The leaders of an extremist Jewish sect that lived in Quebec for years before fleeing have been charged in relation to the kidnapping of a 14-year-old girl they allegedly attempted to return to her much older “husband.”
A New York attorney and the FBI announced the charges against the Lev Tahor leaders on Monday, including conspiring to transport a minor with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity and to travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct.
The charges against Nachman Helbrans, Mayer Rosner, Yakov Weingarten, Shmiel Weingarten and Yoil Weingarten are in addition to several others related to the kidnapping of the same minor and her younger brother dating back to 2018.
The mother of the abducted children fled from the group in 2018 citing extremism under new leadership shortly after her brother forced her then 12-year-old daughter to marry an 18-year-old in the goal of procreation.
She brought the children to New York, where Lev Tahor leaders allegedly executed the kidnapping in the middle of the night. Police say they led them through several states using disguises before bringing them to Mexico, where the children were recovered and returned to New York within three weeks.
Lev Tahor leaders attempted other kidnappings of the children in/around March 2019 and March 2021, according to the United States Department of Justice.
“As alleged, the defendants engaged in a brazen kidnapping of a minor girl in the middle of the night, taking her across the border to Mexico in order to reunite her with her adult ‘husband’ to continue their sexual relationship,” said Audrey Strauss, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. “These charges send a clear message that the sexual exploitation of children will not be tolerated.”
The United States Department of Justice says the group forces young girls to ‘marry’ older men in the goal of procreation (the marriages are not legitimate), forces them to hide their ‘marriages’ from non-members, to lie about their age, and to give birth in their homes instead of hospitals to hide their age from the public.
Those who’ve been charged are senior leaders of Lev Tahor and U.S. citizens currently residing in Guatemala. They were previously based in New York and Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec. The group fled to Ontario from Quebec in the middle of the night back in 2013 when they became aware of a child protection investigation.
It took youth protection officials far too long to intervene in the case of 134 children who were part of the Lev Tahor community living for a decade in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, a report from the Quebec human-rights commission concluded.
An Ontario court chose not to take custody of the children because of fears of a mass suicide. That’s when the group fled to Guatemala before moving to Mexico following persecution.
Canadian authorities voiced concerns over emotional abuse, child marriages, use of force, as well as a lack of education and physical care.
In 2018, youth protection officials in Quebec said some children associated to the group had returned to the province, where they were under the care of the regional health authority in the Laurentians, including both children who had been kidnapped.
Leadership of Lev Tahor was taken over in 2017 by Helbrans, the son of the group’s founder, at which point the group “embraced several extreme practices,” according to the United States Department of Justice, including “invasive monitoring of members, frequent beatings, and forced marriages of minors to adult members.”
“Children in Lev Tahor are often subject to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse,” a news release says.
The charges the Lev Tahor leaders face carry minimum prison sentences of 10 years and 30 years.
“International borders will not stop the FBI from pursuing justice and enforcing violations of our laws, especially when you target children,” said FBI assistant director William F. Sweeney Jr. “The behaviour alleged today is outrageous, and there is no justification for it whatsoever. We are grateful for the excellent cooperation from our partners in Mexico and Guatemala who helped us hold these leaders of Lev Tahor accountable for their behaviour.”
With files from the National Post’s Joseph Brean.
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