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Man charged in extortion of Sharon rabbi

Temple leader allegedly paid $480,000

After a yearlong investigation, a 30-year-old Quincy man has been indicted on charges of extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from a prominent Sharon rabbi, the Norfolk district attorney’s office said.

Nicholas Zemeitus, formerly of Milton, was arrested Monday afternoon for allegedly extorting the money from Rabbi Barry Starr of Temple Israel of Sharon.

Zemeitus faces seven counts of larceny over $250; two counts of receiving stolen property valued over $250, one count of larceny under $250, and one count of extortion, prosecutors said.

It was unclear who was representing Zemeitus, and he could not be reached.

Court documents released last May asserted that Starr paid Zemeitus as much as $480,000 in exchange for his silence after Zemeitus threatened to make public the rabbi’s alleged sexual relationship with a teenage boy.

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Norfolk County district attorney’s spokesman David Traub said he had no comment on Starr.

Thomas Hoopes, a Boston attorney who has represented Starr, did not return calls.

Arnie Freedman, the temple’s president, also did not return calls.

Starr, who developed a national reputation as a leader in Conservative Judaism in his 28 years as rabbi of Temple Israel, allegedly transferred money from the rabbi’s discretionary fund to Zemeitus.

Starr also allegedly sought and received tens of thousands of dollars from longtime congregants and used that money to keep Zemeitus quiet, according to court documents.

Many of those congregants revered the rabbi and thought of him as family, including an elderly Holocaust survivor who is now suing his former spiritual leader.

Among those approached by Starr for money was Freedman. The rabbi told Freedman he was in trouble and needed to borrow $50,000, according to the documents.

Freedman had pressed the rabbi for more details about why he needed the money. “Starr told Freedman that he [Starr] got involved in a romantic relationship with a younger man, whom he [Starr] met online and that the man’s older brother was now extorting money from him,” Scott Leonard, a detective in the Sharon Police Department, wrote in a statement to the court. “Starr said the man was threatening to make details of the romantic relationship public.”

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In a conversation he had with Detective Leonard and State Police Lieutenant David McSweeney, Zemeitus said he met the rabbi on Craigslist, a website known for enabling casual sexual encounters, according to the court documents. After exchanging e-mails, the two met at Starr’s home in Sharon, where he lived with his wife and two children.

Zemeitus told investigators he thought he was going to meet a 55-year-old woman and became upset when he arrived at the rabbi’s home and found a bearded man in his 60s.

“Zemeitus told us that he got angry as Starr lied about his true gender and appearance,” Leonard wrote. “Zemeitus told Starr that he was going to inform Starr’s wife about the meeting and that he would be outed.”

In response, the rabbi offered to pay Zemeitus $100 to keep the meeting quiet, Leonard wrote in his report.

It was not clear from the documents how the seemingly chance meeting supported Zemeitus’s story that he was acting on behalf of his younger brother. It remained unclear whether Zemeitus is in fact the teenager’s brother.

Zemeitus told investigators he met Starr several times, including at Temple Israel, and that the money was exchanged to buy his silence. He told police he estimated receiving $200,000 from the rabbi; Starr told Freedman he paid Zemeitus an estimated $480,000.

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Last year, Zemeitus said, Starr gave him eight checks belonging to the temple or the rabbi’s discretionary fund, which is often used to help congregants in need, and told Zemeitus to change the dollar amounts and deposit them into his bank account.

“Starr told him that the checks came from people from within the temple who were elderly or people who would not know that the check denominations were altered,” Leonard wrote.

Zemeitus allegedly added two zeros to the end of an $18 check — a spiritual number in Judaism that represents life or good luck — written by a congregant, according to court documents. Another $18 check left in the temple’s donation box by a woman was also altered and cashed, made to look as if it had been written for $1,800, as well, Leonard said.

Zemeitus also used one of the women’s checking account numbers to pay several bills, including $148.54 to T-Mobile, $540.63 to Progressive Direct Insurance, and $537.32 to NStar, Leonard wrote.

Starr was also accused of failing to repay a $50,000 loan he received from Morris Kesselman, an 87-year-old congregant who secured a lien on the rabbi’s home.

Zemeitus is expected to be arraigned at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Norfolk Superior Court.


David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.