The chief suspect in the murder of a teenage boy who disappeared in the 1980s reportedly confessed to the crime on Wednesday after a police-arranged meeting with Hasidic cult leader Rabbi Eliezer Berland, a convicted sex offender and alleged scammer who has also been arrested in connection with the teenager’s death.
Police on Wednesday said they were searching for the remains of Nissim Shitrit, telling a court hearing for suspects in the case that investigators knew who killed him.
The developments, which provided confirmation that Shitrit’s disappearance was being treated as a murder, came after the suspect told investigators that he and other members of Berland’s Shuvu Bonim ultra-Orthodox sect had taken the 17-year-old to a forest near Jerusalem and beaten him to death, Channel 12 news reported.
The confession came after police allowed the suspect to meet a number of times with Berland, the report said.
According to Channel 12, following the confession, investigators took the suspect to the forest but he was unable to lead them to where the body was buried.
A number of people have been detained recently over Shitrit’s death and the unsolved murder of 41-year-old Avi Edri in the 1990s. A gag order restricts many details of the investigation including naming the suspects, many of whom are said to be in their 60s and 70s.
At the Wednesday remand hearing for two suspects in the case, a police representative told the court that investigators knew who participated in the abduction of Shitrit and who committed the homicide, apparently on February 2, 1986, three days before the teenager was eventually reported as missing.
One of the suspects was remanded for a further eight days and the other, a woman, was released to house arrest.
At the hearing, police said the male suspect was directly involved in the kidnapping and murder and that there was evidence that implicates him.
The female suspect was jointly interrogated with other suspects in the case to compare their accounts, and she has admitted to acting on behalf of Berland to lure Shitrit to a location, police told the court. The woman also told investigators she had spoken with Shitrit on the day he disappeared.
On Tuesday, Berland, 83, who is already in prison on a fraud conviction, was remanded in custody for nine days to allow his continued interrogation in connection with the decades-old homicide cases.
Judge Elad Lang said of Berland that “there was reasonable suspicion that he committed offenses. He implicated himself and provided a detailed version of events.”
During his questioning, Berland came face-to-face with Shitrit’s brother, Meir, according to Hebrew media reports.
Meir Shitrit asked the rabbi if he should begin the traditional Jewish mourning rituals, including the week-long shiva and saying Kaddish, a prayer that mourners recite for the deceased. Mourning rituals are not begun until a person’s death is confirmed.
Berland reportedly responded, “You can sit shiva and say Kaddish, I am sorry I didn’t tell you 35 years ago,” the Kan public broadcaster reported.
Berland entered prison last week after he was convicted of fraud in June, in a plea deal that saw him sentenced to 18 months. He was arrested on Monday at the Nitzan Prison in Ramle. His wife, Tehillah Berland, was later also detained by police for questioning in Jerusalem, then released.
Shitrit was allegedly beaten by the sect’s “religious police” four months before he was last seen in January 1986. In a documentary released by Kan in 2020, one of Berland’s former disciples said that the religious police murdered the boy, dismembered him and buried his body in Eshtaol Forest near Beit Shemesh. His remains were never found and the case was never solved.
Edri was found beaten to death in Ramot Forest in the north of Jerusalem in 1990.
The cult-like Shuvu Bonim offshoot of the Bratslav Hasidic sect 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.
The 18-month sentence he is currently serving was set to include the year he spent in jail before being released to house arrest in February of this year.