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Lawyer says Israeli-American JCC bomb threat teen unfit to stand trial

A US-Israeli Jewish teenager accused of making dozens of anti-Semitic bomb threats in the United States and elsewhere is escorted by guards as he leaves an Israeli court after his arrest
JACK GUEZ (AFP)
The 19-year-old is accused of managing a long-running hoax bomb threat service out of his bedroom

An expert panel of psychiatrists has been assembled to determine whether an Israeli-American teen arrested in April last year over allegations he called in almost 2000 hoax bomb threats around the world can be legally held responsible for his actions or stand trial.

The 19-year-old, who cannot be named in Israel for legal reasons, is accused by Israeli prosecutors of managing a long-running hoax bomb threat service out of his bedroom in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon.

The hoax calls, allegedly made on behalf of clients who bought his services on the since-shuttered darknet site AlphaBay, caused hundreds of schools worldwide to be evacuated, flights to make emergency landings and stoked fears in the US Jewish community about a wave of anti-Semitism following Donald Trump’s election as president.  

Despite being arrested in April, the teen's trial is yet to get underway. His lawyer Yoram Sheftel told i24NEWS in an interview on Wednesday it took seven months for the court to determine that he is autistic.

It is now being argued in the Tel Aviv District Court for Juvenile Matters that he is not mentally well enough to be tried.  

“We submitted two expert opinions which clearly say that he is not responsible for what he is doing because of his state of mind as an autist[ic person] and also is not capable to participate in court proceedings for the same reason,” Sheftel said.

“The district psychiatrist said that he recommended -- and the court accepted this -- that [the teen] will be checked by a panel of three psychiatrists which are not part of the mechanism of the district psychiatrist.”

KENA BETANCUR (AFP/File)

The decision was handed down three weeks ago but Sheftel said he did not know how long the panel would take to make a recommendation to the judge. A hearing is scheduled for March, he said, but there is “no certainty” that they will be ready at that time.

In late 2016 and early 2017 Jewish community centers across the US endured a rash of bomb threats that turned out to be hoaxes but aroused fears that anti-Semites in the country had been emboldened by Trump’s victory over Hilary Clinton.  

However investigators in the United States, Israel, Australia and New Zealand discovered that the calls originated from the same source as hundreds of others that had been made to schools, hospitals, airlines and other public institutions. Some warned of an imminent slaughter of students by a gunman on school grounds.

When the teen was arrested, Israeli investigators discovered he was the owner of a bitcoin account worth almost $250,000 at the time, which he had raked in by selling the threats.

In May, his previous lawyer said that the teen, whose parents had said suffered from a brain tumor, had made five suicide attempts. Sheftel said on Wednesday his health situations was “basically the same.”

On Monday, the teen made an attempt to escape from police custody as he left a police van in Jerusalem, a spokeswoman for the Israel Prison Service confirmed. She added that a “criminal record” would be opened against him.

The FBI is still hunting the teen’s clients, as well as possible accomplices, a search warrant unsealed by a US court in July suggested.

"There is probable cause to believe [the teen] and others as yet unknown, were responsible for transmitting a series of threatening communications in the District of Columbia and elsewhere," the warrant read in part, "and that the identity of possible co-conspirators as well as fruits, evidence, and instrumentalities of the crime will be found within the AlphaBay accounts that appear to be under his control.”

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