Exclusive: Israel to reopen case of American hiker’s death a second time after ‘Post’ exposés

The announcement came less than two weeks after the 'Post' revealed that the police had failed to interview two key witnesses even after the case was first reopened in July.

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November 27, 2017 02:09
MARK AND ELLEN NEWMAN with Ariel at his high-school graduation a few months before his death.

MARK AND ELLEN NEWMAN with Ariel at his high-school graduation a few months before his death.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Deputy chief prosecutor for criminal affairs Shlomo (Mumi) Lemberger has ordered police to reopen for a second time their investigation into the 2014 death of an American hiker following a series of reports by The Jerusalem Post.

The hiker’s family was notified of the dramatic development on Friday. Investigations are rarely reopened once, let alone twice, after the original prosecutor on the case has closed it for insufficient evidence.

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The announcement came less than two weeks after the Post revealed that the police had failed to interview two key witnesses – some of whose incriminating testimony also was first revealed in the Post – even after the case was first reopened in July.

The negligent-homicide investigation relates to the unexplained death of Ariel Newman, 18, a student from Great Neck, New York, during a hike in the Judean Desert on September 10, 2014. It centered on former officials at the now-defunct Mechinat Yeud program for Diaspora youth.

Ariel’s parents, Mark and Ellen Newman, obtained a medical report that cited the cause of death as exertional heat stroke and dehydration.

Amos Fried, the Newman family lawyer, called the second reopening “a most astounding and unexpected development,” and said a planned final December 10 meeting with Lemberger had been postponed pending the new investigatory actions.

At the start, police and prosecutors were slow to open an in-depth investigation, and did so only after Fried intervened and met with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.



In the first round of the investigation, police and prosecutors closed the case without making any effort to interview the two key witnesses. They also failed to confront fully the main suspect, tour guide Josh Ettinger, with the witnesses’ incriminating testimony – though they did confront him with generalized, vague allegations.

The Newmans then asked the state prosecution Appeals Division to review the decision by the Southern District Attorney’s Office to close the case after written testimonies were obtained from two former students who were on the hike with Ariel.

On July 18, following a series of exposés by the Post, Lemberger, took the highly unusual step of ordering the police to reopen their investigation into the death.

One of the witnesses, Ross Abramson, came forward after reading the Post’s February 26, 2017, exposé. He said Ettinger pressed Newman into continuing the hike despite his pleading, “I feel like I’m going to die.”

Ettinger has not responded to Abramson’s allegations. An email received by the Post on behalf of Ettinger attacked one of the key witnesses as being pressed by his family to go after Ettinger and Yeud as part of an unrelated financial dispute with the organization.

According to a copy of the case files obtained by the Post, Ettinger’s explanation, in light of the new testimony by Abramson, would be key to understanding whether there are grounds to press charges against him or against any of Yeud’s other former employees.

In 2015, Ettinger told police that Newman did not complain to him at all during the hike. Testimonies of the other two witnesses obtained by the Post, however, claim that Newman screamed at Ettinger and pleaded with him to let him stop hiking.

In some ways, the first July reopening of the case seemed like a major turning point as police brought in an entirely new, higher-ranking team of investigators to probe more deeply.

The Post has learned that Negev Command chief Natan Bonza and his top staff met with Fried and the Newman family on August 13. At that time, the Newmans believed that these officials finally “got” the case and understood the significance of the two witnesses, whom the original lower-ranked police team had ignored.

Fried told the Post that police officials Guy Kater and Anat Dimri had in fact sought to interview the two witnesses, but that their requests were denied by the prosecution.

Sources in law enforcement close to the case denied this narrative, however, calling it misleading and pointing out that many others on the hike did not incriminate Ettinger. Still, the prosecution has not given a public explanation regarding the failure to question the witnesses and confront Ettinger with their testimony.

Responding to the non-public denial, Fried has described to the Post in detail Kater’s and Dimri’s accounts of the prosecution rejecting their requests to question the two witnesses.

On September 27, in a letter obtained by the Post, Prosecution Appeals Department head Sharon Edri, taking the lead on the case on behalf of Lemberger, informed Fried that despite having reopened the case once, the prosecution was leaning toward closing it again.

Although law enforcement had taken a few new investigatory actions as of November 14, they still had failed to question the two key witnesses or to confront Ettinger with their incriminating testimony. The Post revealed this investigatory gap in its last report.

Fried said something did not seem right and that if the prosecution was opposed to prosecuting the case, because it did not want to go through all of the bother of interviewing the two key witnesses overseas over the death of one American on a hike, “I would have expected them never to reopen the case.”

“Once they reopened the case, the primary reason would have been to question the two witnesses,” Fried said. “Reopening the case, appointing a new and serious group of police and then refusing that police team’s request to question the key witnesses is disappointing and disturbing.”

Fried and the Newmans allege that if the hiker were an Israeli, the police would have questioned all key witnesses in a timely manner and fully confronted Ettinger with all the allegations.

December 10 would have been Fried’s last chance to plead the Newmans’ case, but with Lemberger’s order to reopen the case a second time, the prosecution again will have an opportunity to gather evidence from the two key witnesses and confront Ettinger with their statements.

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