Justice was served when Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, convicted of kidnapping Shai Fhima Reuven, was recently sentenced to a prison term of four to 12 years, according to a juror in the case.
Tai Ellin-Byrd, one of the dozen jurors who convicted Helbrans of kidnapping Reuven shortly after his Bar Mitzvah in 1992 and hiding him in the Chasidic world, said that “this sentence is morally appropriate.”
The jury, which deliberated for just five hours following the five-week trial in New York State Supreme Court, was “pretty much unanimous” about Helbrans’ guild as soon as they walked into the deliberation room.
Most of the deliberation time was spent asking the judge to define the charges against Helbrans, said Ellin-Byrd.
“Helbrans has no sense that what he did was kidnapping,” said Ellin-Byrd, in an interview. “He didn’t feel anything he did was wrong. There’s a different moral code.”
During the trial Helbrans “was very self-assured. He was smiling and sociable during the trial.
“I think it came as a complete shock to him that he was found guilty,” she said.
“He wanted Shai to be religious, and Shai’s family to be religious. But since he could only reach Shai in that way, that’s why he took Shai,” said Ellin-Byrd.
The rabbi was sentenced on Nov. 22 and is now in prison.
His wife, Malka Helbrans, was acquitted of the kidnapping charges but convicted of conspiracy. She is due to be sentenced in mid-December.
She was found not guilty of kidnapping the boy because “the evidence showed she knew about it, but there’s no way she had anything to do with actually moving him” from one place to another, said the juror, “given her upbringing and role in the culture.”
Ellin-Byrd, who is Quaker but works for Women’s American QRT – a Jewish organization – said that there of the jurors were Jewish, “one of them practicing.”
The courtroom was packed throughout the trial with fervently Orthodox supporters of Helbrans.
When the verdict was announced on Nov. 9, “at least 30” court officers lined the walls of the courtroom, presumably in order to prevent any chaos from breaking out.
A crowd of Helbran’s supporters waited outside the courtroom as well, so the jurors were escorted out a back entrance “to make sure we weren’t harassed in any way,” said Ellin-Byrd.
The juror also said that media reports that Shai Fhima Reuven, no 15, had possibly been abused by his mother or step-father were not substantiated in court, though on one denied that his mother had been beaten.
Ellin-Byrd commented on these allegations in a letter to a reporter soon after the trial.
“There is absolutely no evidence that Shai has ever been abused or beaten. Merely that he didn’t like the rules under his mother’s roof. So he ran away at least three times. The last time having regrettable consequences,” she wrote.
She described Shai as “obviously a sullen, selfish boy with a bad attitude. He made rude remarks to the prosecutor, defense lawyer and the judge during his testimony. He slouched and rolled his eyes repeatedly at the jury.
“This is not s small, helpless child who has been beaten. This is a healthy, angry teen-ager who got caught,” wrote Ellin-Byrd.
The youth remains estranged from his mother and has reportedly not spoken to her since the verdict.
His mother, Hana Fhima, shares custody with Rabbi Aryeh Zaks, the court-appointed guardian with whom Shai lives in Rockland County, outside New York City.
Shai apparently now lives as a haredi Jew. He filed a petition in Rockland County Family Court earlier this month seeking legal emancipation from his parents.
Still, said Ellin-Byrd, “I don’t know if the damage (between Hana Fhima and her son) is irreparable.
“They could be together again if they gave each other the chance.”