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Rabbi's Son, 2, Taken From His Home, Turns Up in Tijuana With UCI Lecturer

April 23, 1986|BARRY S. SURMAN | Times Staff Writer

The 2-year-old son of a Westminster rabbi turned up apparently unharmed Tuesday in Tijuana, half a day after he was allegedly abducted by a member of the Orthodox rabbi's congregation, police said.

The boy, Zalman Berkowitz, and his alleged abductor, Alexander Gelman, 40, of Santa Ana, were in custody Tuesday in Tijuana after being involved in a minor traffic accident there, according to Westminster Police Capt. Joe Woods.

"He apparently just walked away with the child" Monday night, Woods said.

Neither the Berkowitz family nor police officials could explain why Gelman might have taken the boy from his home. A written statement issued by Westminster police said Gelman was "not considered armed nor dangerous, and is believed to be upset over a family difficulty."

The boy's father, Rabbi Aron D. Berkowitz, declined to discuss the incident, saying, "It's a family matter and I don't want to get into it." But Berkowitz, leader of the Orthodox Chabad of West Orange County, said he is "as concerned for (Gelman) as I am for my child."

Gelman, a visiting lecturer in mathematics at UC Irvine, appeared to be "a very confused man," said Sergio Barrio, an agent of the State Judicial Police in Tijuana.

The mathematician reportedly told police in Tijuana that he took the youngster from his home but could not remember how they got to Tijuana nor how he crashed his car into another car about 12 hours after leaving Westminster.

"The Federal Bureau of Investigation has taken over the case, as far as the child is concerned," Westminster Police Lt. David Wiggs said late Tuesday. FBI officials in Santa Ana and Los Angeles declined to discuss details of the case.

The FBI is working with authorities in Westminster and in Mexico "to resolve the allegations and to try to bring it out to a logical ending," a spokesman said, stressing that it is too early to know if any charges will be filed.

The boy, whose long, sandy-colored hair extends well below his shoulders, was taken to Estancia Mariana, a children's shelter just a few yards from the U.S. border at Tijuana. He had a small bruise on his cheek, but no other apparent injuries.

FBI officials were unsure when the boy would be returned to his parents, who on Tuesday were making preparations for the Jewish festival of Passover, which begins this evening.

Family Out Shopping

When the boy disappeared Monday night, most of the Berkowitz family was out shopping for new clothes for the holiday, said Sheina Berkowitz, the boy's mother. A housekeeper was caring for the boy.

Gelman reportedly told police in Tijuana that he shoved the housekeeper and took the boy Tuesday night after an argument with the woman, who told him that the rabbi was not home and refused to allow him into the house.

Earlier, Gelman told authorities in Mexico, he had left Irvine after attending a class, driven home to Santa Ana and discussed the upcoming Passover celebration with his wife Marjorie. He said he left the house and began feeling dizzy.

Gelman visited a doctor, who told him he was suffering from high blood pressure, he told police in Tijuana. On the way home, he began feeling worse and somehow ended up at the Berkowitz home, he said.

Colleagues at UCI described Gelman as "a fine teacher and researcher, and they were shocked at this allegation," said Linda Granell, director of public information. Gelman, currently in the second year of a two-year appointment at the university, teaches numerical analysis, a course generally taken by juniors and seniors majoring in mathematics.

Gelman told Mexican authorities that he came to the United States from Leningrad in 1972 and has been an American citizen since 1978.

"This is a guy who was basically distraught," a close friend of the Berkowitz family said. "The guy was a little off. We were as worried about him as about the child; we don't know why he took the kid . . . the honest truth is that we don't know."

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