No one expected it to end this way.
Samuel Sheinbein was two-thirds of the way through a 24-year sentence for murder and was eligible for parole when he died in a shootout with Israeli prison guards and police on Feb. 23.
It was a strange ending to one of the most gruesome crimes in Montgomery County history—the 1997 killing and dismemberment of Alfredo “Freddy” Tello Jr. of Silver Spring, events police quickly tied to Sheinbein and his friend Aaron Needle, both 17 at the time.
Needle hanged himself in a Montgomery County jail cell shortly before his trial was to begin in April 1998. But earlier, Sheinbein had fled with the help of his father to Israel, where he eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced as a minor.
Now at 33, Sheinbein is dead, too, in what Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy calls “death by cop.” The last chapter in a bizarre and disturbing crime appears to be over. But there’s no comfort in that ending.
“At the end of the day,” says McCarthy, who was originally assigned to the case, “three young men are dead.”
And for the families, of course, it’s never over. Sheinbein’s parents, now living in a Tel Aviv suburb,“suffer,” says Orit Hayoun, his Israeli lawyer, who calls them a “very, very nice” family.
“They suffer,” she says, “because they saw light at the end of the tunnel.”
Eliette Dawes, the mother of Freddy Tello, suffers, too, nearly 17 years after her son’s grisly death. Her husband, Eric, says Dawes still sleeps with her son’s Charlotte Hornets T-shirt under her pillow in their spacious suburban home on Amberleigh Terrace, just outside the Intercounty Connector in Silver Spring. The urn containing his ashes and adorned with rosary beads remains on the fireplace mantel in the living room. The iron doors and the “Beware—Rottweiler on Duty” sign protect against outside threats but cannot shield her from nightmarish images of her only son’s final moments.
Tello was 19, working at Congressional Aquarium, a tropical fish store in Rockville, when he was killed in September 1997. The case dominated local newspapers at the time, given the unusual nature of his alleged killers and the purported motive.
Sheinbein and Needle were upper-middle-class teens from suburban backgrounds who targeted Tello for a “practice murder,” according to Montgomery County prosecutors. And not just a slaying. They cut off his limbs with an electric circular saw and incinerated him in Sheinbein’s garage.
Needle and Sheinbein came from religious families. Needle’s parents ran a computer company out of their spacious North Bethesda home. Sheinbein was the son of a lawyer and lived in the pleasant suburban Aspen Hill section of Montgomery County. Neither seemed a likely candidate to commit such a gruesome crime. Even today, Sheinbein’s Israeli attorney talks about what a nice young man he was. But some say there were hints of trouble early on.
McCarthy recalls Sheinbein’s older sister, Nathalie, telling him: “When the kids were 4 or 5 and having birthday parties, Sam would be excluded—because even at that age, other parents could perceive he was not quite right.”
A couple of years after the killing, Nathalie told CNN that her younger brother was always troubled and that he suffered from anorexia and obsessive-compulsive behavior. She said the family didn’t know until after the murder, though, that his friends had seen “signs of schizophrenic behavior at school.”
Sheinbein and Needle were classmates and friends at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville—Nathalie graduated from the school in 1989—but both were expelled after getting into trouble often. After that, their academic paths diverged.
Needle attended a series of special schools, including a military-style boot camp and the county’s now-closed Mark Twain School for troubled students, but ultimately dropped out. In the spring of 1995, his father, Sheldon Needle, asked the county to commit his son for an emergency psychological examination, saying the youth was addicted to pot and alcohol and was a danger to himself. At one point, Needle’s father even attempted tough love, calling police when his son stole his car.
The teenager eventually obtained his GED certificate, though, and at the time of the murder was enrolled in Montgomery College, with hopes of becoming a U.S. Marine.
Sheinbein went to John F. Kennedy High School in the Wheaton-Glenmont area, where he wrestled and was a rising senior at the time of the killing. “Sam was a bright guy, 6-foot-1 and handsome. He did very well in school,” McCarthy says. “He took a math test the day after the murder and aced it.”
Freddy Tello lived with his mother, who is of Costa Rican descent, and with Eric Dawes and Dawes’ young son. Tello attended Springbrook High School off New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring, where he moved easily in different social circles and was a budding artist. “Freddy got along with everybody,” his former art teacher, Louise Runion, would recall at his memorial service. She fully expected him to open his own commercial art studio one day.
Needle, who owned an aquarium, was among Tello’s friends, and the two would hang out at the fish tank shop where Tello worked or cruise around in the Honda Accord that Needle’s parents had given him.
A week before the murder, though, the two apparently had a falling out, McCarthy says. Unhappy over how Needle treated a girl, Tello punched him in the face. At the same time, investigators believe, Sheinbein wanted to kill a romantic rival—and he and Needle decided Tello would make a good practice target.
Since neither young man’s case ever made it to trial, some of the charges outlined by prosecutors have never been tested in court. But a chronology emerged from the investigation, and today McCarthy relates the details in ticktock fashion from his Rockville office.
On Sept. 15, 1997, Tello moved from his mother’s home into his own apartment, a basement efficiency in Silver Spring. That same day, records showed, Needle and Sheinbein exchanged 22 phone calls and bought two pairs of goggles at the Toys “R” Us on Rockville Pike. (“When you are burning the body, you don’t want smoke in your eyes,” McCarthy says.)
The next day, Needle and Sheinbein spent $264.83 at the Home Depot on Georgia Avenue in Aspen Hill, purchasing a trash can, several propane cylinders, a torch kit and a Makita circular saw. An apparent shopping list of the items was later found in Sheinbein’s car. Prosecutors called it a “recipe for murder.”
At 6 that evening, Needle and Sheinbein picked up Tello from his job. Precisely where or when the killing occurred remains unclear, but evidence suggested that he was slain that night.
An autopsy attributed his death to “a combination of blunt force injuries to the head, cutting wounds on the neck and chest, and ligature strangulation.” His body appeared to have been stuffed into a closet in the Sheinbein garage.
On Sept. 17, a horrible smell emanated from the garage. According to police interviews with the family, Sheinbein told them that a moped battery had blown up.
On Sept. 18, Sheinbein arranged to get into the garage of a vacant house for sale around the corner. He knew the owner’s son, Kevin Kalner Jr., and told him that he wanted a private place to take a girl. Kalner explained where to find the key. Prosecutors believe Tello’s remains were then driven in Needle’s car to the vacant house. Investigators found tire tracks matching the vehicle in the driveway and inside the garage.
Later that day, a neighbor saw the boys digging in the yard. That evening, neighbors saw them pull a garden cart along a walkway between the Sheinbein and Kalner houses, leaving a trail of blood droplets. The cart was believed to be carrying the murder weapons under a blue tarp.
On the morning of Sept. 19, two real estate agents went to the Kalner home to prepare it for a showing. Following a foul smell into the garage, they discovered black plastic trash bags containing the charred remains of what they assumed was a deer. The police were called, and the remains were soon identified as human. The arms and legs were never recovered.
“This whole thing, after the discovering of the body, came together very quickly,” McCarthy says.
Police reached Kalner’s mother, who then called her son. She asked if he knew who might have been to the house, and he told her about his conversation with Sam Sheinbein. Police next went to Sheinbein’s house and asked his parents who he hung out with. Told of Aaron Needle, they went to the Needle house, as well.
Neither boy had come home from school, police learned; both were missing.