Sioux Falls, S.D. – Sholom Rubashkin’s supporters flooded a federal courthouse today to pray for a man they described as generous and warm-hearted.
Scores of Chabad-Lubavitch Jews crowded into the Sioux Falls courthouse with psalm books and whispered prayers for the ousted top executive at Agriprocessors, Inc., in Postville.
“Everyone who knows him, knows him as a great man,” said Eliezer Pinson, 21, who took 24-hour bus ride from Brooklyn to show his support. “People look up to him. He always made time for everyone.”
Today marks the first day of a federal fraud trial expected to last four to six weeks. Rubashkin faces 91 charges – bank fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud and others – in the first of two trials.
The second trial on 72 immigration-related charges will start one week after the first trial ends. Rubashkin has pleaded not guilty.
Agriprocessors was the site of a May 2008 immigration raid that gutted the workforce and pushed the kosher meat plant into bankruptcy. Prosecutors also alleged that Rubashkin cheated the plant’s lender with false financial papers, so he could obtain advances on a $35 million loan.
More than 40 young men, most in their 20s, huddled around a big-screen television in a spillover room to watch. Some recited psalms in Hebrew. A black fedora, filled with crinkled dollar bills, passed from hand to hand.
Pinson, who studied in Postville for two years, said Rubashkin paid all of his expenses to attend the Yeshiva of Northeast Iowa, a Jewish high school in Postville. Rubashkin’s nephew, Yossi Rubashkin of Brooklyn, sat in quiet prayer for the man “whose door was always open.”
Four young men behind him slept with their heads on a table, exhausted from the overnight journey and the eight-day Simchas Torah holiday of dancing and celebration.
“I’m extremely optimistic about the trial,” Yossi Rubashkin said. “That might not make sense to you. It’s just faith. Faith in God.”
Sholom Rubashkin sat quietly with his lawyers, his wife Leah and 10 children behind him. His oldest daughter, Roza, walked the halls cradling an infant.
Shortly before 11 a.m., Leah Rubashkin wandered into the downstairs room filled with supporters. She smiled, waved, and said, “I wanted to see how everyone was doing.”
Day one began with prosecutors and defense lawyers weeding through a pool of 60 potential jurors. The trial, expected to last four to six weeks, was moved from Cedar Rapids to Sioux Falls because of pre-trial publicity. Opening arguments in the case could begin this afternoon.
Assistant U.S. Attorney C.J. Williams named about 80 witnesses that prosecutors might call for their case.
Included on the list was Elizabeth Billmeyer, who worked as the plant’s human resources director; Toby Bensassion, a former comptroller; and two mid-level managers, Juan Carlos Guerrero Espinoza and Martin De La Rosa. All pleaded guilty to lesser charges in the build-up to the trial.
Defense lawyer Guy Cook said his team might call Joe Sarachek, the plant’s bankruptcy trustee; Ron Wahls, Postville schools guidance counselor; and former Agriprocessors spokesman Chaim Abraham.
Lawyers had whittled the jury pool to about 50 as of noon. Jury selection will continue this afternoon.