Erskin Felix hatched a plan to kidnap Menachem (Max) Stark, Hy”d, for money, resulting in Stark’s accidental death, according to graphic testimony by a witness who has already been convicted for Stark’s kidnapping and murder.
Kendel Felix, Erskin’s cousin, testified Tuesday that Erskin approached him in December 2013 and asked for his help with the plot.
“He told me that he knew a guy named Max,” Kendel testified. “He told me Max owed him money.”
The scheme would involve them “taking him and having him give us money,” which he interpreted to mean “like taking him for ransom.”
Stark, a real-estate developer, was kidnapped on the night of January 2, 2014, and his body was found, smoldering in a dumpster on Long Island, the next day. Kendel was convicted of murder and kidnapping in September 2016. Kendel is cooperating with prosecutors in the case against Erskin — who prosecutors say masterminded the plan — in the hope of receiving a reduced sentence.
Kendel, along with several other cousins, worked as a carpenter on construction sites that Erskin managed, which were owned by Stark and a partner, Thomas Falcone. Kendel said that, while he had heard some construction workers in the past talking about a “Max,” he had never known Stark.
Kendel said Erskin told him that after they kidnapped Stark and got the money, they’d “release him.” But Kendel refused to go along with the plan, despite repeated pressure from Erskin. “I was like, bro, you crazy.” But “he was like, yeah, we gonna do this, nothing gonna happen.”
At one point, Erskin told Kendel that if, during the kidnapping, Stark — whom Erskin knew well and who had employed Erskin to do construction work on his own home — saw his face, “he’d have to take him out,” meaning “kill him,” Kendel testified.
What remains unclear is how Erskin could have attempted to recover a debt from Menachem without Menachem seeing his face. Observers have raised various theories: that Erskin never really intended to recover a debt from Menachem — perhaps Menachem didn’t even owe him money — but intended to hold him for ransom, and used the “debt-recovery” argument as a way of trying to get Kendel to join; or that Erskin in fact had planned all along to kill Menachem once they were able to get money.
Though Erskin was the one who got Kendel jobs, and was an older cousin whom Kendel looked up to for advice and who could often be intimidating, Kendel said he declined Erskin’s repeated pleas to go along with his scheme, even after Erskin promised that “if anything [went] wrong, anybody got arrested, police get involved, he would step in and take the blame for it … he would take full responsibility.”
Erskin called Kendel on January 2, 2014. “He said he needed my help, I thought it was probably to pick up some tools,” Kendel testified. Erskin was driving a minivan owned by his father, which Erskin and others on the construction sites frequently used for work. Kendel got into the van, and Erskin drove to 331 Rutledge Street in Williamsburg, telling Kendel that this was Menachem’s office.
“Are you serious?” asked Kendel. Once again, Erskin told him, “You’re the one I could depend on bro … if anything happens, I told you I got your back.”
Erskin asked Kendel to go check if Menachem’s Lexus SUV was parked nearby. Kendel did as he was asked, confirming that the car was there. Eventually, Erskin pulled out, saying he had to run errands. But Kendel saw Menachem’s SUV driving in front of them — and it was then that Erskin showed Kendel how his phone was tracking Menachem; Erskin had placed a tracking device under Menachem’s car weeks earlier. Menachem drove to several homes, presumably to pick up rent envelopes, before driving to his own house and staying there for a while.
Kendel and Erskin then drove to the Queens home of Menachem’s partner, Thomas Falcone, where Erskin went inside for some time before re-emerging. Erskin then drove to Long Island, and parked in front of what Kendel described as a “huge house,” which Erskin told him belonged to “Max’s partner,” whom he did not name. Then Erskin drove back to Brooklyn, continually telling Kendel “he needed somebody to trust” and “he could depend on me,” according to Kendel.
They drove in a blizzard to Menachm’s office, and parked right behind the Lexus SUV; Menachem had returned to his office earlier that evening. Erskin instructed Kendel to “distract” Menachem, while Erskin “could come behind him and put him in a headlock and knock him out,” according to Kendel.
When Menachem emerged from his office around 11:30 p.m. and headed toward his SUV, Kendel exited the minivan and asked him for directions. Kendel said he held Menachem’s hand to prevent him from getting into his SUV, while Erskin also exited the minivan and tried to “subdue Max to try to knock him out.”
Surveillance video shows Menachem struggling with the two kidnappers for several minutes.
There were audible sighs and sobs from the Stark family side of a packed courtroom as, for the first time, on the sixth day of this trial and more than five years after Menachem’s murder, the family heard the gruesome details of that fateful night: How Erskin knocked out Menachem while Kendel duct-taped his hands and feet; how Kendel “picked up his yarmulke and threw it inside the van”; how he helped Erskin lift an unconscious Menachem and put him inside the van; how Erskin duct-taped Menachem’s mouth, then took the ski mask off his own head and put it, backward, over Menachem’s; and how, at one point, Menachem regained consciousness and Erskin then kneeled on his chest.
“It was hair-raising to hear this,” Menachem’s sister-in-law Leah Weiss told Hamodia. “In a way it brought closure, but in a way it opened up a whole new trauma. Until now I didn’t have to imagine how it happened. But after today’s testimony, it’s very real.”
At Erskin’s direction, Kendel then drove to Erskin’s home, where they picked up Erskin’s brother Kendall Felix; then they went to a different home and picked up another cousin, Irvine Henry.
It was there that Henry noticed that Menachem was not breathing. He had died of suffocation.
Erskin and Henry tried retrieving the tracking device from under Menachem’s car but, finding the area swarming with cops, left. Erskin told Kendel and Kendall to drive to Long Island and get rid of the body. The two drove in a snowstorm to Great Neck, where they put the body in a dumpster and set it aflame with gas purchased at a nearby gas station.
On cross-examination, Erskin’s defense attorney Mark Henry Pollard seized on the brain damage and memory loss that Kendel admitted he suffered in a 2010 motorcycle accident, seeking to cast doubt on Kendel’s version of the events. Questioning the witness’s character, Pollard also pointed out how Kendel had associated with members of the Crips gang, and had even appeared in a video with them, giving a gang sign, though Kendel insisted that when given the opportunity, he declined to actually join the gang.
Henry has pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution and attempted tampering with physical evidence, and will also testify against Erskin.
Pollard’s defense centers on portraying Henry and Kendel as seeking to put the blame for their own crimes on Erskin — a man who cared for them and got them jobs, and whom they looked up to — as they seek reduced sentences. As no faces are visible from the kidnapping video, and a number of Felix relatives and co-workers used the van, Pollard will argue that it was not his client that carried out this crime.
Prosecutors say they will show cellphone-location-data evidence that Erskin was, throughout the night, in the places where Kendel said he was, and text messages Erskin sent to co-conspirators in the days that followed, discussing the crime.
Kendall Felix has pleaded guilty to second-degree conspiracy and first-degree hindering prosecution, and will be sentenced Wednesday to 2 1/3 to seven years in prison.
Updated Tuesday, March 26, 2019 at 8:29 pm u05e5