NEW YORK -- A Jewish charity co-founder who claimed he crisscrossed the globe rescuing Torahs as a "Jewish Indiana Jones" surrendered Wednesday to face mail and wire fraud charges after authorities said he duped benefactors by fabricating dramatic stories about sometimes dangerous trips, including to concentration camp sites in Poland and Germany.
Menachem Youlus, who owns the Jewish Bookstore in Wheaton, Md., where he resides, was charged in a criminal complaint unsealed in federal court in Manhattan and was released Wednesday on $100,000 bail. His attorney, Paul Rooney, said, "We deny this accusation, and anything else we have to say will be said in court."
Court papers said the 50-year-old Youlus carried out the fraud from at least 2004 through last year, pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars through the "Save a Torah" charity he co-founded in 2004 as a nonprofit organization. A criminal complaint said he passed off Torahs he bought from U.S. dealers to synagogues and congregations nationwide, sometimes at inflated rates.
It said he put nearly a third of $1.2 million collected by the group into his personal accounts, spending some of it on private school tuition for his children and on personal expenses, including meals and health care. More than $1 million was forwarded by the charity to Youlus' bookstore account, it said.
The publicly stated mission of the charity was to locate and acquire Torahs that survived the Holocaust or had been taken from Jewish communities worldwide and repair them so they could be used in communities that need them. In reality, Youlus rarely traveled abroad during the years he was claiming to go Torah hunting, it said.
"Menachem Youlus called himself the `Jewish Indiana Jones,' but his alleged exploits were no more real than those of the movie character he claimed to resemble," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a release. "He chose poorly in allegedly exploiting an excruciating chapter in Jewish and international history to perpetrate a brazen fraud that played on the heartstrings of the people for whom the painful memories of that period will never die."
According to a criminal complaint prepared by U.S. Postal Inspector Greg Ghiozzi, an application by "Save a Torah" to become a charity listed on the federal government's campaign to encourage donations by federal employees boasted that Youlus had "been beaten up, thrown in jail, and gone $175,000 into debt, to bring these holy scrolls out of less-than-friendly places, back to safety and a new life."
At a 2004 Torah dedication, Youlus wrote: "I guess you could call me the Jewish Indiana Jones," the complaint said, referencing the action-adventure hero played by Harrison Ford in the 1981 Stephen Spielberg classic "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
But Ghiozzi wrote that his investigation of Youlus' globe-trotting found no facts to support claims that Youlus rescued the "Auschwitz Torah" in Poland from inside a metal box that he located and unearthed in 2004 using a metal detector. There was also no evidence that he discovered a Torah in 2002 that had been hidden during World War II under the floor of a barracks at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, Ghiozzi wrote.
A review of travel records showed that Youlus never traveled to Poland in 2004, making only a two-week trip to Israel, and that he didn't travel internationally from early 2001 to August 2004, when he claimed to have made the trip to Germany, Ghiozzi said. He said a historian at the Bergen-Belsen Memorial Museum told him Youlus' claims were impossible because the barracks was completely destroyed by the British Army several weeks after the camp was liberated at the end of World War II.
Based on some of Youlus' false claims, a contributor paid about $32,000 directly to Youlus' book store to buy the Auschwitz Torah and then donated it to a Manhattan synagogue, which staged a large ceremony to honor the resettlement of the Torah, Ghiozzi said.
He said Youlus sent letters after the ceremony to the contributor, seeking a donation of at least $250,000 to "Save a Torah" on the grounds that Youlus had suffered significant personal debt rescuing items for the charity. At the time, in 2007, Ghiozzi wrote, Youlus' home had been paid off since 1992, and he had nearly $900,000 in savings accounts, checking accounts and other financial instruments that he held jointly with family members and more than $1.1 million held in the name of the Jewish Bookstore.
Youlus was also telling the charity's president that he had borrowed more than $150,000 on his credit cards and against his home at a high interest rate to acquire and repair 15 Torahs that were facing rapid deterioration or destruction, including 10 Torahs from an unspecified Russian general and five from a monastery in Kiev, Ukraine, Ghiozzi said.
The postal inspector said Youlus had complained before of going broke, saying he had borrowed more than $150,000 in 2004 to rescue Torahs that were well over 100 years old in Hungary, Poland and Ukraine when he had more than $150,000 in his personal bank accounts and $652,733 invested in certificates of deposit in the name of the Jewish Bookstore.
Meanwhile, Youlus benefited personally from donations, receiving more than $344,000, the complaint said. He spent $90,000 of that on tuition payments to a private school for his children and a relative's children and more than $200,000 on personal expenses including retail goods, meals and health care, the complaint said.
If convicted of single counts of mail and wire fraud, Youlus could be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.
Associated Press writer Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.