A near-fatal shooting halted Rosh Hashanah services at a Florida synagogue last week, leaving one worshipper with three broken ribs and a collapsed lung and another in jail without bond.
Marc Benayer, 79, was arrested October 4 after allegedly shooting Jonathan Samuels, 44, outside the Chabad Weltman Synagogue in Boca Raton on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
News reports said that many congregants feared a terrorist attack after hearing gunshots. But in the end, according to police, the shooter turned out to be Benayer, a synagogue member and the jilted exboyfriend of fellow congregant Marta Pinto, 52.
Benayer was said to be enraged at Pinto’s employers, one of whom was Jonathan Samuels, for helping her obtain a restraining order against him as well as a legal agreement that forced him to sell his share of a jointly owned home.
Just moments after the shooting, as Benayer was taken into custody, he declared that his victim “is the mastermind, the engineer of my destruction,” according to the arrest report from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. Benayer allegedly added, “I did not want to kill him. I do not know what happened. I don’t know.”
Pinto, a native of Colombia who converted to Judaism many years ago, was also attending services October 4, along with her current boyfriend and her 15-year-old daughter. Uncomfortable with Benayer’s stares, the trio left just before the shooting, according to Teri Barbera, a spokesperson for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office.
At about 1:45 p.m., according to the arrest report, Benayer tapped Samuels on the shoulder and requested to speak with him. After the pair went outside, the report said, Benayer pulled out a gun and shot Samuels twice in the back as he attempted to flee back into the synagogue. Afterward Benayer shot into the temple, near a number of children gathered for day care. Fragments from a shattered window hit a 2-year-old.
Benayer fired several more shots and continued to threaten congregants until an acquaintance approached him. The person said, “My friend, don’t do this,” and forcefully took the gun, according to the arrest report.
Police were on the scene “within seconds” because they happened to be directing traffic from a nearby synagogue, according to Barbera. She added that the Chabad Weltman Synagogue had not requested any deputies.
As a result of the shooting, the synagogue decided to end services early.
Benayer has been charged with attempted first-degree murder, aggravated assault with a firearm and shooting into an occupied dwelling.
Mark Levy, Samuels’s life-long friend and business partner in the Pompano Beach-based Profab Electronics Samuels, said his friend is expected to make a full recovery. Both men emigrated from South Africa after the end of apartheid in 1994, out of fear of violence and instability in their home country.
Levy told the Forward there were numerous signs that Benayer was potentially threatening, including a hand-scrawled note sent to Levy’s house several weeks ago. It read: “Sooner or later, God is going to finish you. Put it in the bank.”
Levy described Pinto, his employee for five years, as a grieving widow looking for support. In turn he described Benayer as a man who seemed charming at first, only to later turn temperamental.
“Basically he is a smooth talker,” Levy said. “[Pinto’s] husband died of cancer about two years ago… and she was left destitute. He said he was rich and he’ll help her and he’ll buy her a house with a pool. But as soon as they moved into together, he became a miserable old man and she wanted to get away from him.”
Pinto successfully filed for a temporary restraining order in October 2004, but the following month Judge Gary Vonhof refused to make it permanent. “You haven’t even come… close to getting an injunction entered here,” the Palm Beach Post reported he told Pinto, according to a court transcript.
During the earlier proceedings, Pinto and her daughter Henriette filed affidavits painting Benayer as a man who was verbally abusive and controlling.
“I am too scared to get food or drink in the kitchen until my mother gets home hours later,” Henriette Pinto wrote, adding, “He told my one friend that she was a street girl and that she was fat and he would cut off her feet if she came back.” The girl’s statement concludes: “I fear for my life. I am also scared of the knife that he keeps in the bathroom.”
Pinto’s lawyer at the time, Vincent Schindeler, said that his client did not prevail because they did not have proof of actual violence or threats of violence. He added that a language barrier — Pinto is a native Spanish speaker — may have hampered her testimony.
“I had a problem speaking with her,” Schindeler told the Forward. “And when we went to court, you know, she didn’t necessarily understand the subtle nuances of how I was trying to lead her to respond to the questions.”
Levy said that after Pinto failed to obtain a permanent restraining order, he and his partners helped her secure a mortgage and buy out Benayer’s portion of their home. The process was completed this past May, after legal wrangling. Benayer moved into Century Village, a nearby retirement community.
Levy said that in recent months, Pinto had been stalked. Several of her supporters, including her employers and her new boyfriend, had received threatening letters. In May, someone put sugar in the gas tank of Pinto’s car.
Pinto was unable to spur intervention from the authorities despite filing a number of police reports, Levy said.
“You’ve got two issues that are bigger issues than what happened to her: You have to be physically harmed [to get a restraining order]… and stalking laws don’t exist [in Florida],” Levy said, adding that he hoped Samuel’s shooting would prompt politicians to change the law. “It’s a lesson that should be learned, and let’s hope something comes of this.”