Crime & Justice

Synagogue blast suspect charged in California, Ohio

Image from a Denver Greyhound security camera of synagogue explosion suspect Ron Hirsch.
Image from a Denver Greyhound security camera of synagogue explosion suspect Ron Hirsch.
Denver Greyhound

The man in a blue jacket and jeans attracted little attention when he entered a Hebrew prayer room outside Cleveland, far from the California city where authorities suspect he assembled an explosive device that damaged a synagogue and nearby house.

Updated at 1:13 p.m. | Permalink

In Ron Hirsch's first appearance in U.S. District Court in Cleaveland, Ohio, Hirsch waived his right to preliminary hearings in Ohio, reserving his right to have them in Los Angeles. Judge Greg White ordered Hirsch held and to be sent to Los Angeles.

Hirsch will be in federal custody until he is transported to Los Angeles by the U.S. Marshals Service.

- Mike Roe/KPCC


Hirsch entered Agudath Israel study hall in Cleveland Heights, took a seat and appeared to begin praying. To another worshipper, the 60-year-old "just looked like an innocent old soul" - only his attire set him apart from the others, who wore black suits.

"So we didn't pay any attention to him," said Jerry Elliot. "Later on in the evening, police came and put the cuffs on him."

Hirsch, a transient known to seek charity at synagogues and other Jewish community centers, was charged in federal court Tuesday with fleeing to avoid prosecution after the explosion last week in Santa Monica. He is scheduled to appear in federal court Wednesday, the U.S. attorney's office in Cleveland said.

Los Angeles County prosecutors also filed four felony charges against Hirsch, including possession of a destructive device near a public place and private residence, and explosion with intent to murder.

District attorney's spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons declined to elaborate on the intent to murder charge, saying she couldn't discuss evidence in the case.

Prosecutors are seeking Hirsch's extradition from Ohio. Authorities did not say whether he had an attorney.

Hirsch's arrest in Cleveland Heights late Monday came after a rabbi recognized him from news reports about the explosion near Chabad House Lubavitch.

An FBI affidavit said Hirsch was linked to the explosion by a mailing label on a box of demolition agent. The package was addressed to him and sent to a place across the street from the explosion site, federal authorities said.

Investigators initially believed the blast was an industrial accident because of the device's strange construction: explosives inside hundreds of pounds of concrete and poured into a trashcan.

Jewish groups have said they did not believe anti-Semitism was necessarily behind it.

A few hours after the explosion, Hirsch purchased a Greyhound bus ticket to New York, where authorities believe he has relatives, according to the warrant. But his bus was more than an hour late, so he missed his connection.

Surveillance cameras captured Hirsch getting off the bus in Denver on Friday evening, going to the ticket counter and then boarding another eastbound bus, the FBI said.

Hirsch's cross-country road trip ended in a Jewish enclave similar to the one he left behind in California, where strangers are welcomed without hesitation by the deeply religious community. In the Cleveland suburb, synagogues and kosher restaurants are crowded onto one main street.

Residents of the well-kept homes nearby said Hirsch went door-to-door Monday seeking money, a common occurrence. Jewish charity groups often make the rounds of the neighborhood requesting money, neighbors said.

Yaakov Bernstein, 32, said his 5-year-old son came to the front door with a man who matched Hirsch's description. The man, who said he was visiting from Oregon, wanted to borrow a yarmulke, but Bernstein did not have one to lend him.

"Then I asked him in for a drink and he ignored me and walked away," Bernstein said.

Rabbi Sruly Wolf of Cleveland Heights said the man had asked another rabbi for a place to stay Sunday night and was put up in a hotel because he didn't provide appropriate identification to allow him to stay at a guest apartment. Wolf advised the rabbi to call police, and he did.

When approached by police, Hirsch offered his actual name, birthdate and Social Security number and told officers that he had come to Cleveland Heights from California for kidney surgery.

Neighbors near the site of the Santa Monica explosion described Hirsch as a quiet man who sometimes slept by the side of the synagogue. In Ohio, he seemed to go to a familiar locale for help.

"He felt comfortable enough to come into a community that offered him shelter and offered him money because the Orthodox community is very hospitable and takes care of its own," Wolf said.

Associated Press writers Jacob Adelman and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles contributed to the report.

© 2011 The Associated Press.