Will Israel reopen case in American hiker’s death?

New testimony indicates prosecutors allegedly ignored evidence in death of Ariel Newman

MARK AND ELLEN NEWMAN with Ariel at his high-school graduation a few months before his death. (photo credit: Courtesy)
MARK AND ELLEN NEWMAN with Ariel at his high-school graduation a few months before his death.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The state prosecution allegedly decided to close a criminal investigation into the 2014 death of an American hiker without interviewing two key witnesses whose testimonies would have shed light on the case, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
The negligent homicide case was against former officials at the now defunct Mechinat Yeud relating 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. Initially, police and prosecutors were slow to open an investigation and only did so after the Newman family’s lawyer, Amos Fried, got involved and met with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
The Newman family is now appealing to the prosecution to reexamine its decision in light of the written testimonies of two former students who were on the hike with Newman.
Some of the evidence is new, including testimony from a witness who came forward following a February 26 exposé by the Post about the case.
The Newmans will argue that there is significant evidence for the proposition 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 state prosecutors ever bothered to interview either of the two witnesses before closing the case against Ettinger and other Yeud officials.
From a record of 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 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.
Yeud, based in Kibbutz Migdal Oz in Gush Etzion, was a program for Modern Orthodox American high-school graduates to spend a gap year while studying traditional Jewish texts in a yeshiva. Unlike many other such programs, it had a significant hiking component.
However, only eight days into his gap year in Israel, Newman collapsed and died on the second day of a long trek in the Judean Desert in conditions of extreme heat.
His parents, Mark and Ellen Newman, obtained a medical report that cited the cause of death as exertional heat stroke, along with dehydration.
State Attorney Shai Nitzan, who is hearing the Newman family’s appeal of the closure of the case, is due to decide by August whether he will order the police to reopen the case to at minimum explore the truth to a greater extent than has been done until now.
Evidence existed even before the Post exposé, including a notarized six-page affidavit by one of the other hikers, signed on May 17, 2015. The Post has respected the author of the affidavit’s request for anonymity because he also has submitted it to police. Nevertheless, the police did not attempt to interview the affidavit’s author.
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.”
It continues: “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 ok... 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 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 reneged.
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 interrogation by police, Ettinger gave his side of the story about what happened at the resting point referred to by Newman’s co-hikers as the key point where they and Newman pushed hard to stop hiking and passed 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 followed up with Ettinger and asked if he was really saying that none of the hikers complained at all? 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.”
After obtaining the new evidence, the Post asked the state prosecution if it plans to open a new investigation into the case.
“We are saddened by the feelings of the family. After a review of the evidence... it was decided that there was insufficient evidence to bring the suspects to trial. An appeal was filed... which is currently being reviewed by the state attorney and, therefore, we cannot address the appeal’s claims,” the prosecution said.
The Post has tried repeatedly to contact Ettinger by email, text message and telephone, and through Yeud’s lawyers.
Ettinger did not formally respond, 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 Yeud. It did not, however, respond to the allegations made by Abramson in his affidavit.