Suspect in NY fire pleads not guilty

An 18-year-old Hasidic student, listening to court proceedings in Yiddish through an interpreter, pleaded not guilty Friday in an attempted murder case that has brought unusual attention to a religious enclave in New York.

Shaul Spitzer of New Square is accused of severely burning a neighbor, Aron Rottenberg, outside Rottenberg's home. Rottenberg claims in a lawsuit that Spitzer was acting at the direction of the village's chief rabbi, David Twersky, because Rottenberg had stopped praying at Twersky's synagogue.

Rottenberg suffered third-degree burns on half his body in the pre-dawn hours of May 22 when he confronted someone carrying a flammable liquid outside his home and "we both just burst into flames," he said.

Family members said they had been monitoring a surveillance camera and fearing an attack because they had endured broken windows and threats ever since Rottenberg began worshipping at a nearby nursing home instead of the main synagogue.

Spitzer was arrested soon after, with burns on his hands and arms.

Rottenberg, who was hospitalized until Monday, was not in court Friday.

Spitzer, in black Hasidic garb — with a white bandage on his left hand — was accompanied by four bearded relatives as he was arraigned in Rockland County Court on charges of attempted murder, attempted arson and assault. His lawyer, former Rockland District Attorney Kenneth Gribetz, entered not-guilty pleas to all charges. He could be sentenced to 25 years in prison if convicted of attempted murder.

Gribetz said outside court that Spitzer did not intend to harm anyone or to burn down Rottenberg's house, as police have alleged. He declined to give a defense account of what happened.

"He's very remorseful, contrite," Gribetz said of Spitzer. "He's mentally scarred, most of the time he's crying." He called Spitzer's actions "childish" but did not elaborate.

Gribetz also said Twersky, who has decried the attack and has not been charged, had no involvement.

"The grand rabbi had nothing to do with this," Gribetz said. "There were no conversations, direct, indirect, off the record, on the record." He said Spitzer had done some volunteer work for Twersky but "is not a colleague, not a confidant."

New Square is an insular village of 7,000 people, nearly all of them members of the Skver Hasidic sect. The sect is named for the Ukrainian village of Skver, where its members had been decimated during the Holocaust and for which New Square is named.

Rottenberg's lawyer has requested a federal investigation into what he called "hate crimes" by the religious leadership.

Spitzer was allowed to remain free on $300,000 until a July 28 court date. But he was ordered to stay away from the Rottenberg family. And the judge told him to meet with police later Friday for fingerprinting, which wasn't done when he was arrested because of his hand injuries.