine Felix,” his cousin. Erskine was a foreman at construction sites — including those for buildings owned by Menachem — at which Kendel worked as a carpenter.

According to Kendel, Erskine said: “Yo, this dude owes me money. He’s got a lot of money; we can get some from him.” Kendel told Taub he had never before heard of Menachem.

Erskine said, “He has a lot of money,” and then, “I’m like, ‘Wow,’ ” said Kendel. Throughout his confession, Kendel repeatedly said some version of that phrase that Menachem “has a lot of money,” indicating that he may have been motivated not merely by the prospect of having the debt to Erskine paid, but by the prospect of robbing Menachem.

Kendel recalled Erskine saying, “We’re going to get him to give us some money or sign a check or whatever; he has a lot of money, that would be nothing for him.”

“So what was the plan, exactly?” Taub asked.

“We’ll get him to write us a check or get money from a bank,” Kendel replied.

On January 2, 2014, as a snowstorm blanketed New York City, Erskine called Kendel and told him that they would carry out their plan that night.

A number of times during the confession, Kendel said he could not remember details of the incident. Kendel proceeded to describe how he had been in a motorcycle accident several years earlier, had suffered a brain injury, and since then often had issues with his memory.

Kendel said that he and Erskine went to Menachem’s office on Rutledge Street on the night in question to carry out their plan; Kendel was driving a silver Grand Caravan that belonged to Philip Felix, and Erskine was giving instructions.

Kendel said that Erskine instructed him to distract Menachem by starting to speak with him as he left his office. According to Kendel, Erskine is the one who fought Menachem and “got him in the van”; Kendel said he was not part of the physical struggle. “I’m not strong enough to do that; I was just standing there,” he said.

On the witness stand, however, Taub said he believed this was an instance of Kendel minimizing his role in the crime during the confession: In security camera footage of the abduction, two men can be seen struggling with the victim.

Kendel continued: “Erskine got him in the van and tied him up, taped his hands.” Menachem “was making noises. He was asking, ‘What do you want?’”

Kendel said that he drove while Erskine was in the back with Menachem. They drove to the home of another man, Irvine Henry, who came out to the car.

Then, according to Kendel, Erskine exclaimed, “He don’t look like he’s breathing!”

“I was confused and scared,” said Kendel.

Menachem died of suffocation; prosecutors believe this was a result of someone sitting on him or placing a heavy object on him.

They then drove to Erskine’s house, and Erskine’s brother, whose name is also Kendall, came to the car. Then they returned toward the area of Menachem’s office. Erskine and Irvine Henry got out of the car several blocks from Menachem’s office and walked toward the office to scope out the area, as Kendel and Kendall remained in the van with Menachem.

At this point, Erskine and Henry saw that the area was swarming with police, who had been called after Menachem failed to come home that night. Erskine and Henry then called Kendel and Kendall and told them to drive away.

Kendel and Kendall drove off into the snowy night, looking for a place to discard Menachem.

They drove to Great Neck, placed the body in a dumpster at an empty gas station, went to another gas station to get gas, returned to burn the body and then drove back home to Brooklyn.

The prosecution also presented cellphone-location-data evidence from Kendel’s and Menachem’s phones showing that they were in similar locations throughout that night — locations that matched up with those mentioned by Kendel in his testimony.

The defense by attorney Jack Goldberg was based on the argument that Kendel Felix’s low intelligence and personality traits, exacerbated by his brain injury, left him vulnerable to police interrogation and caused him to give a false, coerced confession. Goldberg argued that after several hours of police questioning, Kendel finally gave a confession that merely repeated information the police had already told him about the crime, in the belief that doing so would allow him to go home. Goldberg’s entire defense was centered on the confession being false; Goldberg never offered an alternative to the prosecution’s version of the events that occurred on the night of the crime.

The defense presented as an expert witness Dr. Marc Janoson, a forensic psychologist, who examined Kendel and argued at trial that Kendel had the known characteristics of a person likely to give a false confession, and that he was vulnerable to police coercion.

