State Attorney Shai Nitzan has ordered police to reopen their investigation into the 2014 death of an American hiker following a series of reports by The Jerusalem Post.
The dramatic development – investigations are rarely reopened once the original prosecutor on the case has closed it for insufficient evidence – was announced on Tuesday, after Post coverage revealed that the police had failed to interview two key witnesses.
The negligent homicide investigation related 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.
Newman’s parents, Mark and Ellen, responded to the decision to reopen the case saying, “We are now hopeful that the authorities will do the right thing, and after further investigation, reopen the case, prosecute, and indict on charges of criminal negligent homicide anyone who was responsible for the death of our son.”
The Newmans thanked the US Embassy and US Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, “who worked on our behalf to help everyone understand that any negligent homicide must be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted so the appropriate justice can be carried out.”
Amos Fried, the Newmans’ lawyer, said he and the family “are encouraged by this positive development, and expect the police to conduct their investigation with the utmost thoroughness...
in order to prosecute those responsible for Ariel’s tragic death. Though almost three years have passed since the catastrophe, we remain grateful that the state attorney has finally realized that justice has yet to be served.”
From the start, police and prosecutors were slow to open any serious investigation, doing so only after Fried got involved and met with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
The Newman family next appealed to Nitzan to reexamine the decision to close the case by the Southern District Attorney’s Office, in light of the written testimonies of two former students who were on the hike with Newman.
Some of the evidence in the Post’s
June 1 exposé was new, including testimony from a witness who came forward following a February 26 report by the newspaper.
Based on the new evidence, the Newmans asked Nitzan to reopen the case, arguing there was significant evidence that the tour guide on the hike, Josh Ettinger, pressed Newman into continuing the hike despite his pleas that “I feel like I’m going to die.”
According to the case file obtained by the Post
, neither the police nor the Southern District Attorney’s Office ever interviewed either of the two witnesses before closing the case against Ettinger and other Mechinat Yeud officials.
Based on a record in the file obtained by the Post, they also closed the case without carrying out a basic step in a police investigation: challenging Ettinger to explain contradictions between his testimony and that of the other witnesses.
Ettinger’s explanation, in light of the new testimony, would be key to understanding whether there are grounds to press charges against him or any of Mechinat Yeud’s other former employees.
In 2015, Ettinger told police that Newman did not complain to him at all during the hike. On the other hand, the testimonies of the other two witnesses obtained by the Post claim that Newman screamed at Ettinger and pleaded with him to let him stop hiking.
Mechinat Yeud, based at Kibbutz Migdal Oz in Gush Etzion, was a program for Modern Orthodox American high-school graduates to spend a “gap year” before college studying traditional Jewish texts in a yeshiva. Unlike many other such programs, it had a significant hiking component.
However, only eight days into his year in Israel, on the second day of a long trek, Newman collapsed in the extreme heat of the Judean Desert and died.
His parents obtained a medical report that cited the cause of death as exertional heat stroke accompanied by dehydration.
A letter to the Newmans sent by the prosecution appeal’s unit on Monday and obtained by the Post
on Tuesday said Nitzan’s No. 2, Deputy State Attorney Shlomo Lemberger, had reviewed the case evidence and ordered the police to perform further investigation.
The letter also said that Lemberger expected to review any new evidence from the additional investigative activities and make a final decision by October 1.
Evidence existed even before the Post
exposé, including a notarized, six-page affidavit signed by one of the other hikers on May 17, 2015.
The Post has respected the request for anonymity by the author of the affidavit, as he also submitted it to police.
However, the police did not attempt to interview the affidavit’s author prior to the order to reopen the investigation.
According to the affidavit: “Ariel complained of feeling very dehydrated and having symptoms of heat exhaustion, but Josh [Ettinger] said that since he was able to drink and eat while we were having lunch, he was not dehydrated and he would be fine to continue.”
The affadavit continued: “The three of us asked if there was any way to get the bus to come back for us... but Josh said that the bus is an hour-and-a-half or so away and it would be inconsiderate to make the driver come and pick us up. Ariel was in the worst condition out of the three of us and could barely stay awake, but Josh said he would be able to continue.
Further, it says, “Josh kept dismissing his pleas for help by saying that ‘if he was really dehydrated he wouldn’t be able to drink,’ to the point where I can remember Ariel basically yelling at Josh that he couldn’t go on and that he was dehydrated... Josh kept prodding him to continue and telling him he would be okay... that he knows what heat exhaustion looks like and that Ariel did not have it.”
The most striking new evidence was a Facebook post from February 28 and a three-page affidavit from March 5 by another hiker, Ross Abramson.
Following the Post’s
first report on the case, Abramson emailed his affidavit to Newman’s parents, pledging to sign it so it could be used as evidence against Ettinger, but he subsequently changed his mind.
In his unsigned affidavit, Abramson wrote that Ariel “exclaimed out loud to Josh (Josh was directly in front of him), ‘I feel like I’m going to die.’ Josh asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ Ariel said, ‘I think I have heat stroke.’ Josh responded by saying, ‘You don’t have heat stroke – I know guys who had heat stroke. You wouldn’t be able to function if you had heat stroke.’ I remember Ariel saying, ‘I don’t want to do [it] anymore’ (Ariel was referring to hiking).
The moment he said that was either when the food car was still present or right after he left,” wrote Abramson.
On May 19, 2015, under questioning by police, Ettinger gave his side of the story on what happened at the resting point referred to by Newman’s co-hikers as the point where they and Newman pushed hard to stop hiking, passing the point of no return for Newman.
“I checked each of them... to get a feel for each one and to understand if it was hard for any of them or to offer to anyone who could not continue to get into the car. There were no problems or instances in which someone solicited me [to stop and get into the car] or said to me that it was hard for him,” Ettinger said, according to a transcript of his testimony.
The police investigator then asked if Ettinger was really saying that none of the hikers complained.
Ettinger responded, “No. There was nothing, especially with Ariel who did not look in bad condition or even when he fell, he did not look hot or red, his face was white.”
has tried repeatedly to contact Ettinger regarding its prior stories by email, text message and telephone, and through Mechinat Yeud’s lawyers.
Ettinger never formally responded, though the Post
received an email from an unidentified address with a title referring to “The Truth” that was received at the exact deadline time the Post
had sent Ettinger by text message to respond for this report.
The response, which the Post
could not confirm came from Ettinger or a surrogate, presented significant detail and documentation attacking the veracity of the affidavit of the anonymous co-hiker student, claiming it was forced on the student by his father as part of a financial dispute with Mechinat Yeud. It did not, however, respond to the allegations made by Abramson in his affidavit.