By Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun
9:14 PM EDT, May 3, 2012
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.
His sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 27, and he faces a maximum of 10 years in prison for the assault charge. The length of sentence for false imprisonment is at the discretion of Baltimore Circuit Judge Pamela J. White, who presided over the weeklong bench trial.
"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.
The Police Department should increase their oversight of groups like Shomrim, and background and mental health checks should be conducted for anyone who wants to take part in community watch patrols, said the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In front of the courthouse after the verdicts were read, Witherspoon asked State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein — who has been accused since the attack on Ausby of favoring the interests of Jews over the well being of blacks — if any other members of Shomrim would be charged. White named one other Shomrim member in her verdict as having helped detain Ausby after Eliyahu struck the teen. Bernstein did not respond.
"I understand that the judge had some relatively harsh words for" Shomrim, said Bernstein, who expected the verdict would send a message to the group's leadership about what kind of behavior is appropriate from a neighborhood watch group.
Joe Bondar, a resident of the Cheswolde neighborhood for the last 30 years and a friend of the Werdesheim family, said crime occurs in the community every night, and complaints that Shomrim and other community watch units are the problem — or aren't trained for the work they do — are misplaced.
"How about training the hoodlums who terrify the community night after night, break into houses, break into cars?" he said. "The police do absolutely nothing, and to put the blame on someone who's trying to do something about it? It's ridiculous."
Bondar continued: "It doesn't matter if it's a white person or a black person. It's not a racial issue. It's a safety issue."
Shomrim did not respond to interview requests. Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said he was glad the trial was over but declined to comment on the verdicts.
White's decision brings to a close a trial that was delayed for nearly a year.
On the last day of November 2010, Eliyahu was arrested at the home of his now-wife and charged in the assault. A felony charge against him was dropped in late January 2011, around the same time Avi was charged.
The brothers pleaded not guilty in February 2011 and their trial was initially planned for the following May, though it was postponed six times by the defense because of illness, to accommodate the brothers' attorneys' schedules and allow more time for them to conduct their investigation.
Last week, the Werdesheims' attorneys requested another delay — or transfer of the case to a court outside the city — because of the similarities to the killing of Trayvon Martin, a Florida teenager who was shot by a neighborhood watch captain.
Green and Alperstein ended up agreeing to a bench trial, giving up the brothers' right to have their cases heard by a jury.
Ausby's family could not be reached for comment by phone Thursday. A man who answered the phone at Ausby's grandfather's home and identified himself as Ausby's great-grandfather, Francis Maddox, said he could not comment.
Ausby's mother had filed a $6.5 million civil suit on her son's behalf against the two Werdesheim brothers, Shomrim and a security agency that Eliyahu started. But attorney J. Wyndal Gordon, who said he supported White's conclusions in the case, withdrew the civil suit Wednesday.
"The family decided the young man is not durable enough" to undergo the pressures of another court case, Gordon said.
Ausby was brought to court last week to testify, but tearfully told Judge White he wanted the charges against the Werdesheim brothers dropped. He refused to respond to many questions and was not cross-examined by the defense attorneys, so White struck everything he said in court from the evidentiary record.
"There's no amount of money that can restore someone's peace of mind," Gordon said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.
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