Mendel Epstein, 70, led a team of men in kidnapping and torturing Orthodox Jewish men

By Char Adams
December 16, 2015 02:30 PM
Mel Evans/AP

A New Jersey court sentenced a rabbi to 10 years in prison on Tuesday for his role in kidnapping Orthodox Jewish men and torturing them until they agreed to divorce their wives, PEOPLE confirms.

Rabbi Mendel Epstein, 70, was sentenced to 10 years in prison followed by five years of “supervised release” for conspiracy to commit kidnapping, a New Jersey District Court official tells PEOPLE.

An August 2013 undercover FBI operation revealed that Epstein, of Lakewood, led a team that kidnapped married men, beat them and used brutal methods and tools like handcuffs and cattle prods to get them to agree to divorcing their wives, the Associated Press reports.

Wives would reportedly seek out Epstein’s services when their husbands were unwilling to grant them divorces, also known as a “get” – Jewish law requires a get by a husband to a wife for a divorce to be deemed official.

The FBI investigation revealed that one man was once placed in a van, tied up, beaten and shocked with a stun gun until he agreed to divorce his wife, the FBI announced in a statement.

Two undercover agents posed as a wife and brother seeking Epstein’s services and had multiple recorded phone calls and meetings with the rabbi, the FBI reports. In one of the meetings, Epstein arranged to have his team kidnap the woman’s fictitious husband for $60,000.

Only a portion of the payment went to Epstein’s team, NJ.com reports, prompting the defense to describe Epstein as a money hungry leader.

Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.

“He did this regularly. He did this for money,” Assistant Attorney Joseph Gribko said at the sentencing, per NJ.com. “He understood exactly how out of hand this could get.”

However, Epstein said he was motivated by compassion for the “chained” wives and was simply trying to help – prompting federal prosecutors to call Epstein’s efforts “paid vigilantism.”

“Over the years, I guess, I got caught up in my tough-guy image,” the rabbi said at the sentencing, according to the AP. “Truthfully, it helped me – the reputation – convince many of these reprobates to do the right thing.”

The 70-year-old’s family begged U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson to have mercy on the rabbi and “judge him as a whole being,” NJ.com reports.

Epstein’s attorney, Robert Stahl, said he plans to appeal the conviction.

Epstein and two other rabbis were convicted in April of charges related to the kidnappings.