NEW YORK (AP) — An 8-year-old Brooklyn boy who got lost while walking home alone from day camp in his Orthodox Jewish neighborhood was killed and dismembered by a stranger he had asked for directions, and his remains were found stuffed in a trash bin and the man's refrigerator, police said Wednesday.
The gruesome killing of Leiby Kletzky shocked the tight-knit Hasidic community in Borough Park, in part because it is one of the safest sections of the city and because the man under arrest is himself an Orthodox Jew.
A day-and-a-half search for the Hasidic boy ended with the discovery of his severed feet inside a bloody freezer at the home of a man who had been spotted with the child on a surveillance video, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press. The rest of the remains were in the trash in another neighborhood.
"It is every parent's worst nightmare," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
The 35-year-old suspect, Levi Aron, implicated himself in the killing, Kelly said.
Police said there was no evidence the boy was sexually assaulted, but they would not otherwise shed any light on a motive except to say Aron told them he "panicked" when he saw photos of the missing boy on fliers that were distributed in the neighborhood. Police were looking into whether Aron had a history of mental illness.
Aron was arrested on a charge of second-degree murder. It was not clear whether he had an attorney. The medical examiner's office said it was still investigating how the boy was killed.
Meanwhile, thousands gathered around a Borough Park synagogue for the boy's funeral service, with speakers broadcasting over a loudspeaker and intermittently breaking down in sobs. They spoke and chanted in Yiddish, stressing the community's resilience and unity after what one called an unnatural death.
"There's no greater pain than this," one said, as translated by a mourner.
Among the women, who listened separately from men, some said their children attended the same day camp. It was open today and counselors were on hand to help the children deal with the news.
"This is not human," said Moses Klein, 73, a retired caterer who lives near the corner where the boy was last seen.
The Hasidim are ultra-Orthodox Jews who live in somewhat insular neighborhoods. The streets are policed by a group of volunteers known as the Shomrim patrol. Many of the mothers who gathered outside the Kletzky family home Wednesday said the streets are normally safe enough for a child to walk home alone.
Adel Erps, like other neighbors, expressed shock the suspect was Jewish. "He's a sick person obviously, but it hurts so much more," she said.
Aron's family was Orthodox but not Hasidic, and he lives about a dozen blocks away from the Kletzky family. When detectives arrived at his attic apartment around 2:40 a.m., they asked him where the boy was, and he nodded toward the kitchen, Kelly said.
Detectives saw blood on the freezer door and opened it to discover the feet inside, wrapped in plastic bags, according to the law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still going on. A cutting board and three bloody carving knives were in the refrigerator, and a plastic garbage bag with bloody towels was found nearby.
Aron told police where to find the rest of the body; it was in pieces, wrapped in plastic bags, inside a red suitcase that had been tossed into a trash bin in another Brooklyn neighborhood, Kelly said.
Police and volunteers had been looking since late Monday afternoon for Leiby, who disappeared while on his way to meet his mother on a street corner seven blocks from his day camp. This was the first time he was allowed to walk the route alone; his parents had taken him on a practice run on Friday.
The break in the case came when investigators watched a grainy video that showed the boy, wearing his backpack, getting into a car with a man outside a dentist's office. Police said the boy had evidently missed a turn and gotten lost.
Detectives tracked the dentist down at his home in New Jersey, and he remembered someone coming to pay a bill. Police identified Aron using records from the office, and 40 minutes later he was arrested.
Police said Aron, who is divorced, lives alone in the attic, in a building shared with his father and uncle. When they arrived, the door was ajar. It's not clear how long the boy had been dead, Kelly said.
Kelly said it was "totally random" that Aron grabbed the boy, and aside from a summons for urinating in public, he had no criminal record. A neighbor told authorities her son had said Aron had once tried to lure him into his car, but nothing happened and she didn't think much of it until the news of the killing, police said.
He lived most of his life in New York and worked as a clerk at a hardware supply store around the corner from his home, authorities said. Co-workers said Aron was at work on Tuesday.
"He seemed a little troubled," said employee Chamin Kramer, who added Aron usually came and went quietly.
Aron moved briefly to Memphis, Tenn., for his now-ex-wife after meeting her on a Jewish dating website, said the woman, Deborah Aron, who still lives in the area. She said he never showed signs of violence toward her two children from a previous relationship.
"It's utter disbelief," she said from the toy-littered backyard of her home in the Memphis suburb of Germantown. "This ain't the Levi I know."
Deborah Aron said the couple was married for exactly a year and divorced in 2007. She described Levi Aron as a shy person — until he got to know someone — and said he enjoyed music, karaoke and "American Idol." She said he attended Orthodox Jewish services in Memphis.
He was "more of a mother's boy than a father's boy," who lived at home until he met her, she said.
She said she filed an order of protection against him at the time of their divorce on the recommendation of her new boyfriend. "At the time he was so hysterical about getting a divorce. He didn't want a divorce," she said of Levi.
She said Levi injured his head when he was hit by a car while riding his bike at the age of 9 and suffered problems stemming from that accident.
She said the crime Levi is accused of is "totally out of character." However, she also said she would not help him find a lawyer or help him in any way.
Leiby was last seen wearing dark pants and a short-sleeved shirt and yarmulke with the traditional long locks of hair by his ears worn by Hasidic men.
Hasidic Jews abide by strict religious rules that require men to wear plain, dark clothing that includes a long coat and a fedora-type hat. Men often have long beards. Most of the 165,000 members in the New York City the area live in Brooklyn and belong to three sects. Hasidism traces its roots to 18th-century Eastern Europe.
"This is a no-crime area," said state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, whose district includes the neighborhood. He said the boy was the only son of the Kletzky family. The parents have four daughters, and the husband works as a driver for a private car service.
"Everybody is absolutely horrified," he said. "Everyone is in total shock, beyond belief, beyond comprehension ... to suddenly disappear and then the details ... and the fact someone in the extended community ... it's awful."
The medical examiner's office released the body so that the boy could be buried promptly Wednesday evening according to Jewish custom.
Associated Press Writers Karen Matthews and Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tenn., contributed to this report.