Eliyahu Werdesheim, one of two brothers accused of assaulting a teenager in Northwest Baltimore, was convicted Thursday of false imprisonment and second-degree assault, in a case that has sparked neighborhood tensions and raised questions about a community patrol group. The second brother, Avi Werdesheim, was cleared of all charges.
Eliyahu, 24, and Avi, 22, each had been charged with second-degree assault, false imprisonment and carrying a deadly weapon — a walkie-talkie issued by the neighborhood watch group Shomrim — with the intent to injure Corey Ausby, who was 15 at the time. Eliyahu was cleared of the weapons charge.
"He relied on his military training to take Ausby down," White said about Eliyahu, a former Israeli special-forces soldier. "I also find that the contact was not legally justified."
Andrew I. Alperstein, Eliyahu Werdesheim's attorney, said he plans to wait until after the sentencing hearing to decide whether to appeal White's decision. Eliyahu, a recent newlywed and fitness instructor, is studying pre-law and business at the Johns Hopkins University. The younger Werdesheim is a pre-med student at University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a 4.0 grade point average, according to his attorney.
The Werdesheim brothers followed and frightened Ausby, now 16, as he walked down a residential street in Park Heights, causing the teen to pull a nail-studded board from a construction site, White said in her ruling. To get Ausby to drop the board, Eliyahu struck him in the head with a walkie-talkie and held him on the ground, she concluded.
Since the Werdesheims are white and Jewish and Ausby is black, the case aggravated tensions among the neighborhood's dominant demographic groups. Its resolution was met with support from black community leaders, though some are calling for additional prosecutions and more oversight of the community policing group.
Eliyahu was a member of Shomrim, an Orthodox Jewish citizens' watch group, on Nov. 19, 2010, when he and his brother responded to a suspicious-person call that came over the walkie-talkie. The brothers were in Eliyahu's car, on their way home between noon and 1 p.m., when Eliyahu decided to look for the suspect on Fallstaff Road.
The brothers got out of Eliyahu's car and confronted Ausby, White said. Avi said, "We know who you are; we saw you on Park Heights; you don't belong here," the judge said. That's when Ausby became scared, went to get the board and continued walking down the street, she said.
"Defendant Eliyahu Werdesheim followed Ausby into the 3300 block of Fallstaff and, when he knew that other Shomrim units had arrived at the location, determined to confront Ausby again and relieve Ausby of the wooden plank," White said in her ruling. "Eliyahu Werdesheim stopped his car in the street and emerged to confront Ausby; he relied on his military training to take Ausby down, and injured Ausby in the process by hitting him in the head with a radio."
The defense attorneys argued that when the Werdesheims arrived on the scene, they witnessed Ausby looking in the windows of homes and pulling on the handle of an SUV's passenger door. Alperstein tried to convince White that the Werdesheims spoke with Ausby, who picked up the board and then, when Eliyahu tried to speak with the teen again, swung the piece of wood at the elder brother's head.
Eliyahu's actions were in self-defense, Alperstein contended.
White did not accept Alperstein's self-defense explanation, but also didn't entirely accept the narrative set forth by Assistant State's Attorney Kevin Wiggins, who argued that Avi was the one who struck Ausby with the walkie-talkie.
Avi was not a Shomrim member and just happened to be in the car with his brother at the time of the incident, said Susan R. Green, the younger Werdesheim's attorney.
Green argued that Avi's statement to Ausby, that he didn't "belong here," was not motivated by a perception that the black teenager should not be on a largely white, Jewish residential street. Avi made the statement because it was the middle of a school day and the teen should have been in class, Green said.
In the end, the state did not prove the charges against Avi beyond a reasonable doubt, White said.
The trial was filled with a string of unreliable witnesses, she said. Shomrim members who testified were not credible, providing statements they believed were in their own best interests or best served the neighborhood watch, White said.
White's rebuke of Shomrim members' credibility followed a year and a half of criticism from community leaders that the group lacks oversight and structure. Eliyahu, who testified Wednesday, said that the group had no written rules and only a "loose mentorship program" for training.
"I think the trial showed the Shomrim group was really out of order," said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of Baltimore's NAACP branch. Community policing groups like Shomrim should have organized training and accountable record-keeping — so that everyone knows who is out on the street doing patrols, she said.