Categorized | Crime

Surviving One Horror, But Not Another

Jacob Gerstle’s odyssey ended in Washington Heights

By Leah Binkovitz

On the day he was beaten so badly that he died days later, Jacob Gerstle went to morning services, attended a lecture at his synagogue and called his wife to ask if she wanted him to pick her up so they could go to lunch together. She was too tired, she said, go ahead and put the car in the garage. These were not the last words Lore Gerstle said to her husband on May 2, 2006. A short time later, she saw him on the floor of the elevator of their Washington Heights apartment, lying in his own blood. He was found on the second floor. Three more floors and he would have been home.

“The worst part was that I couldn’t say goodbye to him,” Lore Gerstle said of her husband’s death. “I said what happened and he said, ‘I don’t know,’ and that’s the end and that’s what bothers me most.” The Gerstles met in a butcher shop in New York City. She was picking up an order and he was helping out at his cousin’s store. It wasn’t love at first sight, she said in a phone interview, but it certainly became love. Married when she was 22 in 1948, the couple was together for nearly 60 years. Though their families knew of each other back in Germany, the two never met until they were both in New York City.

The synagogue where Jacob Gerstle worshipped on the street where he lived.

Marrying Jacob Gerstle and living on Bennett Avenue meant a return to something familiar for Lore Gerstle. She was four and alone when she boarded a train headed for England. She was one of thousands of German-Jewish children rescued through the British-organized Kindertransport program before the start of World War II. In England, she said, she forgot most of her German and when she was finally able to reunite with her parents in New York City, it was dangerous to speak German in public. German was all Jacob Gerstle’s father spoke. Becoming part of Jacob’s life brought her closer to the life she once lived thousands of miles away, she said.

For four or five blocks along Bennett Avenue, it is easy to forget where you are. Ambulances with Hebrew markings wait outside the synagogue. Bearded men with the black coats and hats of past generations amble down the sidewalks. A pair of pink-sequined shoes catch the sunlight as a row of young girls with long skirts skip across the street to the schoolyard. The community has strong roots in Germany and Frankfurt in particular where Jacob Gerstle lived. “The whole community more or less stuck together,” said Lore Gerstle about the relocation of those who escaped. Jacob Gerstle never missed a service at his synagogue, K’hal Adath Jeshurun.  It was important to him, his wife said, that his children be raised Orthodox like they both were growing up.

The couple had four children, 18 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren keeping them busy. Lore Gerstle remembers the early years were hard, “like they are for people with children today because of finances, but we had a wonderful family life.” Jacob Gerstle worked six days a week at a lamp store on Long Island to provide for his family. It wasn’t until retirement that Lore Gerstle was able to travel with her husband. The two returned to Germany a few years before his death and Mrs. Gerstle said the trip rekindled some bad experiences, recalling how her brothers and sisters got on the train headed for England. “I remember vividly my parents putting us on the train, you stand there and you remember standing there and that really was sad.”

Retirement also meant more time for family and charity. The weekend before his death, family members gathered in Washington Heights to celebrate Lore Gerstle’s 80th birthday. It was not just his family that had fond memories of Jacob Gerstle; from neighbors to his building supervisor and rabbis across the city, many remembered his countless acts of kindness.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Bruce Allen received nearly 50 letters, including one that had 80 signatures, stating exactly how much the community had lost when Jacob Gerstle died. Allen had to decide what sentence to hand down to William Hill, convicted of the robbery and murder of Jacob Gerstle. On March 1, 2010, more than four years after Jacob Gerstle was killed, Allen sentenced Hill to 25 years to life. The jury found Hill guilty of following Gerstle into his apartment building on May 2, 2006 and onto the elevator where he beat Gerstle until he was nearly unconscious and robbed him. Gerstle died days later from head trauma, turning a first degree robbery into a second degree murder.

Jacob Gerstle's apartment building on Bennett Avenue.

In his statement to police, which he later said was coerced, Hill explained he left the homeless shelter where he had been staying on Ward’s Island and “decided I was going to go out and catch a jux. That means to rob somebody.” Hill left his old South Bronx neighborhood in Highbridge at W. 168th St. and walked to Washington Heights. Eighteen blocks further North, Hill continued in his statement, “As I walked on that street coming down the hill, I saw the man. I figured he would be going into a building and he might have some money because he looked clean and well dressed.”

