Will top prosecutor block confrontation of main suspect in hiker’s death?
The state prosecution is leaning toward closing its second investigation into the 2014 death of an American hiker without questioning two key witnesses or fully confronting the case’s primary suspect with incriminating testimony that was first revealed by The Jerusalem Post.
The negligent-homicide case is against former officials of the now-defunct Mechinat Yeud gap-year program, in which Jewish high school graduates from America came to Israel to study in a yeshiva.
The case centers around the unexplained death of Ariel Newman, 18, a student from Great Neck, New York, during a Yeud-run hike in the Judean Desert on September 10, 2014.
The student’s parents, Mark and Ellen Newman, obtained a medical report that cited the cause of death as exertional heat stroke and dehydration.
At the start, police and prosecutors were slow to open an in-depth investigation and only did so after the Newman family’s lawyer Amos Fried intervened and met with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
In the first round of investigation, police and prosecutors closed the case without making any effort to interview the two key witnesses.
They also failed to fully confront the main suspect, tour guide Josh Ettinger, with the witnesses’ incriminating testimony – though he was confronted with vague, general allegations.
The Newman family then asked the state prosecution Appeals Division to review the Southern District Attorney’s Office decision to close the case, after written testimonies were obtained from two former students who were on the hike with Newman.
On July 18, following a series of exposés by the Post, Deputy Chief Prosecutor for Criminal Affairs Shlomo (Mumi) Lemberger, took the highly unusual step of ordering the
police to reopen their investigation into Newman’s death.
Investigations are rarely reopened once the original prosecutor on the case has closed the file for insufficient evidence. The dramatic development came after the Post revealed the powerful content of the two key witnesses’ testimony and that the police failed to interview them.
One of the witnesses, Ross Abramson, came forward after reading the Post’s February 26, 2016, exposé. He said that Ettinger pressed Newman into continuing the hike despite his pleading, “I feel like I’m going to die.”
An email received by the Post on behalf of Ettinger has attacked one of the key witnesses as being pressed by his family to go after Ettinger and Yeud as part of an unrelated financial dispute with the organization. That witness has not responded to Abramson’s allegations.
From a copy of the case files obtained by the Post, Ettinger’s explanation, in light of the new testimony by Abramson, would be key to understanding whether there are grounds to press charges against him or against any of Yeud’s other former employees.
In 2015, Ettinger told police that Newman did not complain to him at all during the hike. Testimonies of the other two witnesses obtained by the Post, however, claim that Newman screamed at Ettinger and pleaded with him to let him stop hiking.
In some ways, the reopening of the case was a major turning point. The police brought in an entirely new, higher-ranking team of investigators to dig into the case more seriously.
The Post has learned that the police’s Negev Command chief Natan Bonza and his top staff met with attorney Fried and the Newman family on August 13. Further, the Newmans believed that these officials finally “got” the case and understood the significance of the two witnesses, whom the original lower-ranked police team had ignored.
In fact, the Post was told by Fried that police officials Guy Kater and Anat Dimri had requested to interview the two witnesses, but that their requests were denied by the prosecution.
Sources in law enforcement close to the case denied this narrative, calling it misleading and pointing out that many others on the hike did not incriminate Ettinger. But the prosecution has not given a public explanation regarding the failure to question the witnesses and confront Ettinger with their testimony.
Responding to the non-public denial, Fried described in detail what Kater and Dimri told him.
He said that on September 18, he contacted Dimri for an update and that she said her detective was presenting their findings to the prosecution.
Fried asked how the police could present those findings if they still had not contacted the two key witnesses.
He said Dimri replied that the police get instructions from the prosecution and would have more of an update the next day.
On September 19, he called Dimri again and she told him that the investigation was completed.
He said he asked her if this meant that the prosecution had no intention of questioning the two key witnesses. She confirmed his suspicions.
On September 24, Fried contacted Kater and asked him if the police had requested to investigate the two key witnesses in the US. He confirmed that as accurate.
He asked Kater if the police had requested to conduct an overseas investigation but had their request denied by the prosecution. Kater again confirmed and explained that the prosecution has power over the police.
On September 27, in a letter obtained by the Post, Prosecution Appeals Department head Sharon Edri, taking the lead on the case on behalf of Lemberger, informed Fried that the prosecution was leaning toward closing the case again.
While law enforcement had taken a few new investigatory actions, they still failed to question the two key witnesses or to confront Ettinger with their incriminating testimony.
Fried said that something did not seem right. He said that if the prosecution was opposed to prosecuting the case because it did not want to go through all of the bother of interviewing the two key witnesses overseas over the death of one American on a hike, “I would have expected them never to reopen the case.”
“Once they reopened the case, the primary reason would have been to question the two witnesses,” Fried said. “Reopening the case, appointing a new and serious group of police and then refusing that police team’s request to question the key witnesses is disappointing and disturbing.”
Fried and the Newmans allege that if the hiker was an Israeli, the police would have questioned all key witnesses in a timely manner and fully confronted Ettinger with all allegations.
The Newman’s are not yet at the end of the line.
Lemberger will still be holding an in-person hearing on December 10 with Fried to give him a last chance to plead the Newman’s case.
This will also give Lemberger a last opportunity to order the police to fully confront Ettinger with the accusations against him.
A Justice Ministry spokeswoman responded to the newest allegations about again closing the case and the failure to undertake certain investigatory actions by saying, “We wish to join with the family in its time of great sorrow. Without addressing the substance of the case, we note that it was thoroughly reviewed, and a third round of supplementary investigation is being undertaken.”
The spokeswoman was then pressed on whether the third round of investigatory actions – only announced late Sunday after the ministry was told the Post was filing this story – included questioning the two key witnesses or confronting Ettinger with their testimony.
She cited the case’s ongoing nature as preventing her from answering. •