Closing arguments were heard Friday in the Erskin Felix murder trial, as the prosecution painted Erskin as the leader of a plan to kidnap Menachem Stark, H”yd, for ransom, while the defense portrayed Erskin as the innocent victim of his own relatives, blaming him for their own crimes to receive reduced sentences.
Though Erskin has repeatedly been referred to as the “mastermind” of the plan, prosecutor Howard Jackson said Friday that he would never actually use that term.
“When you look at the series of mistakes” that Erskin and his co-conspirators made, “there are no masterminds,” said Jackson, but “there was one person directing and running the entire operation from the beginning to the end.”
Menachem was kidnapped outside his Williamsburg office on January 2, 2014, and his burned body was found in a dumpster in Long Island the next day. Prosecutors believe that Erskin, claiming Menachem owed him money, plotted with family members to kidnap Menachem and hold him for ransom, but the plan went awry when Erskin unintentionally suffocated Menachem when Erskin kneeled on him after he was already bound and gagged.
Erskin’s cousin Kendel Felix has already been convicted for kidnapping and murder in the case, and has testified against Erskin for a reduced sentence. Their cousin Irvine Henry, under a plea agreement, also testified, for a reduced charge of attempted tampering with physical evidence.
Erskin’s brother Kendall Felix has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and hindering prosecution and has been sentenced to 2-1/3 to seven years in prison.
Erskin subcontracted construction jobs on real-estate sites owned by Menachem; the others involved in the crime worked on those sites as well.
Defense attorney Mark Henry Pollard argued Friday that Kendel and Irvine are untrustworthy witnesses.
Focusing particularly on Kendel, Pollard said, “If there were rules by how to be a horrible informant … he hit every rule,” noting that Kendel has admitted to suffering a brain injury and memory loss as a result of a motorcycle accident years ago; is not known to be of good character; had associated with Crip gang members and appeared in a video with them flashing gang signs; and has incentive to testify to receive a lower sentence.
Pollard also pointed out several inconsistencies between the testimonies of Irvine and Kendel, such as the position the kidnappers held Menachem in inside the Felix family minivan they used for their crime, and the specific point at which they’d noticed Menachem was no longer breathing.
When the vehicle used in the kidnapping was seized by police several weeks after the incident, detectives found an envelope containing money and checks given to Menachem shortly before the kidnapping. Pollard questioned whether Erskin would have really left “critical evidence” in the vehicle that long, implying that it may have been planted by police. He also noted that while Irvine and Kendel testified that Erskin had told them Menachem owed him money, there was no evidence to this fact; but that other construction workers had not been paid in six weeks, and that Menachem owed $150,000 to his business partner Tommy Falcone – whom Pollard referred to as “the mysterious boss of all bosses” – implying that there may have been other people who had motives to kidnap Menachem to recover debts.
During his 40-minute closing argument, Pollard did not offer a specific alternative to the prosecution’s theory as to what occurred on the night of Menachem’s death, but argued that there was enough reasonable doubt about Erskin’s role for the jury to pronounce his client not guilty.
Pollard portrayed Erskin as a big brother to family members and friends, a caring and kind man of good character, whom they are now selfishly blaming for their own crimes as they seek reduced sentences. He argued that Erskin was not arrested until after Kendel’s conviction, two-and-a-half years after Menachem’s death, as prosecutors had no evidence against Erskin but for the “deception, delusion, and desperation [of Kendel] that made him an informant in this case.”
“They got so little evidence that even Kendel Felix, as bad a witness as he is [it was not enough to convict, so] they recruit Irvine Henry. Now Irvine’s not as bad as Kendel Felix, but Irvine’s got some problems,” noting his admitted past petty crimes, and how he has incentive to testify for a reduced sentence and to lower his chances of deportation to his native St. Lucia.
But prosecutor Howard Jackson, in a closing argument that lasted an hour and 45 minutes, argued that Kendel and Irvine only agreed to become informants after Erskin was arrested, and that there is a “mountain of evidence” against Erskin, which Kendel’s and Irvine’s testimony merely corroborates.
“I ask you to look at everything [Kendel] said and ask if it isn’t matched up and supported by other evidence in this case,” Jackson told the jury.
Erskin’s friend Jeff Sealy testified that Erskin had asked him to sign up for a cellphone tracking device that Erskin placed under Menachem’s car, which was found by police after the kidnapping.
Cellphone-location data shows Erskin’s own phone in the locations Irvine and Kendel had testified Erskin was in on the night in question, though Pollard has argued that there is no evidence as to who was actually carrying the phone at the time.
Jackson argued that there would be no reason for Kendel and Irvine to falsely testify against their cousin Erskin, noting in particular how emotional Irvine became at the conclusion of his testimony.
“There’s a reason that this defendant chose the people that he did to pull into this caper,” said Jackson. He chose his cousin Kendel – a “simpleton,” according to Jackson; his younger brother Kendall, and cousin Irvine. “This is what this defendant does: he relied on his family members, who he knows won’t say no to him.”
Text messages retrieved from Kendel’s and Kendall’s phones show them sending messages to Erskin discussing the crime.
Kendel texted Erskin the night of the crime to remind him to get Irvine to “go get the Jeep,” referring to the tracking device Erskin had planted under Menachem’s SUV. And on the night following the crime, Kendall texted Erskin that while the New York Post “has” the story, the “Daily News is a little more accurate explaining the details.”
No outgoing messages were retrieved from Erskin’s phone.
Phone data shows no calls or texts between Kendel and Erskin during the times Kendel had testified they were seated together in the minivan, preparing and carrying out their crime.
Jackson argued that the prosecution provided a “mountain of evidence that points directly at Erskin Felix as one of the perpetrators of this crime.”
Justice Danny Chun began charging the jurors Friday, the tenth day of the trial. He will complete the charges Monday morning, and then the case will be turned over to the eight men and four women of the jury.
Erskin, charged with second-degree murder, two counts of first-degree kidnapping, second-degree conspiracy, tampering with physical evidence and attempted tampering, faces a maximum of 25 years to life in prison.
Updated Sunday, April 7, 2019 at 7:30 pm .