Suspects said linked to Berland's extremist Shuvu Bonim sect

3 arrested over cold case murders from 80s, 90s reportedly tied to Hasidic cult

2 men, woman held over disappearance of Nissim Shitrit, 17, in 1986, and murder of 41-year-old Avi Edri in 1990 near Jerusalem; Shitrit’s brother: Want him to have a proper burial

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

In this handout image released by the police, a suspect, reportedly a member of the Shuvu Bonim sect, is arrested in Jerusalem, October 17, 2021. Insert: Nissim Shitrin in an undated photo. (Israel Police; Courtesy)
In this handout image released by the police, a suspect, reportedly a member of the Shuvu Bonim sect, is arrested in Jerusalem, October 17, 2021. Insert: Nissim Shitrin in an undated photo. (Israel Police; Courtesy)

Police on Sunday announced the arrest of three suspects over their alleged connection to two unsolved murders in the 1980s and 90s near Jerusalem.

According to Hebrew-language media reports, the suspects — two men and a woman in their 60s from Jerusalem — are from the extremist Shuvu Bonim sect led by convicted sex offender rabbi Eliezer Berland.

Reports said they were arrested over their involvement in the disappearance of 17-year-old Nissim Shitrit, who was allegedly beaten by the sect’s “religious police” four months before he was last seen in January 1986.

Shitrit reported the assault to police at the time, and identified a number of suspects, who were apparently never charged.

In a 2020 documentary released by the Kan public broadcaster, one of Berland’s former disciples said that the religious police murdered the boy, dismembered him, and buried his body parts in the Eshtaol Forest near Beit Shemesh. His remains were never found and the case was never solved.

Shitrit’s brother, Meir, told Kan on Sunday that at the time a group of Shuvu Bonim members were arrested over the incident, but they remained silent and were eventually released without charge.

In this handout image released by the police, an officer presents an arrest warrant to a suspect, in Jerusalem, October 17, 2021. (Israel Police)

“I don’t believe the police would re-arrest the same people, knowing they would remain silent,” he added, saying he hoped there had been a development with the case.

Meir Shitrit explained that he cannot sit shiva, the Jewish mourning ritual, for his younger brother since he does not know “for sure” if he was murdered.

“The documentary has a man, whose name can’t be said currently, admitting to me that he knew Nissim was murdered. But he wasn’t prepared to incriminate himself,” he told Kan.

“We want to know where my brother was hidden, in order to give him a [proper] burial,” Shitrit added.

The second murder reportedly connected to the arrested suspects was of 41-year-old Avi Edri in 1990, who was found beaten to death in Ramot Forest in the north of Jerusalem.

In the Kan documentary, Edri’s murder was tied to Shuvu Bonim by former disciples. It too remains unsolved for over 30 years.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland arrives for a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court on February 28, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police said Sunday that the individuals were arrested and questioned over allegations of kidnapping, murder and conspiracy to commit a crime. Most details of the investigation are under a gag order in place until the end of the year.

The suspects were brought before a Jerusalem court on Sunday afternoon, to request an extension to their remand amid the investigation. The court ordered all three arrested suspects to remain in custody for another eight days. More suspects related to the two murders are expected to be detained, police said.

An attorney for the female suspect told the court that her client was a victim of the extremist sect, and is cooperating with police in order to see justice done. According to the attorney, the woman was forced by members of the sect to lure one of the victims to a specific location.

The cult-like Shuvu Bonim offshoot of the Bratslav Hasidic sect commanded by Berland has had repeated run-ins with the law, including attacking witnesses.

Berland fled Israel in 2013 amid allegations that he had sexually assaulted several female followers. After evading arrest for three years and slipping through various countries, Berland returned to Israel and was sentenced to 18 months in prison in November 2016 on two counts of indecent acts and one case of assault, as part of a plea deal that included seven months of time served. He was freed just five months later, in part due to his ill health.

Berland was arrested for fraud in February 2020 after hundreds of people filed police complaints saying that he had sold prayers and pills to desperate members of his community, promised families of individuals with disabilities that their loved ones would be able to walk, and told families of convicted felons that their relatives would be freed from prison.

Last May, he was further charged with tax evasion, violations of money laundering laws, and other offenses for failing to report and concealing income generated through his activities with Shuvu Bonim.

Berland is set to return to prison this month after being convicted of fraud in a plea deal in June that saw him sentenced to 18 months in prison. But the sentence will include time already served, after Berland spent a year in jail before being released to house arrest in February of this year.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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