When the Israel Prison Service spokeswoman gathered reporters outside Rimonim Prison and told them the name of the 34-year-old inmate killed in a shoot-out Sunday—Samuel Sheinbein—there was mainly silence. Which was hardly surprising; it’s been 15 years since Sheinbein, an American-born Jew from Maryland, was in the news, first for the gruesome murder and dismemberment of a teenage romantic rival, then for his flight from American justice, which caused a diplomatic crisis after Israel refused to extradite him back to the United States to face capital charges.
He was instead charged and sentenced to 24 years in a Tel Aviv courtroom, which is how he came to be in Rimonim’s cellblock 5, where he barricaded himself in a bathroom, then pulled a gun and opened fire on guards before being shot. The one reporter who did get a fix on Sheinbein said something to the effect of, “You mean that knucklehead who tried to snatch a gun from some guy in Ramle a couple weeks ago?” And, yes, that was also Sheinbein: On his last furlough—hufsha—he arranged to meet a man in Ramle who was selling a used handgun online. Sitting in the man’s car, Sheinbein took the gun and made a run for it, but was chased down by the man and held for police. Even after that incident, he was somehow able to get his hands on another gun and get the drop on his guards at Rimonim.
It’s not every day—or, in fact, any day—that an inmate opens fire in an Israeli prison, much less a dual citizen and convicted murderer who inspired Israel to reexamine its extradition policy. Outside Rimonim the security services were on war footing: armored vans, guards with machine guns, a helicopter overhead, and for unknown reasons, a dune buggy on call, perhaps just in case Sheinbein threw a sand dune in the way of advancing officers.
He was still a high-school student in 1997 when he and a former classmate from Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School killed another teen, Alfredo Tello, Jr., in a dispute over a girl they both liked. Sheinbein wrote an infamous “Recipe for Murder” on a piece of notepaper and used a power saw to cut up Tello’s body, depositing it in a garbage bag in a garage of an empty home owned by a friend’s parents in the Washington D.C. suburbs. His accomplice, Aaron Needle, was charged and hanged himself inside a jail cell. Sheinbein, meantime, fled to Israel, where his father was born, and claimed automatic citizenship as the son of an Israeli national. The case ultimately prompted a change in Israel’s extradition policy.
Now, his case may precipitate a shift in Israel’s prison management. The fact that Sheinbein was able to get his hands on a gun is the latest of several major IPS screw-ups. The last time the IPS got this much press was in February 2012, when it was revealed that an Australian-Israeli named Ben Zygier, aka “Prisoner X”, had managed to hang himself inside his cell at Ayalon Prison in 2010, the most secure cell in all of Israel, one that is under round-the-clock surveillance. Last March, an ultra-Orthodox man named Shay Cohen, a get-refuser who was neither handcuffed nor chained, jumped out of the second-story bathroom window of the Jerusalem Rabbinical court and disappeared; he has not been found.
It’s easy to imagine that if Sheinbein hadn’t gone on his rampage Sunday he would have been let out on another furlough soon enough, maybe even arranging other rendezvous with weapons dealers he met online. Indeed, his attorney, Orit Hayon, told Israel’s Army Radio on Monday that he was only granted furloughs in the first place because he behaved well. “He was a good prisoner,” she insisted.
On Monday the IPS said it’s still unclear where Sheinbein’s pistol came from. Guards don’t carry guns inside prisons, which suggests it must have somehow been smuggled into the facility and into the hands of a convicted murderer, undetected. Meantime, the guard Sheinbein shot, 33-year-old Hilal Bisan, a Druze from the village of Jat, was in stable condition at Kfar Saba’s Meir Hospital—a little over three years after his twin brother Jilal was burned alive along with 37 other IPS cadets in a bus en route to evacuate a security prison in Israel’s north during the Carmel wildfire. A second warden remained hospitalized.
Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that Sheinbein was still a student at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School at the time of the Tello murder.