When Orthodox real estate developer Solomon Obstfeld was found dead on the second story roof of a Manhattan hotel in June, the official finding of suicide met with widespread skepticism among his friends.
Press reports at the time noted Obstfeld’s connection to a contentious dispute over a Brooklyn condo development, and to a business partner accused of bribing top Israeli politicians. Obstfeld, 55, had also recently fought with Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, a prominent New York-based Sephardic Kabbalist, over a rental arrangement that went sour.
But now, a private investigator looking into his death is reporting that it was neither suicide nor homicide, but simply an accident.
“We believe, through our investigation and everything we’ve been able to determine, that he accidentally fell,” said Tom Ruskin, president of the CMP Protective and Investigative Group, which was hired to examine the case.
Ruskin would not reveal who had hired his firm, leaving lingering questions about his employer’s possible agenda. But according to Sol Mayer, a close family friend, Ruskin was not hired by Obstfeld’s family. Mayer also said that Obstfeld had no life insurance policy, so there was no financial incentive on the part of the family to prove that the death had not been a suicide.
After the city medical examiner ruled his death a suicide, friends asked how the developer, who was not particularly fit, had vaulted over the high wall of the 19th story terrace from which he had apparently plunged. And associates said that he had not seemed depressed prior to the incident.
Earlier in the case, Ruskin noted that, along with his successes, Obstfeld “had some business deals that didn’t do so well.…We’re looking at each one, and the relationships that he had through each of those business deals.”
Now Ruskin says that none of those relationships played a part in Obstfeld’s death. Instead, Ruskin says that Obstfeld simply tripped — but from a different floor than the investigators originally believed.
Mayer, the longtime Obstfeld family friend, said that the New York Police Department had also told the family that the death was believed to be an accident, and not a suicide. But a spokeswoman for the department said that there is currently no open investigation into the incident, and a spokeswoman for the Office of Chief Medical Examiner said that the death was still officially ruled a suicide.
Obstfeld owned multiple apartments in the Jumeirah Essex House, a luxury hotel on Central Park South, including one on the 19th floor, from which he was originally thought to have fallen, and one on the 32nd floor. The upper apartment had been leased by Obstfeld to Rabbi Pinto at below-market rates before their relationship frayed. It was undergoing renovation at the time of Obstfeld’s death, according to Mayer.
Ruskin said that videos recovered from the hotel show that Obstfeld had been in the 32nd floor apartment, and not the 19th floor apartment, immediately before his death.
“He was known to look out the window in the late afternoon and gain his thoughts that way,” said Ruskin. “No one else is seen in any type of time proximity coming or leaving the area of that apartment.”
Unlike the high wall of the 19th story terrace, the 32nd story window opens almost all the way to the floor. Ruskin said that Obstfeld appeared to have fallen forward through the open window, and had tried unsuccessfully to stop himself.
“We know he fell out the window at approximately 6:37,” Ruskin said. “He was killed instantaneously in the fall, I believe.”
“The man had everything to live for,” Mayer said. If it was a suicide, he continued, “Something would have come out — a bad business deal, a blackmail, something; and homicide, the same thing. The police would have found something.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.