SAN FRANCISCO – A New Jersey man charged with dragging Holocaust scholar Elie Wiesel from a hotel elevator apologized in court Monday to the Nobel laureate over the attack.
Eric Hunt, 22, has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted kidnapping, false imprisonment, battery, stalking, elder abuse and hate crimes following the February incident at San Francisco's Argent Hotel.
The apology came in the midst of a hearing to determine whether Hunt, who originally pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity but later changed his plea, should stand trial.
Hunt raised a shaking hand and spoke up suddenly from his seat next to his lawyer just as Wiesel had finished describing his ordeal in Nazi death camps, where his parents and sister died.
"Mr. Wiesel, I'm sorry for scaring you and I'm sorry you experienced the Holocaust," Hunt said. "My grandfather fought the Nazis and I'm sorry about what happened."
Wiesel did not respond but went on to describe the Feb. 1 incident in which he said Hunt grabbed him from the elevator and demanded that the 78-year-old professor come to his room for an interview. Wiesel said he feared he was being kidnapped and began shouting for help in the empty hallway on the hotel's sixth floor.
"The shock to me was so great I lost a sense of time and of space," said Wiesel, who was not injured.
Hunt, of Vernon, N.J., has been in a San Francisco jail psychiatric ward since May, when he was flown to California to face the charges.
His lawyer, San Francisco defense attorney John Runfola, said in an interview Monday that prosecutors had "overcharged" his client.
Hunt is not an anti-Semitic stalker, but a man suffering from mental illness, Runfola said. When he confronted Wiesel, he was in the grip of a "manic episode" triggered by his grandfather's death, he said.
The defense has sent the results of a psychiatrist's evaluation to Wiesel along with 20 letters from Hunt's family, friends and teachers describing the incident as deeply out of character for the high school honor student and college graduate, Runfola said.
"I'm hoping that in (Wiesel's) lifelong struggle to help oppressed people, he reaches out to one of them, and that's Eric Hunt," Runfola said.