According to multiple media reports, Shlomo Helbrans, the leader of the Lev Tahor cult, drowned on Friday in Mexico. He was 55.
Local media reports said his body was found in a river that he used as a Mikva.
The Israel Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the reports were being looked into by the Israeli embassy in Mexico.
According to local media, Helbrans’ body was pulled from the river by rescue forces on Friday afternoon after he was swept away by strong currents.
About three and a half years ago, Canadian authorities blocked the group from transferring underage members to Guatemala after Canadian courts issued a decree requiring some children to be transferred to foster families after being found to have been severely abused.
Welfare officials in Ontario and Quebec claimed that they had evidence of abuse involving beatings, underage marriage, and illegal education. However, the sect succeeded in transferring a number of the children to Guatemala giving rise to a legal battle over the last few years to expel them back to Canada.
In September 2016, at the request of Israeli authorities, Guatemalan law enforcement raided the Lev Tahor compound and arrested its leaders on suspicion of child abuse. The raid prompted its members to leave the site to a new location in eastern Guatemala, and complain that they were being persecuted due of their faith.
Helbrans and the group had crossed the Guatemalan border into the Mexican state of Chiapas several weeks ago.
Originally a citizen of Israel, cult leader Shlomo Helbrans went to the United States where he was convicted for kidnapping in 1994 and served a two-year prison term before being deported to Israel in 2000. He then settled in Canada.
In 1994 he was convicted in Brooklyn for the 1992 kidnapping of 13-year-old Shai Fhima Reuven, a Bar Mitzvah boy he was tutoring, and served a two-year prison term in the U.S. He was originally sentenced to four to 12 years in prison, but in June 1996 an appeals court reduced the sentence to two to six years. Three days later, he was placed in the work release program for prisoners less than two years away from the possibility of parole, where inmates are freed from prison if they have a job. After protests, he was moved back to prison.
The high-profile case drew much attention in the U.S., and gained further attention when Helbrans successfully convinced New York prison authorities to waive their requirement that all prisoners be shaved for a photograph upon entering prison, and to accept a computer-generated image of what he would have looked like clean-shaven instead. After the State Parole Board decided in November 1996 to release Helbrans after two years in prison, the case rose to near scandal with suspicions that the Pataki administration was providing him special treatment.
After his release from prison, Helbrans ran a yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y., and was deported to Israel in 2000. He then settled in Canada, where in 2003 he was granted refugee status, claiming his life was being threatened in Israel.