- Associated Press - Thursday, February 19, 2015

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - When two undercover agents called posing as a brother and sister looking to obtain a divorce from the sister’s unwilling husband, a New York rabbi told them that New Jersey Rabbi Mendel Epstein was a “hired hand” who could be “very helpful” to them.

Epstein “is a hired hand,” Rabbi Martin Wolmark is heard telling the agents in 2013. “Mendel Epstein’s not a bad guy, he’s a good guy. … He’ll be very helpful.”

Prosecutors played those recordings on Thursday, the second day of trial for Epstein and his three co-defendants: son David Epstein, Jay Goldstein and Binyamin Stimler.

Mendel Epstein is accused of employing a kidnap team to force unwilling Jewish husbands to divorce their wives. The defendants face charges including conspiracy to commit kidnapping and attempted kidnapping stemming from a staged kidnapping in 2013 and three other forced divorces.

Defense attorney Robert Stahl has called Mendel Epstein an advocate for women. He doesn’t dispute that “some laws may have been broken along the way,” but said those didn’t include kidnapping.

The female FBI agent, who worked under the alias Rachel Marconi during the operation, took the stand Thursday and said she got in touch with Mendel Epstein through Wolmark, who said she needed “special rabbis” to get the job done.

Wolmark, who was indicted along with Mendel Epstein, pleaded guilty last month.

The two agents told Wolmark that the sister’s husband in Argentina wouldn’t divorce her, even after they were “shaken down” for more than $20,000. Wolmark warns the agents that it could be a costly process and recommends Mendel Epstein, according to the recording.

“You need to get him (the husband) to New York to harass him or nail him - plain and simple,” Wolmark is heard telling the agents.

The Associated Press is not making the agent at the request of the U.S. attorney’s office, which requested anonymity to preserve the integrity of her undercover operations.

The agent said she and her partner called Mendel Epstein later that day and told him they were desperate to get the divorce.

“I don’t think this is a phone conversation, am I correct?” Mendel Epstein is heard telling the agents as he agrees to meet with them at his Lakewood home to discuss “some strategic planning, you know, to use a nice word.”

The agent said they met at Epstein’s house on Aug. 14, 2013, and discussed “how he was going to be able to force” the divorce.

Earlier Thursday, prosecutors called on Rabbi Jacob Goldstein - not related to the defendant Jay Goldstein - as an expert witness, who said Jewish law allows for nonviolent force to be used against husbands who don’t want to give divorces.

“In this time and age, violence shouldn’t be used,” Jacob Goldstein said. During cross-examination, he acknowledged that “perhaps” some rabbis still use brutal means to secure a divorce.

Goldstein said people must abide by the Jewish principle that the law of the land is the law.

“We have religious laws. In the case of a just government … like the United States, the laws of the land are the ones we must follow,” Goldstein said.

Prosecutors are expected to play video recordings made by the agents next week.

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