Stephen Nessen, Reporter, WNYC News
Stephen Nessen reports for the WNYC Newsroom and can often be heard live on Morning Edition.
In the early 1990s, a rash of Torah thefts swept New York City. The thieves were indiscriminate when it came to denomination and borough -- Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Brooklyn and Manhattan -- one was even taken from Mt. Sinai Medical Center. In total 15 Torahs went missing, several valued at over $15,000. The Manhattan District Attorney created the Torah Task Force to track down the holy book thieves.
In 1996, the Task Force apprehended a Brooklyn man, Richie Stevens, who agreed to help set up a Torah sting. This led the task force to a Hasidic man who the District Attorney's office allege was the "fence" in the operation, or the receiver of the goods. Markus Fogle was 44 years old at the time and a midtown diamond dealer from Rockland County.
Fogle was soon arrested in the sting. The New York Times reported at the time that he was arraigned on 17 counts, including charges of possessing stolen property for the 15 Torahs which, they say, were valued at $213,150.
Fogle pleaded not guilty, and, in an effort at reducing his jail time, agreed to return 10 of the scrolls. Unfortunately, they were the wrong 10 scrolls. Officials checked the "micro-perforation id systems" in the parchment, a bar-code for Torahs, and found that none of them matched the stolen Torahs.
Those 10 Torahs were in varying condition and languished for 14 years at Yeshiva University until the DA could find a home for them.
The original 15 missing Torahs have never been recovered.
On Tuesday morning, the DA announced that they had found the best home for two of the 10 Torahs recovered over a decade ago. One will be heading to Belgrade, where the DA's office says they haven't had a Torah since the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The other Torah is headed to the Bulgarian capital Sofia.
As for the other eight Torahs recovered, the DA's office says they are still working with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to find the right home for the scrolls.
The DA's office notes that Torah theft has dropped precipitously since the 1990s, yet the Torah Task Force is still ready to leap into action, if necessary.