As a rebuttal witness, the prosecution presented Dr. Kathy Yates, a psychologist and neuropsychologist, who had also examined Kendel. Yates disagreed with Janoson’s conclusions, arguing with his assessment about Kendel’s susceptibility to police coercion and likelihood of giving a false confession.

Both Janoson and Yates said that a suggestibility test given to Kendel showed that he was not more suggestible than the average person.

During the trial, investigators who had taken Kendel’s confessions and testified for the prosecution said that Kendel had told them information in the confessions that they had not previously known, as the prosecution sought to show that the confessions did not merely consist of the defendant repeating information the police had already told him.

Arguments and testimony took 10 and a half days, and the jury deliberated for another two and a half days. Just before 5:00 p.m. Monday, Sept. 26, the jury found the defendant guilty of kidnapping and second-degree murder.

Under the “felony murder rule,” if a victim dies during the commission of certain felonies, the perpetrator can be charged with murder. Thus, by participating in the kidnapping that resulted in Menachem Stark’s death — though the death itself may have been accidental — Kendel Felix is deemed a murderer in the eyes of the law.

Stark family and friends Yoily Goldberger, Volvy Mendlowitz, Yitzy Stark and Joel Heller speak with Chris Blank and Howard Jackson of the Brooklyn DA's office after the verdict Monday, in the Kings County criminal courthouse. (Yosef Caldwell/Hamodia)
Stark family and friends Yoily Goldberger, Volvy Mendlowitz, Yitzy Stark and Joel Heller speak with Chris Blank and Howard Jackson of the Brooklyn DA’s office after the verdict Monday, in the Kings County criminal courthouse. (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia)

Justice Alexander Jeong thanked the jurors for their service during the long trial, noting, “This was one of the longest trials I have done in my career.” As the jurors left the box for the final time, two of them sobbed openly.

As the Stark family and friends exited the courtroom, they refrained from overt expressions of joy out of sensitivity to the defendant’s mother, who was present for the verdict. Later, in the lobby of the court building, there were smiles all around as they celebrated the verdict with the prosecution team. Jackson embraced Menachem’s brother Yitzy as they left the courthouse.

Prosecutor Howard Jackson (left) and Yitzy Stark embrace in the lobby of the courthouse after the verdict. In the center is Chris Blank of the Brooklyn district Attorney's office, whom Jackson credited with spending numerous hours gathering the evidence, particularly related to cellphone records, that the prosecution used to build its case. (Yosef Caldwell/Hamodia)
Prosecutor Howard Jackson (left) and Yitzy Stark embrace in the lobby of the courthouse after the verdict. In the center is Chris Blank of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, whom Jackson credited for spending numerous hours gathering the evidence, particularly related to cellphone records, that the prosecution used to build its case. (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia)

“This was such a roller-coaster ride for the past two and a half years, and especially the past two and a half weeks,” Joel Heller, Menachem’s brother-in-law, told Hamodia after the verdict. “We are all both happy and relieved that the jury came back with the right verdict.”

In interviews with Hamodia, the Stark family expressed appreciation to the prosecution team – Howard Jackson and Emily Dean, who tried the case; as well as Kenneth Taub, Chris Blank, Mark Feldman and the others in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office who spent years working to gather evidence and obtain justice. The family also said that they looked forward to seeing the other perpetrators brought to justice as well.

“The family hopes that this is just the start of obtaining justice,” Yitzy told Hamodia. “Justice is not complete until all the killers are brought in.”

The Felix family has declined all media requests.

Asked to describe his feelings after the verdict, Goldberg told Hamodia, “Disappointing — that’s all I can say.”

“He will be appealing it,” he added.

Felix faces a maximum of 25 years to life in prison on each of the two counts – though the sentences would likely run concurrently – when he is sentenced by Justice Jeong on Oct. 19.

Rafael Hoffman contributed to this article.