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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Timeline: Arrest Ends Seven-Week Manhunt

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UPDATE Today’s announcement of the arrest of a suspect in the Dec. 8 murder of Westport jeweler Yekutiel “Kuti” Zeevi ended one of the most intensive manhunts in the town’s history.

WestportNow.com Image
Police released this photo of the suspect on Dec. 15. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

It was the first murder in Westport in 15 years. The wanton cruelty of the crime provoked fear, revulsion and outrage that such a crime could occur in a town where intensive police efforts are more likely to be directed against downtown shoplifters than armed robbers.

Longtime Westport residents likened the Zeevi murder manhunt to the nationwide one more than a half century ago following the murder of a Westport housewife and rape of her teenage daughter. In 1961, that four-day search ended in the Georgia arrest of handyman Harlis Miller.

More recently, there was the still unsolved 1989 murder of Joan Wertkin, a Westport mother whose burned body was found behind the Merritt Country Store on Main Street and Canal Street. Before Zeevi’s murder, that crime was getting renewed attention by Westport detectives.

In the Zeevi murder, the 911 call came in on Thursday, Dec. 8 shortly before 10 p.m. from YZ Jewelry Manufacturing, formerly SZ Jewelry, on the second floor of 431 Post Road East above Cohen’s Fashion Optical in the Compo Shopping Center.

It was later disclosed that the caller was Ronen Konfino, 48, of Manhattan, described by police as a business associate of Zeevi’s. He was wounded by the assailant in a hail of gunfire and spent several days in Norwalk Hospital before being released.

A tape of the 911 call has not been released. An affidavit released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office today said the caller said he had been shot and his friend was dead.

Police were not sure how long a period there was between the crime and Konfino being able to muster enough strength to make the call.

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A Westport police wanted poster showing an artist’s sketch of the killer was distributed to jewelry stores and other businesses in Westport. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Helen Klisser During for WestportNow.com

Additionally, there was some delay in the police response as Konfino was not exactly sure of his location. When they arrived, police had to use a crowbar to break into the building’s front door as well as a secondary metal door in order to reach the second floor office, the affidavit said.

According to Police Chief Dale Call, Konfino said that the suspect had visited the business the day before on the pretense of buying jewelry. Call said the suspect told Konfino he came in response to a newspaper advertisement placed by Zeevi.

The state Medical Examiner’s Office said Zeevi died of “multiple gunshot wounds,” though neither the office nor police would comment on the caliber of bullets, where Zeevi was struck and how many times. A source familiar with the investigation told WestportNow days later that Zeevi may have been hit by as many as six bullets.

The source also said that the suspect made off with six diamonds valued as much as $300,000. Police subsequently confirmed diamonds had been stolen but did not say how many or their value. However, today’s U.S. Attorney’s Office announcement of the suspect’s arrest confirmed that six diamonds had been stolen as well as the $300,000 value.

It was later learned that Zeevi kept a gun at his business, but it was not known if he was able to get to it during the robbery.

As police cordoned off the area, they sought evidence from any video cameras that might have been operating at the scene. The State Police Western Division Major Crime Unit arrived and took the lead in the investigation.

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Police converged on the shooting scene at 431 Post Road East in the Compo Shopping Center within moments of a 911 call on Dec. 8. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

By the next day, Dec. 9, mid-morning, Westport police had released the first images of the suspect. One showing him walking up the stairs at the murder scene did not even show his head. The other was from the rear showing him walking down the stairs.

The next day, Dec. 10, in late afternoon, police issued additional photos from a different location taken the day before the murder showing the suspect walking up stairs. But it was hard to make out his face clearly.

It later became known that the pictures were taken by a surveillance camera at a Westport Main Street jeweler.

On Sunday, Dec. 11, an overflow crowd attended an emotional service at Temple Israel for Zeevi – a murder Rabbi Robert Orkand called “not right, not fair.”

Addressing several hundred mourners, many of whom had to stand in the rear of the temple’s sanctuary, Orkand said it was “simply inconceivable” that such an act of violence occurred in Westport, Connecticut.

On Monday, Dec. 12, police released an artist’s sketch of the suspect, apparently drawn from details provided by Konfino. An enhanced version of the sketch was released the next day.

Police also said the suspect escaped in a vehicle described as “small and boxy, like a Honda Element, a Scion or a Nissan Cube.”

WestportNow.com Image
An overflow crowd attended the Dec. 11 Temple Israel service for Yekutiel “Kuti” Zeevi. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

On Wednesday, Dec. 14, Westport police held a mid-afternoon news conference to say the investigation had stretched beyond state lines to Philadelphia. There they said shopkeepers along “Jewelers Row” had provided video footage of the suspect three days before the robbery-homicide.

“It is clear that this individual has traveled,” Call told reporters. A few hours later, Connecticut State Police held a news conference in Philadelphia where video excerpts of the suspect in that city were released.

The thin, 5-foot 10 suspect in his early 40s was described as an expensive dresser and a well spoken American who knows diamonds, Call said. He noted that jewelers interviewed said the suspect was handy with tools for the examination of stones, such as a loop, when he visits shops.

“He wears expensive clothing, speaks very good, clear English and is described as American,” said Call. “And, he appears to be very comfortable with diamonds and able to use jeweler’s tools when examining them.

“A lot of these leads are coming because people recognize the pictures we sent out,” he said.

Showing a PowerPoint of enhanced photos from the Philadelphia videos, Call pointed out that the suspect had some facial hair, a drawn, haggard looking face and very short salt and pepper dark hair.

In all the photos released he was shown wearing a dark wool cap, dark framed eyeglasses and having a prominent nose.

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A bouquet of flowers was placed outside the murder scene on Dec. 10. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

Eight more days went by with no updates on the investigation. Then on Dec. 22, police, frustrated by the lack of solid leads, said they were enlisting the help of television’s “America’s Most Wanted” in the search for the killer.

“We’re trying to get the word out to as many people as we can and figure this is one way to do it,” Call said.

An “America’s Most Wanted” crew subsequently came to Westport. They interviewed police and members of the Zeevi family. But the episode did not air.

There was speculation that police may have been working on fresh information about their suspect and were weighing whether such publicity would help or hinder their manhunt.

Christmas came and went without new information about the investigation. So did New Year’s. In the unusually snow-free days of early and mid-January, there were some television interviews by police saying they were pursuing their investigation but no new details emerged.

Then today – 47 days after the murder of Yekutiel “Kuti” Zeevi – came word from the U.S. Attorney’s Office that a suspect had been arrested in Spain on Monday.

James Lomuscio and Dave Matlow contributed reporting

 

Posted 01/24 at 04:00 PM 

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