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Press Release

Senior Leaders Of Lev Tahor Sect Sentenced To 14 And 12 Years In Prison For Kidnapping And Sex Trafficking Crimes

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of New York
Three Weingarten Brothers Orchestrated a Scheme to Kidnap a 14-Year-Old Girl to Return Her to a Child Marriage

Damian Williams, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that YAKOV WEINGARTEN, SHMIEL WEINGARTEN, and YOIL WEINGARTEN were sentenced yesterday to 14 years, 14 years, and 12 years in prison, respectively, for child sexual exploitation and kidnapping offenses.  The defendants, leaders of an extremist religious sect called Lev Tahor, masterminded a scheme to kidnap a 14-year-old girl (“Minor-1”) and a 12-year-old boy (“Minor-2”) from their mother in Woodridge, New York.  The defendants then smuggled the children across the U.S. border to Mexico, where they reunited Minor-1 with her adult “husband” to allow him to continue his illegal sexual relationship with Minor-1.  The defendants were convicted in March 2024 following a five-week jury trial before U.S. District Judge Nelson S. Román. 

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said: “The sentencing of the Weingarten brothers holds them accountable for kidnapping children from their mother in the middle of the night, including for the purpose of coercing a child into a sexual relationship with an adult.  This Office will do everything in its power to protect children and use every available tool to investigate and prosecute those who sexually exploit them.”

 According to the allegations contained in the Superseding Indictment, other court filings, and the evidence presented at trial:

The WEINGARTEN brothers—YAKOV, SHMIEL, and YOIL—are U.S. citizens and senior leaders of Lev Tahor, an extremist religious sect that has been located in several different jurisdictions, including New York, Israel, Canada, Mexico, and Guatemala.  Lev Tahor leaders, including the WEINGARTENs, embraced several extreme practices, including forced family separations, child marriages, and underage sex.

In or about 2017, Lev Tahor leaders arranged for a 12-year-old girl, Minor-1, to be “married” to a then-18-year-old man.  Though they were never legally married, they were religiously “married” the following year, when Minor-1 was 13 and her “husband” was 19.  Lev Tahor leadership, including the WEINGARTENs, required young brides such as Minor-1 to have sex with their husbands, to tell people outside Lev Tahor that they were not married, and to lie about their ages.  For example, Lev Tahor leaders instructed child brides to deliver babies inside their homes instead of at a hospital to conceal the mothers’ young ages from outsiders.

In or about October 2018, the mother of Minor-1 determined that it was no longer safe for her children to remain in the Lev Tahor community, which was then living in Guatemala.  The mother escaped from the group’s compound, arrived in the U.S. in early November 2018, and was eventually joined by all six of her children, including Minor-1.  Also in November 2018, a Brooklyn family court granted her sole custody of the children and prohibited the children’s father, a leader within Lev Tahor, from communicating with the children.

After the mother fled and settled in New York with her children, the WEINGARTENs and their co-conspirators devised a plan to kidnap Minor-1, then 14 years old, to return her to Guatemala and to her then-20-year-old “husband.”  In December 2018, they kidnapped Minor-1 and her brother in the middle of the night from a home in upstate New York and transported them through various states and, eventually, to Mexico.  In order to carry out the kidnapping, the defendants used disguises, aliases, drop phones, fake travel documents, and an encrypted application.  At the time of the kidnapping, Lev Tahor leaders were seeking asylum for the entire Lev Tahor community in the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Following a three-week search involving hundreds of local, federal, and international law enforcement entities, Minor-1 and Minor-2 were recovered in Mexico and returned to New York.  In or about March 2019 and March 2021, members of Lev Tahor again tried to kidnap the children but were unsuccessful.

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In addition to the prison terms, YAKOV WEINGARTEN, 34, SHMIEL WEINGARTEN, 28, and YOIL WEINGARTEN, 36, each of Guatemala, were sentenced to five years of supervised release.

Mr. Williams praised the outstanding work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the New York State Police, the Sullivan County District Attorney’s Office, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Rockland County Sheriff’s Department, the Village of Spring Valley Police Department, Special Agents with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, the Department of State, the Transportation Security Administration, and our law enforcement partners in Mexico, Guatemala, Canada, and Israel.

This case is being handled by the Office’s White Plains Division.  Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sam Adelsberg, Jamie Bagliebter, and Jim Ligtenberg, and paralegal specialist Shannon Becker, are in charge of the prosecution. 


Nicholas Biase, Lauren Scarff, Shelby Wratchford
(212) 637-2600

Updated July 10, 2024

Human Smuggling
Press Release Number: 24-241