On the morning of Nov. 29, 2007, Yakov Shapiro was preparing for a day of family and music — his two great loves — when there was a knock at the door of his Germantown home.
When he opened it, three Montgomery County police officers asked the 60-year-old immigrant his name and then announced, to his shock, that he was under arrest.
On the way to jail, he learned the charges: child sexual abuse.
But police had the wrong man; the wrong “Y. Shapiro,” as it turned out. The Baltimore police detective investigating the real molester, a former bar mitzvah teacher in Baltimore named Yisroel Shapiro, had made a careless error in drawing up the warrant.
|Watch video of Kupferberg discussing the case
And as a result, Yakov Shapiro, a prominent violinist and teacher who fled the former Soviet Union with his family to avoid religious persecution, endured a nightmarish run-in with the American criminal justice system, including roughly 40 hours in jail and the taint of the ugly accusations even after the real molester’s arrest.
“This whole case was a tragedy of cataclysmic dimension,” Shapiro’s lawyer, Steven Kupferberg said.
It’s also a case the city of Baltimore tried to keep quiet, agreeing more than two years later to pay Shapiro $200,000 but withholding all details, except the amount of the settlement. At the time it denied The Daily Record’s Public Information Act request, the city said the plaintiff had demanded confidentiality. (Click here to read the related story).
City Solicitor George A. Nilson, in June, did reveal some details of the incident: He said the arrest occurred when a police officer issued a warrant for a man with the same name as the suspect, and that the error was a “rookie” mistake.
After several negotiations with counsel retained by The Daily Record and the paper’s executive editor, Nilson offered one more piece of information: the name of the plaintiff’s attorney.
Nilson said he had “reason to believe” the lawyer, Kupferberg, would be willing to talk.
And indeed, Kupferberg maintained that the confidentiality clause was mandated by the city’s lawyers.
“I think that anything that goes on in court should be public,” he said.
His client, though, is not willing to discuss it himself, Kupferberg said.
Shapiro, in a conversation with a forensic psychiatrist last December, described the incident as “like a nightmare.”
“The only comparable situation was how he felt after an interview by a KGB agent when he thought he might be arrested for telling jokes about the Soviet government,” Dr. Susan J. Fiester, the Bethesda psychiatrist, wrote in a report prepared for Kupferberg.
Not so unusual
Yakov Yefimovich Shapiro was born in the Soviet Union, in what is now Belarus, shortly after World War II. Six years earlier, in 1941, his father’s whole family had been killed in one night by the Nazis.
Shapiro grew to be an accomplished violinist, eventually serving as concertmaster of the Orchestra of the Academy of Sciences and as a music professor in Moscow. But when there were whispers that Jews would be scapegoated for Russia’s financial problems, Shapiro, with his wife and teenage son, sought and gained asylum in the U.S. as a refugee in 1993.
They enmeshed themselves in the local Jewish community. Shapiro took up teaching violin lessons at the Rockville Jewish Community Center and playing in its orchestra.
Some 40 miles away in Northwest Baltimore, Yisroel Shapiro was already the subject of public concern,
In October 2004, a flier circulated through the Baltimore Jewish community warning that he had been molesting boys. (This account is based on court records and documents, including Kupferberg’s experts’ reports and the detective’s deposition, as well as interviews with some of the people involved in the case.)
Beginning in spring 2007, The (Baltimore) Jewish Times published a series of articles on molestation that included allegations against Yisroel Shapiro’s father, who died in 1989.
On June 8, 2007, two men walked into the Baltimore Police Department to report that Yisroel Shapiro had fondled them many years earlier when they would go to his house to study the Torah.
The men, who are brothers, met with Detective Keith Merryman and gave separate statements about what Shapiro had done to the elder brother in 1988 and the younger boy in 1994.
Merryman then spoke with Assistant State’s Attorney Tammy Griffin-Lawman, who said she would also interview the victims, and the case against Yisroel Shapiro began. That investigation also was reported by The Jewish Times.
In an October 2007 progress report to his supervisor, Merryman wrote that Griffin-Lawman had interviewed the brothers and that Merryman would now “attempt to locate and interview the Rabbi.”
Asked in his videotaped deposition about what else he did, investigatively, between June and November, Merryman paused.
“Nothing,” he answered.
On Nov. 15, 2007, Merryman made the attempt. But instead of checking the brothers’ statements from June, which contained Yisroel Shapiro’s address, Merryman said he searched the Motor Vehicle Administration database for “Y. Shapiro.”
Yakov Shapiro’s entry came up.
