Suspected Wiesel attacker apologizes

"Sorry for scaring you," says Hunt in hearing to determine fitness for trial.

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A man charged with dragging Holocaust scholar Elie Wiesel from a hotel elevator apologized in court to the Nobel laureate over the alleged anti-Semitic attack. Eric Hunt, 23, has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted kidnapping, false imprisonment, battery, stalking, elder abuse and hate crimes following the February incident at San Francisco's Argent Hotel. The apology came Monday in the midst of a hearing to determine whether Hunt, who originally pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity but later changed his plea, should stand trial. Hunt raised a shaking hand and spoke up suddenly from his seat next to his lawyer just as Wiesel had finished describing his ordeal in Nazi death camps, where his parents and younger sister died. "Mr. Wiesel, I'm sorry for scaring you and I'm sorry you experienced the Holocaust," Hunt said. "My grandfather fought the Nazis and I'm sorry about what happened." Wiesel did not respond but went on to describe the Feb. 1 incident in which he said Hunt grabbed him from the elevator and demanded that the 78-year-old professor come to his room for an interview. Wiesel said he feared he was being kidnapped and began shouting for help in the empty hallway on the hotel's sixth floor. "The shock to me was so great I lost a sense of time and of space," said Wiesel, who was not injured. Hunt, of Vernon, New Jersey, has been in a San Francisco jail psychiatric ward since May, when he was flown to California to face the charges. His lawyer, San Francisco defense attorney John Runfola, said in an interview Monday that prosecutors had "overcharged" his client. Hunt is not an anti-Semitic stalker, but a man suffering from mental illness who needs treatment rather than imprisonment, Runfola said. When he confronted Wiesel, Hunt was in the grip of a "manic episode" triggered by his grandfather's death, his lawyer said. The defense has sent the results of a psychiatrist's evaluation to Wiesel along with 20 letters from Hunt's family, friends and teachers describing the incident as deeply out of character for the high school honor student and college graduate, Runfola said. "I'm hoping that in (Wiesel's) lifelong struggle to help oppressed people, he reaches out to one of them, and that's Eric Hunt," Runfola said. Under questioning from the defense, Wiesel acknowledged he was never directly verbally threatened by Hunt and was not touched again after being grabbed the first time. But Wiesel said he felt "violated" and now travels to his many speaking engagements with bodyguards, which he testified he never did before the encounter with Hunt. A canvas bag recovered from Hunt's room after he fled contained $3,100 cash and a plastic "zip tie" similar to what police use in place of handcuffs when making mass arrests. Investigators also found in the bag a copy of "Night," Wiesel's bestselling Holocaust memoir, Inspector Mark Gamble said. Shortly after the alleged attack, authorities became aware of a posting on an anti-Semitic Web site in which a writer identifying himself as Hunt claimed responsibility for the attack. The writer said he wanted to take Wiesel "into my custody" and force him to admit that "Night" was a work of fiction. Hunt admitted to writing the post during a police interview shortly before he was arrested at a New Jersey psychiatric clinic in mid-February, said New York Police Department Sgt. Al Fiore at Monday's hearing. "The majority" of the five-page post was written by Hunt, Runfola acknowledged outside court, but some of the content was added later by others, including its title, "Elie Wiesel and the Big Lie," he said. Hunt's case has drawn the attention of Jewish advocacy groups who say that anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide, particularly in the form of so-called Holocaust denial. The alleged attack is "just part and parcel of this overall unfriendly climate that I think Jews are feeling," said Nancy J. Appel, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League's San Francisco office, who attended the hearing. "I think that this was motivated by hatred and prejudice." Outside the courtroom, Hunt's mother, Naomi McCloskey, approached Wiesel and asked for his forgiveness, calling her son kind and sensitive. "His mother suffers a lot," Wiesel told reporters. "She doesn't deserve that suffering."