According to court documents, Hill denied being the person in the security video from Gerstle’s apartment building showing a large, black man following Gerstle into his apartment lobby. In the video, released to the media, the man hesitates and then follows Gerstle to the elevator. The two even appear to be talking to each other, about what no one could tell. In his police statement, Hill said they got on the elevator together and at the first stop, “I started to walk out like I was going to get off. When I was by the door I turned around.” Hill, at 6’ 5’’, was more than a foot taller than Gerstle, Hill said he hit Gerstle once with a closed fist. Gerstle fell to the floor where Hill searched through his pockets. With Gerstle’s cellphone and around $300, according to the police statement, Hill fled.

Moments later, Gerstle was discovered by his neighbor Albert Neely who ran to get help and found Ramona Rodriguez entering the building. The two climbed the stairs to the second floor accompanied by another first floor neighbor, Elielce Yoesoep. According to Yoesoep’s court testimony, Neely was trying to talk with Jacob Gerstle. Rodriguez continued up the stairs to the Gerstles’ apartment. Lore Gerstle came down in time to see the EMT arrive and help Jacob Gerstle to the ambulance. That is when the couple exchanged their last words.

Three days later on May 5, 2006, after being put into a medically-induced coma and having holes drilled into his skull to reduce the swelling in his brain, Jacob Gerstle died. The seven-day mourning period known as shiva began and Lore Gerstle said goodbye to her husband.

During those three days Gerstle was in the hospital, Hill slept all over the city—a night at Ward’s Island, a night in St. Nicholas Park and another on the roof of 19 Hamilton Place in West Harlem just blocks from where he lived until he was five, according to his police statement. Hill, the youngest of four siblings, was the only one to end up homeless. In a legal brief written by Sentencing Advocate Beth Kaboski from the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, Kaboski explained that Hill never knew his father and when his mother died in 2000 from cancer when he was only 18, things began to go downhill for Hill.

“It was hard for me to guide him as a sibling and it was difficult for us to bond together because of our ten years difference” in age, his brother Dennis Sheppard said in Kaboski’s brief.

It was after his mother’s death that Hill was first arrested and convicted of disorderly conduct in 2001. About a year later he was arrested again for attempted robbery in the second degree, serving a 20-month sentence. Released in March 2004, Hill made an effort to change. “He moved in with his brother and began working two jobs, one for a construction company and one for a security agency,” wrote Kaboski. In the fall of 2004, he enrolled at the College of New Rochelle and began working toward his GED.

But Hill never got his GED. Instead, the responsibilities proved too much and Hill left after two semesters. His highest grade was a B- in a course titled Translating Experience into Essays, according to his transcripts. Sheppard and Hill’s relationship suffered. Kaboski wrote, “Looking back on that period of time, William admits he knew it was a matter of time before he failed again.”

Before long, Hill was back in prison after a parole violation. Released in March 2006, Hill began staying at the Ward’s Island homeless shelter nestled below the Bronx in the East River, notorious for its isolation. Kaboski wrote, the cost of getting into the city for job interviews made it nearly impossible for Hill and others there to find employment. When Hill was arrested again on the afternoon of May 12, 2006 for the murder of Jacob Gerstle, he had been trying to find work. “He didn’t give it enough time,” said his brother in the brief. “I do know that he never intended to kill the victim, it just happened. I know William and he’s not a killer…I love my brother so much.”

Hill’s first trial in 2008 resulted in a hung jury and some two years later Lore Gerstle had to endure a second trial.

Both Lore Gerstle and Hill found the trial difficult. Gerstle sat in the crowd for the whole trial, joined by her daughter. “That was rough,” Gerstle said of listening to the testimony, “not only that but it dragged out so long.” Referring to Hill, she simply said, “the guy didn’t say any truth.” She still remembered when Nazarine Griffin took the stand. Griffin ran the work placement program Ready, Willing and Able that Hill used as his alibi when he was called to the witness stand. The prosecution walked the jury through the complicated check-in process at the program that required urine samples and a database of all visits, according to court documents. And was Hill there on May 2, 2006, asked the prosecution. No, answered Griffin. “That was unreal, once that was out,” said Gerstle.

