NEW YORK – A hardware store clerk was sentenced Wednesday to 40 years to life in prison after pleading guilty to kidnapping, killing and dismembering a lost little boy, bringing an end to a gruesome crime that horrified a tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn.
Levi Aron had pleaded guilty this month to lesser charges in a deal that spared him a criminal trial and the possibility of life in prison without parole. When asked Wednesday if he wanted to speak at his sentencing hearing, the 37-year old whispered "no." He will be eligible for parole in 40 years.
Aron wore a black yarmulke, bushy beard and orange prison jumpsuit, and kept his head down and eyes closed for much of the hearing. His attorneys said Aron suffered a head injury as a child that went untreated.
"As a child and a young man, he should have been treated for his mental illness," attorney Howard Greenberg said. Outside court, his attorneys said Aron was sorry -- but a public apology would ring false.
"He's sorry and he wished he hadn't done it," attorney Pierre Bazile said.
Aron admitted he kidnapped and killed 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky after the boy approached him on a Brooklyn street and asked for directions on July 11, 2011. The boy was Hasidic, an ultra-Orthodox version of Judaism, and the killing shocked the community in Borough Park, a safe and somewhat insular neighborhood home to one of the world's largest communities of Orthodox Jews outside Israel. Aron, who lived nearby, was Orthodox but not Hasidic.
Despite the outpouring of support for the family, there were few people in the courtroom Wednesday. Aron's family did not attend the sentencing, nor did Leiby's family. A prosecutor read a statement from the boy's father, Nachman Kletzky, that said, "God did not abandon our son, nor our family, for one second."
"There is no way one can comprehend or understand the pain of losing a child," he wrote. "Esther and I faced this unspeakable tragedy last year when our little boy Leiby was ruthlessly taken from us. ... A day doesn't pass without our thinking of Leiby -- but today we close the door on this one aspect of our tragedy and seek to remember only the gifts that God has bestowed."
The statement was previously read to the news media after Aron's Aug. 9 guilty plea by state assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents Borough Park and served as a spokesman for the family. He said Wednesday the family wants to put the killing -- and the horiffic details -- behind them.
"It changed our community," Hikind said of the killing, speaking outside court. "It affected everyone in our community. All over the world, people understood what it meant, that it could've been their child."
Leiby got lost on his walk home from a religious day camp. It was the first time he was allowed to walk alone, and he was supposed to travel about seven blocks to meet his mother, but missed his turn.
Barely two days later, detectives found the boy's severed feet, wrapped in plastic, in Aron's freezer. A cutting board and three bloody carving knives were found in the refrigerator. The rest of the boy's body was discovered in bags inside a red suitcase in a trash bin about a mile from Aron's apartment. His legs had been cut from his torso.
The medical examiner's office said Leiby had been drugged then suffocated.
Aron was taken into custody and an unnerving story unfolded about the hours he spent with the boy. Authorities said Aron promised to take Leiby home, but instead he brought the boy upstate to Monsey, N.Y. where he attended a wedding before bringing him back to his apartment. The two watched television before going to sleep. The following morning, Aron left for work at the hardware store, leaving Leiby alone nearly all day in the home.
Meanwhile, a massive search was conducted by his family and friends in the community. When Aron noticed fliers plastered on lampposts with the boy's photo, he says he panicked, went home and suffocated the boy.
Assistant District Attorney Julie Rendelman said Aron knew what he was doing.
"He made a choice that day ... his decision ... was to take this beautiful boy's life," she said.
Aron has said little during court appearances, often looking ahead with a vacant stare, or down at the ground. His attorneys had planned to mount a defense that he was not guilty by reason of mental defect, bolstered by a reported obtained by The Associated Press that said Aron had an adjustment disorder and a personality disorder with schizoid features. "His mood is neutral, practically blank," the psychologist wrote. "The only time he seems to show any emotional response is when he is asked difficult questions about the reason for his incarceration."
During his guilty plea two weeks ago, Aron spoke barely above a whisper. He expressed no remorse and only hinted at motive: At one point he told Judge Neil Firetog he felt "panic" when he found out there was a frantic search on for the boy.
The judge asked him what he decided to do, and he responded simply, "Smother." He also answered yes when asked if he had bound and drugged Leiby.
Leiby's family has filed a lawsuit against Aron's father, who owned the building where his son lived when the boy was killed. They argue that the father should have known something unspeakable was happening under his roof and could have saved the boy if he tried.
Aron's attorneys asked for protective custody for their client because they worry he will hurt himself or be hurt by others. The state department of corrections must decide whether to grant the request.