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Teen Who Fled U.S. Murder Charge Reportedly to Plead Guilty in Israel

August 25, 1999|REBECCA TROUNSON and JOHN BALZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

JERUSALEM — An American teenager who fled to Israel after a Maryland slaying and became the focus of an international tug of war has agreed to plead guilty to murder here, U.S. and Israeli officials said Tuesday.

Samuel Sheinbein, 19, will enter the plea in a Tel Aviv courtroom next month in connection with the 1997 killing of Alfred Tello Jr., whose body was found dismembered and burned near Sheinbein's home in suburban Maryland. Two days later, Sheinbein flew to Israel, where he has successfully fought efforts to extradite him.

Under the deal, the officials said, Sheinbein--who pleaded not guilty to the killing last month--will be sentenced Sept. 2 to 24 years in an Israeli prison. He will be eligible for parole in 16 years and for weekend furloughs after four years.

The decision was announced by prosecutors in Montgomery County, Md., after they were notified by their counterparts in Israel. The Americans said they were surprised and angered by the deal and described the sentence as too short, given the nature of the crime.

But Douglas Gansler, Montgomery County state's attorney, said in a telephone interview that a 24-year sentence could be tougher than what Sheinbein would have received if the case had gone to trial in Israel. Juveniles in Israel typically serve only 20 years of a life sentence, he said.

Gansler said he was notified of the plea bargain through an overnight fax from Israeli prosecutors.

Iddo Baum, a spokesman for Israel's Justice Ministry, confirmed the agreement but said Israel had asked the Maryland prosecutors to hold the matter in confidence until the Sept. 2 court hearing. Baum declined to comment further.

The teenager's attorney, former Justice Minister David Libai, could not be reached late Tuesday.

Sheinbein, who was 17 at the time of the killing, could have faced life in prison without parole if he had been convicted in the United States. Instead, he fled to Israel, where he claimed citizenship through his Israeli-born father and won a ruling from Israel's Supreme Court that he was technically a citizen and could not be extradited.

An alleged accomplice, Aaron Needle, hanged himself in a Maryland jail last year.

The Sheinbein case has strained U.S.-Israeli relations and, for a brief period in 1997, prompted the U.S. Congress to threaten a freeze on financial aid to Israel. It also has embarrassed many Israelis, who feel uncomfortable about their nation being used as a haven for crime suspects, and has prompted calls to tighten the criteria for citizenship.

Sheinbein had never lived in Israel before the killing. Before the Supreme Court ruling in February, a Jerusalem district court had decided that Sheinbein could be extradited because he had maintained no real ties to the Jewish state.

But the Supreme Court said there cannot be degrees of Israeli citizenship and overturned the lower court ruling.

Gansler said that once Sheinbein is free, he could still be arrested and charged with murder if he tries to enter the United States or any country that belongs to the Interpol international police organization.

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Trounson reported from Jerusalem and Balz from Washington.

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