DEDHAM — A Sharon rabbi begged, borrowed, and stole nearly $500,000 from his temple and its congregants to buy the silence of a man now charged with blackmailing the spiritual leader, according to court documents unsealed Tuesday.
Barry Starr, whose abrupt resignation from Temple Israel in Sharon last year stunned its tight-knit congregation, allegedly paid off Quincy resident Nicholas Zemeitus with cash, checks, and banking information over the course of a shakedown lasting several years. Zemeitus had allegedly threatened to go public with allegations that the rabbi had engaged in a sexual relationship with a teenage boy.
Both men now face charges, indicted by a grand jury on May 7 following a yearlong investigation into the bizarre intersection of their disparate lives.
Starr, 65, rose to prominence as a leader in Conservative Judaism during his decades at Temple Israel. Zemeitus, 30, was living in a squalid home without running water when police first caught wind of his alleged extortion plot last May.
Zemeitus pleaded not guilty Tuesday in Norfolk Superior Court in Dedham, and is being held without bail until a hearing on Thursday. He faces seven counts of larceny over $250, two counts of receiving stolen property over $250, one count of larceny under $250, and one count of extortion, according to the office of Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey.
Prosecutors said the suspect’s girlfriend, Alexa Anderson, will be arraigned on similar charges later this week, but will not be charged with extortion.
Starr’s indictment, unsealed Tuesday, charges him with one count of embezzlement by a fiduciary and one count of larceny over $250. He was not in court Tuesday, and will be summoned for an arraignment.
Starr now lives outside Massachusetts, said Arnie Freedman, president of the congregation. He said Starr has no contact with his former synagogue, and a new senior rabbi, Ron Fish, will take over at Temple Israel on July 1.
“This has been a beloved and respected rabbi for 28 years, and to learn of this news, it’s heartbreaking,” Freedman said Tuesday. “This was a religious and spiritual leader. That’s why this is traumatic.”
In court documents unsealed Tuesday, Zemeitus described the initial encounter between the two men in late 2011 as the product of his attempts to find an older woman with whom to have sex.
Zemeitus told police he responded to a post online that included a photo of a woman from the neck down. But when he arrived at the address he was given, he found a bearded man in his 60s wearing women’s clothes.
After Zemeitus got upset about the bait and switch, he told police, Starr offered him $100 to keep quiet about it.
Soon, prosecutors say, Zemeitus e-mailed Starr a lengthy, anonymous blackmail note. The December 2011 e-mail accused Starr of concealing a sexual relationship with the writer’s underage brother, and offered one chance to make the whole thing go away.
“If I do not hear back from you ASAP I will begin by making a call to your wife,” the e-mail threatened.
Starr wrote back a few hours later:
“I have never knowingly corresponded to any young boys under 18,” he wrote, “but if that happened it was not my intention. Tell me what I can do?”
No evidence that Starr had a relationship with a teenage boy has been uncovered, according to court documents made available Tuesday, and police say Zemeitus does not have a younger brother. But a search of Starr’s computer showed he posted frequently to Craigslist in search of transsexual escorts.
In the months that followed, prosecutors say, the rabbi paid Zemeitus as much as $480,000 in exchange for his silence.
To cobble together the blackmail payments, Starr allegedly transferred money from the rabbi’s discretionary fund and sought and received tens of thousands of dollars from longtime congregants.
He also allegedly turned over to Zemeitus checks that were written to the temple for $18 — a spiritual number in Judaism that represents life or good luck — but that were forged into $1,800 payments. Congregants’ bank information was used to make deposits and payments to an account that belonged to Zemeitus and Alexander, prosecutors allege.
Freedman said he is not sure how many members of the congregation loaned money to Starr, but he believes it was fewer than 10. Some drew up promissory notes, he said.
“They loved him and cared about him and probably didn’t ask questions,” Freedman said.
One of the congregants who loaned Starr money, Morris Kesselman, secured a $55,000 lien on the rabbi’s home. Starr’s residence in Sharon was sold last August for $635,000 and the lien was satisfied, according to records filed with the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds.
The synagogue, Freedman said, did not track the rabbi’s discretionary fund, in order to maintain the privacy and confidentiality of congregation members who received assistance from it.
Starr did not have access to the account used to pay for the temple’s operating expenses, and after the extortion allegations surfaced, the congregation changed the way it manages the rabbi’s discretionary account to provide more oversight and transparency, Freedman said.
“It’s still very important for clergy to have a discretionary account,” he said. “We just don’t want to take it away. We just want to make sure that this can’t happen again.”
Court documents released last year show Freedman was also among those Starr approached for money — $50,000, according to the documents — but the rabbi came clean about an extramarital affair after Freedman pressed for details.
Soon, Starr resigned, acknowledging his infidelity in a letter to the congregation last May.
Attempts to reach Starr on Tuesday failed, and a lawyer who had previously represented Starr said he was no longer handling the case.
On LinkedIn, Starr lists no current employer.
“I am exploring new challenges in my work life where I can leverage my skills and talents,” Starr wrote.
In 28 years at Temple Israel, he wrote, he guided the institution’s vision, “both fiscally and organizationally.”