“In the Jewish community, ‘Y. Shapiro’ is like Joe Smith,” said Baltimore City Councilwoman Rikki Spector, who once taught at Talmudical Academy. “It’s a John Doe kind of name in the Orthodox community.”
(Nilson, in an interview for this article, continued to maintain that the names are the same.)
In addition to their first names and addresses, the men had different ages — Yakov Shapiro was 60, Yisroel Shapiro was 57. And Yakov stands 5’4” while Yisroel is 6’1”.
Yet, Merryman posted a warrant for Yakov Shapiro’s arrest.
“How [Merryman] made that connection is not only unclear but also defies sound reasoning and common sense,” police procedure expert John L. Meiklejohn wrote in a report to Kupferberg.
Meiklejohn, who retired as a Montgomery County police captain in 1994 after 25 years on the force and has since trained policemen from the Philippines to Haiti, was hired by Kupferberg to analyze the case. Meiklejohn concluded that Detective Merryman and the BPD handled the case in a “reckless, negligent(,) inadequate, inappropriate and unprofessional manner.”
Kupferberg said he couldn’t understand why Merryman didn’t just go back to the statements he took from the victims.
“If someone gave me an address where the assault took place, where they knew these rabbis lived, I think I would’ve gone there,” Kupferberg said.
Not a rookie
In June, City Solicitor Nilson said it was a rookie mistake because the policeman, while not new to the force, was new to the “task” that caused the error.
Merryman had been on the force for 17 years when he posted the warrant. A former semi-pro soccer player for the Baltimore Bays, Merryman said in his deposition that he led the Baltimore Police Athletic League before joining the sex-offense unit in 2001.
In an interview for this article, Nilson stood by his assertion that Merryman was “new to the activity” of researching records to determine a suspect’s address. He said he based that on the information supplied to him by people involved in the case.
“That’s all I knew then and that’s all I know now,” he said.
While Nilson signed the settlement agreement, it was negotiated primarily by an assistant city solicitor, Neil Janey Jr., himself a former police officer. Janey did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
Merryman is still an active member of the force, in the child-abuse unit, according to a police department spokesman, and has no disciplinary record to speak of.
“Well, we can’t comment on discipline because that’s part of his personnel file,” said Anthony Guglielmi, the spokesman. “No charges have been sustained.”
Guglielmi also said Merryman would have received some warrant research training through an annual National Crime Information Center refresher course, but nothing particular to sex-offense investigation.
“You go through on-the-job training, but if you’re talking about a specialized course through the academy, then no,” Guglielmi said, adding that increased and improved training is a priority for Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III.
“We try very hard to get this right. Each and every day we put away hundreds of people who do bad things,” Guglielmi said.
Protesting his innocence
Yakov Shapiro was not one of those people. Yet on Nov. 29, 2007, he couldn’t prove it.
In police cars on the way to Rockville and Baltimore, and again at the city jail, where he spent that Thursday night, he said he had never lived or worked in Baltimore and had only been to the city a few times — once to receive his citizenship and other times to eat at a Russian restaurant or visit the aquarium.
The next morning, Shapiro appeared before a judge for his bail review at the Wabash Avenue district court with his then-31-year-old son, Roman, as his advocate.
(Roman Shapiro had called Kupferberg, who has represented other Russian immigrants in the area, the night before, but Kupferberg couldn’t make it up to Baltimore that morning.)
Shapiro’s was the last case called. According to a recording of the proceeding, he immediately began speaking in a heavy accent. The judge hushed him. The prosecutor asked for his $10,000 bail to be raised to $50,000 for each set of offenses and that he be barred from teaching or any unsupervised conduct with children.
Roman Shapiro, a computer programmer, then spoke in his father’s defense.
“We’re Jews but we’re not religious,” the son said. “We don’t speak Hebrew.”
He pointed out that his family had never lived in Baltimore and hadn’t even arrived in the U.S. until 1993, five years after the older victim was abused.
He said the judge ought to look at immigration forms or his father’s Social Security number issue date, but the judge said she did not have access to such records. The judge, whose identity could not be determined from the audio recording, sounded concerned but was ultimately unmoved.
“These allegations are very serious, and I hear what you’re saying but I don’t know, in fact, that that’s so,” she said before doubling Shapiro’s bail and agreeing to the prosecutor’s recommendation about contact with kids.
Shapiro was released on bail late on the night of Nov. 30, a Friday, after his son put up his house as collateral.
Shortly after his arrest, Shapiro alleged, the police notified the JCC of the charges against him. The JCC passed the news to parents of his past and present students. His neighbors also heard.
