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Rabbi’s 2-Year-Old Son Is Safely Home : U.S. Seeks to Gain Custody of Alleged Kidnaper From Mexico

Times Staff Writer

A Soviet emigre who teaches mathematics at UC Irvine remained in Mexican custody Wednesday while the 2-year-old boy he allegedly kidnaped was safely back home in Westminster.

U.S. officials were working to gain custody of Alexander Gelman, 40, of Santa Ana from state police in Tijuana, where Gelman was arrested after a minor traffic accident.

A federal warrant, issued late Tuesday, charges that Gelman took his rabbi’s son, Zalman Berkowitz, from his Westminster home Monday night.

The boy was found, apparently unharmed, in Gelman’s car and was reunited with his parents late Tuesday near the San Ysidro border crossing, according to FBI spokesman Fred Reagan.

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Members of the Berkowitz family and local police officials said they could not understand why Gelman would take the boy.

But a close family friend of the Berkowitzes said that Gelman, who is childless, had frequently admired the boy and had remarked that if he had a son he would want one just like Zalman.

As a result, the Berkowitzes believe that Gelman might have wanted to keep the child, rather than hold him for ransom or do him any harm, the friend said. Gelman and his wife reportedly were close friends of the Berkowitzes and had baby-sat for them.

However, according to Gelman’s wife and police officials, Gelman left his house with little, if any, money and no credit cards, so initially they believed he would not get far and might soon return the child.

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The boy’s father, Rabbi Aron D. Berkowitz, is director and spiritual leader of Chabad of West Orange County, an orthodox congregation of which Gelman is a member.

According to statements Gelman reportedly made to police in Mexico, he went to the rabbi’s home, shoved aside the Berkowitzes’ housekeeper and took the boy from a second-story bedroom.

But Gelman could not remember driving to Tijuana or the circumstances of the traffic accident, said Sergio Barrio, an agent of the State Judicial Police in Tijuana.

Police officials in Westminster suggested that Gelman may have been distraught over a problem in his own family, but Berkowitz refused to discuss the matter. Berkowitz and other members of the Orange County orthodox community said they were as concerned for Gelman as they were for the boy.

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Gelman emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1972 and became a U.S. citizen in 1978, he told authorities in Tijuana.

He is in the second year of a two-year appointment as visiting lecturer in mathematics at UC Irvine, where colleagues and students described him as a kind man, an able teacher and researcher.


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