The trial of Erskin Felix, accused of murdering Menachem (Max) Stark, H”yd, got underway Friday, with the prosecution painting Felix as the mastermind of a plan to kidnap Stark for money, and the defense portraying him as the victim of criminals falsely accusing him of plotting their crime as they seek reduced sentences.
Stark was kidnapped on the evening of January 2, 2014, outside his Williamsburg office. His body was found, set aflame, in a dumpster on Long Island the next day.
Stark, a real-estate developer, employed Felix as a contractor on some of his properties, and Felix personally worked on renovations in Stark’s home. Felix hired some relatives for his contracting work on Stark’s business properties.
Prosecutors believe that Felix hatched a scheme with relatives to kidnap Stark to recover money he claimed he was owed, or to hold him for ransom. But during the kidnapping, Felix accidentally suffocated him.
Felix’s brother Kendall Felix has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy and is set to be sentenced later this month. Their cousin, Kendel Felix, was convicted of murder and kidnapping in 2016. Another cousin, Irvine Henry, pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution and attempted tampering with physical evidence. Both Kendel Felix and Irvine Henry are cooperating with prosecutors and will testify against Erskin Felix in hopes of leniency in sentencing.
In her opening statement Friday, prosecutor Emily Dean said Erskin – who is charged with second-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping, second-degree conspiracy, as well as tampering with physical evidence and attempted tampering – “was the mastermind behind this plan” who “brought his family members into various stages of his plan.”
Dean said the prosecution will present evidence that Erskin placed a tracking device under Stark’s vehicle in December 2013, and went to Stark’s office with Kendel on the afternoon of January 2, 2014, to carry out his plan. When Stark emerged from his office around 11:30 that evening, the two men forced him into their minivan. As Kendel drove, Erskin covered Stark’s face with duct tape and a ski mask, and sat on him, accidentally suffocating him. Kendall and Henry later joined the group: Kendel and Kendall went to Long Island to dispose of the body, while Henry and Erskin attempted to return to Stark’s office to retrieve the tracking device from under his car, but found the area swarming with police.
The prosecution will also present cellphone location data showing Erskin’s presence in the locations in question that night, and text messages sent by Erskin in the hours after Stark’s death, discussing the incident and how to “clean” it up. Dean told the jury of eight men and four women that there is a “mountain of evidence” against Felix.
Dean said that among the alleged co-conspirators, Erskin “is the only one who had the personal and working relationship with Max Stark that allowed him into Max’s home,” and “it was this inside look into Max’s life that allowed this defendant to come up with this plan.”
In her testimony Friday, Stark’s widow Bashie said that around six years before her husband’s death, she saw Erskin doing construction work on her home, and chatting with her husband.
“They were friends, they got along well,” said Mrs. Stark, who said she had never seen Kendel, Kendall, or Irvine Henry before their arrests.
But the defense will portray Erskin – who, if convicted, faces a maximum of 25 years to life in prison – as merely a victim of relatives seeking to blame him for a crime he had nothing to do with in order to obtain lenient sentences.
“This defendant is guilty of one thing,” said defense attorney Mark Henry Pollard in his opening statement. “He’s guilty of associating with family members who … did this to Mr. Stark.”
Pollard noted that Erskin was only arrested two-and-a-half years after Stark’s death or shortly after Kendel’s conviction for murder and kidnapping. Saying his client is the victim of false testimony by the true perpetrators, Pollard said, “This case is about one thing and one thing only: the deception, the delusion and the desperation of Kendel Felix.”
“I’m going to argue to you,” Pollard told the jury, “that they don’t have a case, especially when you knock out the desperation and the lies of Kendel Felix and Irvine Henry.”
“Unfortunately, [Erskin] made the mistake of bringing family members into his business … and they did him dirty, blaming him for something that they did, and they messed up, and later on they said, ‘He was the guy,’” to get lower sentences for their own crimes.