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Father collapses at arraignment in Hasidic kidnap case

By WILLIAM M. REILLY

NEW YORK -- The father of a missing New Jersey teenager allegedly kidnapped by a Brooklyn rabbi and his wife collapsed in court Tuesday after a judge set bail for a third suspect who had only surrendered hours earlier.

The suspect, Mordechai Weisz, 19, had been a fugitive since a warrant was issued for his arrest last Friday.

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He surrendered to Brooklyn prosecutors at 7 a.m., hours before he and his yeshiva teacher, Rabbi Schlomo Helbrans, and Helbrans' wife, Malka, were arraigned on kidnapping and conspiracy charges in the disppearance 10 months ago of Shai Fihma, 14, of Ramsey, N.J.

When Judge Nicholas Koffinas set Weisz's bail at $100,000, Fihma's biological father, Michael Reuven, who had come from Israel to help find his son, shouted 'Only $100,000!'

'You s---! You s---!,' he yelled. 'My son! My son is dead to me!'

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Reuven then collapsed as he and Mrs. Fhima left the courtoom in tears. He lay on a hall bench until an ambulance arrived to take him to Brooklyn Hospital.

Reuven's attorney, Raoul Felder, said he might have suffered a stroke.

'This is very serious and sad,' Felder said.

Mrs. Fihma later told reporters she felt she had 'lost' her son forever.

'I just want to bring back my son,' she said. 'They don't have the right to take him from me.'

Weisz, of 163 Hewes St. in Borough Park, was described as a bridegroom of two weeks.

He and the Helbranses, who were arrested at a Hasidic Jewish colony in Monsey, N.Y., last Friday, were charged with second-degree kidnapping and conspiracy in Shai Fhama's disappearance.

If convicted of kidnapping, they face a maximum prison term of eight and one-third to 25 years in jail.

Weisz's bail was posted by members of Brooklyn's Hasidic community, who also had raised $250,000 bail to free Schlomo Helbrans. Malka Helbrans was freed on her own recognizance.

Fhima disappeared April 4, 1992, after his family -- who are Jews but not orthodox -- tried to withdraw him from Helbran's ultra-orthodox religious school in Brooklyn.

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According to the indictment, the three suspects conspired to kidnap the youngster and then plotted their coverup between Feb. 15, 1991, and Feb. 8, 1993.

The indictment accused Weisz of kidnapping Fhima in Manhattan on April 4, 1992.

Reuven claims audio tapes exist to prove that a month after his son's disappearance, Helbrans offered both him and his divorced wife money in exchange for their son's custody. Law enforcement officials said tapes, letters and testimony concerning bribes and threats were the major evidence against the Helbranses.

Malka Helbrans was specifically charged with attempting to prevent Hana Fhima from getting physical custody of her son last March 15.

Koffinas ordered the Helbranses not to leave their Monsey home until a pre-trial hearing set for March 2.

The 35-year-old rabbi claims to be a member of the Satmar Hasidic sect, although Rabbi Hertz Frankel, a spokesman for the 40,000-member Satmar community in Brooklyn, described him as the leader of a splinter Hasidic group that does not believe Jews should live in Israel until the coming of the Messiah.

'He is a religious Jew but he is not a member of the Satmar community,' Frankel said.

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Helbrans and his 31-year-old wife came to the United States from Israel several years ago and purportedly have applied for political asylum.

Defense Attorney George Meisner said at a court hearing Monday that the the 'kidnapping' was actually the case of a boy running away from an 'abusive' family.

The boy's parents claim that Helbrans brainwashed the boy in order to convert him to Hasidic belief and may have shipped him to Israel.

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