The last three defendants in the Lev Tahor cult abduction case were sentenced to more than 10 years in prison

Three members of the extremist Jewish Lev Tahor religious cult were sentenced to more than 10 years in prison by a New York court on Tuesday.

Brothers Yoil Weingarten, Yakov Weingarten and Shmiel Weingarten were was convicted in March of child exploitation and kidnapping for their role in the 2018 abduction of a 14-year-old girl and her 12-year-old brother from the Catskills home of their mother.

Shmiel and Yoil Weingarten were sentenced to 14 years in prison and Yakov was sentenced to 12 years, the US Southern District Court said.

The brothers were the last of nine suspects in the case to stand trial, all have been convicted or pleaded guilty. They include Lev Tahor’s leader, Nachman Helbrans, who was was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2022 for kidnapping and transporting minors for sexual purposes and other charges.

The Weingartens and the other defendants were all leaders of Lev Tahor, which means “pure heart” in Hebrew. They were known within the group as “Hanhala,” or the management, prosecutors said. The men controlled all aspects of life in the community, including marriage and sex between underage girls and adult men.

Lev Tahor is a secretive group and little is known about its inner workings. The group adheres to an extreme interpretation of Jewish law that largely shields its members from the outside world and places tight restrictions on aspects of everyday life, such as their diet and clothing. A group called Lev Tahor Survivors, which opposes the sect’s activities, has estimated the sect’s membership at several hundred and says it is led by a core cohort, with the rest mostly held against their will.

The kidnapping case threw the group into chaos, and since Helbrans’ arrest, some members have sought a new home and turned up in Balkans and Morocco. But the majority appear to have remained in Guatemala, where the group has been based since around 2013, following operations in Israel and Canada during which they tried to escape government oversight.

The Weingarten brothers were convicted after being extradited to the United States from Guatemala in 2022. They were held in the Westchester County Jail and arraigned in the United States Southern District Court in White Plains. They were convicted of all charges, including international parental kidnapping, coercion or enticement of a minor female, and conspiracy to defraud the United States.

In a letter to Judge Nelson Rom├ín last week, U.S. District Attorney Damian Williams asked the judge for a sentence “meaningfully longer than twelve years” against each of the brothers because, unlike other defendants in the case, they had committed obstruction of justice during legal proceedings by providing false information to the court and tampering with witnesses. Yakov and Shmiel also committed perjury, Williams said.

“The defendants’ criminal conduct is deeply troubling and deserving of substantial punishment,” his letter said. It later added, “The court should therefore send a strong message that child abduction has serious consequences.”

In the kidnapping case, in December 2018 members of the sect kidnapped a brother and sister living in the town of Woodridge, New York with their mother, who had fled Lev Tahor. The kidnappers took the children from the home late at night and, using disguises and fraudulent identification, smuggled the siblings across state lines into Mexico to reunite the girl with the grown man they believed to be her “husband.”

Lev Tahor used to marry underage girls to adult men and force them to have sex with their “husbands”, US investigators have said. The girl in this case was 13 when she was “married” to Jacob Rosner, then 18, another defendant in the case. The illegal marriage, which was never officially recognized, caused the children’s mother to flee the sect.

The children were recovered in Mexico after a weeks-long search involving hundreds of investigators and law enforcement personnel and returned to New York.

According to prosecutors, the three brothers and the other defendants planned the kidnapping, instructed others involved and played a central role in carrying out the abduction. Shmiel Weingarten bought disguises for the children at a Walmart before the kidnapping and sat in the car that took the children from the home where they lived to an airport in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The children flew from there to Mexico, where they met Yoil Weingarten and other members of the cult.

When the police found the children in Mexico, they were with Yoil and Shmiel. After the children were returned to New York and reunited with their mother, Yakov Weingarten attempted to kidnap the girl a second time and threatened her mother.

The defendants in the case claimed that the mother had wrongfully removed the children from the community and that they were trying to save them.

The mother is the sister of Nachman Helbrans, the cult leader, who took over the reins of the group after his father, Lev Tahor founder Shlomo Helbrans, drowned in a river in Mexico in 2017. She appealed to the judge to show Nachman mercy for his 2022 sentence.

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