Some called to support him but others’ silence disturbed Shapiro.
“The rumors started to spread like wildfire,” according to the psychiatrist’s report.
Guglielmi, the police spokesman, said such a call would have been made because the allegations were relevant to Yakov Shapiro’s occupation.
“That gives the employer notice for that organization to either suspend or launch their own investigation,” Guglielmi said. “Usually we try to make prompt notification because the interest there is to try to protect the safety of the public.”
Days later, when Shapiro went to the JCC to pick up some musical notations he needed for an orchestra rehearsal, he was stopped at the door.
“He felt his world come crashing down around him,” Fiester, the psychologist, wrote in her report. “He felt his life…had been ruined.”
Joel Lazar, music director and conductor of the JCC Symphony Orchestra (now the Symphony of the Potomac), remembers Shapiro didn’t play in their Dec. 2 concert that year. When the concertmaster returned to playing, “he came back to the orchestra in a pretty awful state,” Lazar said this week.
On Dec. 3, 2007 — the Monday after his release, according to Shapiro’s lawsuit — his family told police about the other “Y. Shapiro.” (Police have never said how they realized the mistake)
“I give them the real guy almost immediately,” Kupferberg said. “It wasn’t very difficult to find.”
The very next day, police arrested Yisroel Shapiro. On March 10, 2008, he entered an Alford plea to a child sexual abuse count and a third-degree sex offense count — the top two charges against him — and received a five-year suspended sentence and five years of supervised probation. He also was ordered to pay restitution and perform community service.
The day after Yisroel Shapiro’s arrest, a police lawyer notified Yakov Shapiro, by letter, that there had been an “identity error” and that he was no longer under investigation. On Dec. 7, 2007, the state’s attorney’s office dropped the charges.
Even then, it took several letters from Kupferberg and more than two months — until Feb. 15, 2008 — to remove the warrants for Yakov Shapiro’s arrest from the National Crime Information Center computer system. The record of his arrest has also been expunged.
He filed a claim for compensation by the Baltimore City Police Department. That April, the department denied all liability.
Shapiro filed suit that November, seeking $15 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages for false arrest, defamation and state and federal constitutional violations.
More than a year later, on Jan. 26, 2010, a settlement conference was held. No deal was reached at that point, and on Feb. 9, Kupferberg filed his expert reports with the court.
On Feb. 26, the parties came to terms. The proposed settlement came before the Baltimore Board of Estimates on March 20, when it was approved unanimously, though anonymously.
Two attorneys who weren’t connected to the case say that, under the circumstances, the city got a bargain.
While the city’s liability in state court under the Local Government Tort Claims Act is $200,000, Shapiro’s federal constitutional claims would not be capped, they noted.
“My instinct tells me that’s more than a $200,000 damage,” said Stephen H. Sachs, who was Maryland attorney general when Nilson was deputy A.G.
James Rhodes, who handled a wrongful arrest case that went to trial in 2007, agreed. His client, Cheryl Forrest, was mistakenly identified as a drug buyer on a police camera, spent a night in jail and was awarded $180,000 by a Baltimore city jury.
“What baffles me most now knowing all the facts of the case, I don’t know why the case settled as low as it did,” Rhodes said.
Kupferberg said it was up to his client when to settle.
“It was a wide disparity between what they were offering and what we were demanding. And they came up to that number and we decided to accept it,” he said of the January settlement conference. “There are a lot of factors that go into it. How disturbing the trial would be to Mr. Shapiro; and ultimately all decisions to settle are Shapiro’s, not mine.”
A qualified ‘fine’
According to the psychiatrist’s report, Shapiro is back to teaching and playing violin. None of his students abandoned him, according to the report. However, Shapiro no longer gives violin lessons at the JCC and only goes there twice a year for his students’ concerts, Kupferberg said.
“It became such a problem for him,” the lawyer said, adding that Shapiro was so embarrassed that he “really couldn’t show his face.” The JCC honored Shapiro’s contract, though, and “there’s no animosity there at all,” according to Kupferberg.
And he has returned as concertmaster at the Symphony of the Potomac, Lazar said.
But Kupferberg said his client still hasn’t recovered fully. He still keeps the clearance letter from the police department in his car at all times and brings a copy with him whenever he flies.
“It still haunts him and he handles it as best he can,” Kupferberg said. “So I say qualified ‘fine.’”
There had been no press accounts of the incident until this one.
“Nobody speaks about it, so you never know what people think,” he said.