Hill still maintained his innocence. As Assistant District Attorney David Hammer presented the prosecution’s closing argument placing Hill at Gerstle’s apartment building, Hill couldn’t help himself. “He is telling a bunch of lies,” Hill interrupted. “I was not there, man,” insisted Hill.

“Every time I approach my seat in the synagogue, I pass and stare shocked at the empty seat that used to be his,” wrote Norbert Hellmann, Jacob Gerstle’s neighbor, in a letter to the judge cited in the court documents. According to Lore Gerstle, her husband never missed a service. Most of the letters to Judge Allen talked about the food pantry he ran, the fund he created to send kids to summer camp or his service on the funeral society helping families through their worst moments. But many also had private stories of kindness.

“Charity was his life,” said his wife. He greeted people with a humbling, “how can I help you?” Ezra Lasdun, another neighbor, wrote in a letter to the judge, “When I was still a student, married with small children struggling to pay my bills, Mr. Gerstle approached me and made me feel as if I was doing him a favor by taking advantage of his food pantry.” The supervisor of his building, Juan Carlo Meyia, said it didn’t matter to Gerstle if someone was Jewish or not, “he didn’t care whether white or black.” Daniel Levi, another neighbor across the block, called Gerstle his mentor and a friend “despite our age difference” of over 40 years. Samuel and Rivka Bodenheim remembered he always gave his phone number when he went away on a trip, in case anyone needed his help.

And they often did. When Yitty Nussbaum, a neighbor, had a miscarriage, he helped her through it. “In fact,” she wrote in her letter to the judge, “when expecting our next child, Mrs. Lore Gerstle was in tears telling me how happy ‘Jack’ would have been to know we were going to be parents.” Everyone agreed, Jack, as he was known to his friends, would not be forgotten. The name on Lore Gerstle’s bright red door still reads “J. Gerstle.”

In the South Bronx meanwhile, Dennis Sheppard waits for his little brother to get out of prison. As the trial ended, the judge asked Hill if he had any final statements to make, according to court documents. He said only, “At this point, I am not going to say anything. I am just going to try and deal with the circumstances of what happened.”

When he delivered Hill’s sentence, Allen said, “Younger inmates will look up to you, that’s the crazy way this world works, and maybe once you have come to accept responsibility here you can turn to one of those younger inmates and tell them that that is not the way to go.” Nineteen at his first arrest, Hill was 28 when Allen sent him back to prison. In a letter in December 2010 from the Upstate Correctional Facility, Hill wrote in tidy cursive script asking for a book on freemasonry and saying only, “I’m innocent. Not that I’m not guilty but that I’m truly innocent.” His has appealed his conviction.

Naomi Sandel wrote her own letter to Justice Bruce Allen. Hill left her without her father Jacob to provide guidance. “I will never know whether he was really proud of who I have become or not. Was he proud of the choices I have made in life?” Sandel wrote. She continued, “Thankfully we have our faith to help carry us through all this, but not having the chance to say goodbye, not being able to say one last time, I LOVE YOU, and even worse, not hearing those words spoken by him to me, that he loved me, has been devastating.”

Hill has turned to faith as well. During his trial he insisted on taking Fridays off to observe the Muslim prayers. In his sentencing, Allen said he hoped Hill could find the inspiration to lead a better life through his religion.

Lore Gerstle and her family, nestled in an Orthodox community that will never forget her husband Jack, relied on religion to rebuild their lives too. It helped Gerstle feel comfortable in a foreign land, find a home and raise her family. In the Jewish tradition, the Mouner’s Kaddish is the prayer recited to remember the deceased. Said slowly, without chanting, the Kaddish is read in Hebrew. It ends, “He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace, upon us and upon all Israel. Amen”

Lore Gerstle remembered watching the video of the security footage saying, “He opened the door for the guy and he held the door for the guy…and they had a conversation, that was my husband he talked to anybody.”

She added that, knowing her husband, he probably would have invited Hill up to have lunch with them.

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