An amateur sleuth armed with determination and intuition helped cops crack the murder of Leiby Kletzky by tracking his path to doom. Yaakov German isn’t a cop or a private detective. He’s a property manager and father of 12 with a reputation as a do-gooder.
By banging on doors and scrutinizing grainy video, he uncovered crucial clues that led cops to confessed killer Levi Aron.
“At the end of the day, he should be given the credit for the cracking of the case,” said Rabbi Jack Mayer of the NYPD’s Clergy Liaison Program.
His investigation into the disappearance of the 8-year-old boy was unofficial, but personal.
German, 47, lives on 45th St. in Borough Park. Leiby vanished Monday after leaving a yeshiva day camp one block away, on 44thSt. – but the connection wasn’t just geographic.
“I found out my son was his teacher and I was even more motivated,” German said.
He heard Leiby was missing late Monday, and a few hours later – with the help of son Avrumy, 25, and the principal of Yeshiva Boyan – he had access to school security video.
The cameras captured Leiby leaving the lunchroom with a shopping bag over his shoulder and a knapsack on his back.
Because local businesses were closed, German couldn’t track him outside – so he spent the wee hours with neighbors shouting for Leiby on 13th Ave.
Searchers assumed Leiby turned in that direction because he was supposed to meet his parents on 13th Ave. and 50th St. on the first day he was allowed to walk home alone.
“I had a feeling I was going to bring him back alive,” German said. “I told my son, ‘Go to sleep; tomorrow morning I’ll have him alive.’”
‘Come down – I see kids’
It didn’t happen, so when the shops opened Tuesday morning,German was there, demanding to see security footage.
He took along his son, who’d been Leiby’s teacher all year, to help identify the boy’s image.
The search began at The Children’s Place on 44th St. and 13thAve., where a worker was reluctant to let them view the video.
“I cried to the worker,” German said. “He said he can’t let us down to the basement for security reasons, and there were customers and he can’t leave the store alone.”
German persuaded the employee to at least go downstairs and look himself.
“All of sudden, he broke,” he said. “He said, ‘You know, come down – I see kids.’”
His heart racing, he scrutinized the fuzzy footage. “First, two kids went by together with knapsacks,” he said. “Then a single kid, then again two kids, then a single kid. Then I watched another 10 minutes and no kids went through with knapsacks.”
He and his son watched over and over, but realized Leiby wasn’t on the video.
“That’s how I finalized he didn’t take a right on 13th Ave. like everyone thought,” he said.
He figured the boy had missed his turn. “I went down 44th St. searching for cameras,” German said. “There were two homes with cameras, but they weren’t working.”
A block later, at Variety Corner at 44th St. and 14th Ave., he hit pay dirt. Two cameras showed the boy passing by about 5:15 p.m.
German called the boy’s father.
“I called him when I saw [Leiby] on the first camera, to make him a drop happy,” he said.
At the next corner, 44th St. and 15th Ave., he found his clearest images yet, at Shomrin Locksmith.
“We had a a clear shot of his face,” German said.
The only camera on the next block was on a resident’s garage, but it was corrupted and unwatchable.
But Yeshiva Beth Hillel of Krasna, just past 16th Ave. on 44thSt., had footage of the whole block. “I called up the principal, went through their footage,” German said. “I saw the kid walking by all the way to 17th Ave.”
When 44th St. dead-ended at Dahill Road, the trail seemed to go cold again.
A video store had footage that showed only sidewalks on one side of the street. Benchers Unlimited had footage of both sidewalks but no sign of the boy.
Then German spotted newly installed cameras at a car-leasing company, Tristate Fleet. That’s when they spotted Aron, the man who would be later identified as Leiby’s killer.
“We found the kid,” German said. “We saw somebody going with him and back forth. We watched it in slow motion.
”We saw the perp going across the avenue, going into a white house, up three steps, going in for three minutes and coming back out. We went by and saw it was a dentist’s office.“
All this time, German was feeding information to Mayer, the liaison to the NYPD, and he was sharing it with detectives.
At about 5:30 p.m., cops arrived at Tristate. ”They came in here, screeching tires,“ said owner Yehuda Bernstein, 40.
Police commandeered the car leasing office. Scores of detectives and top brass watched the video over and over searching for additional clues.
”What am I looking at here?“ NYPD Chief Joseph Fox asked as he squinted at the small screen in the corner of the room.
A detective in front of the monitor pointed out the video seemed to show the boy wandering and then getting into a car.
Bernstein said he was happy the video captured from his office played a key role in helping the police.
”I was glad to help,“ Bernstein said Thursday.
Cops, who confirmed German’s account, tracked down the dentist at home. They learned that Aron was the only patient who had been in and out quickly – to pay a bill – and they got his address.
Soon after, they swarmed Aron’s house on E. Second St., where they found Leiby’s severed feet in the freezer, 2 miles from where the rest of his body would be found in a Dumpster.
German, who shopped at the hardware store where Aron was a clerk, was outside the house when cops made the arrest early Wednesday.
”I never saw a detective with tears before in my life,“ he said. ”They said, ‘They don’t have the whole body.’ We all started crying.“
German says he felt like he had no choice but to help. ”You got to do what you got to do,“ he said.
Still, he’s crushed by the grisly outcome of his old-fashioned pavement-pounding.
”I just can’t stand to see something like this happening in our community,” he said.
AMATEUR SLEUTH’S CLUES
– Yaakov German views security footage from Yeshiva Boyan showing Leiby Kletzky leaving the school about 4:50 p.m. wearing a striped shirt and carrying a knapsack.
– Leiby is nowhere to be found on security footage from The Children’s Place on 13th Ave., so German determines the kid missed his turn onto 13th Ave.
– German determines Leiby kept going straight on 44th St. after spotting him on security footage from a hardware store and another school.
– German finds that security footage from Tristate Fleet, a car dealership at the end of 44th St., shows Leiby and suspect Levi Aron together, and shows Aron going in and out of the dentist’s office.
– Cops get the dentist office to give them Aron’s name and address.