Car driven by ‘messiah’ hits grounds of Squirrel Hill synagogue

| April 29, 2010

The afternoon service at Poale Zedeck synagogue on Tuesday had drawn to a close, and some of the congregants lingered to listen to the rabbi speak in what should have been a tranquil moment.

"We heard what sounded like a bomb," said Marcia Robkin, who rushed to the doors with dozens of other temple-goers, fearing the worst. Maybe the landmark synagogue at Phillips and Shady avenues in the heart of Squirrel Hill had been targeted, they thought. Maybe it was a hate crime.

Outside, they saw a smoke-billowing car halfway up the steps, metal handrails, a lantern, and a concrete wall in ruin, and two men darting up Shady Avenue. So they chased after them.

They were further mystified after they managed to capture the struggling driver.

"He said, 'You're not going to believe this, but I'm the messiah,' " said Michael Cohen, one of several men who tackled Adam Disabato to the ground and held him there until police arrived. "He was in a seemingly religious state of mind, but I'm not quite sure he knew where he crashed into."

Across the street, Al Dubinsky and the synagogue's president, Dean Pollack, held Mr. Disabato's passenger at bay. They pinned his arms behind his back, patted him down in search of weapons, and took off his shoes so he couldn't escape.

"They were pretty shaken up from the crash," Mr. Cohen said. "They must have been going pretty fast."

Their accounts and police reports detail the bizarre Tuesday night crash and the swift action of witnesses, who said they just wanted to keep the men from getting away.

"We have a very deep affection for our synagogue. I don't know a single person in there who doesn't have a deep and abiding love for the building and its congregants," Mr. Dubinsky said. "It's a family. You do what you have to do to protect your family."

Mr. Disabato, 30, of Squirrel Hill, remained jailed Wednesday on charges of institutional vandalism and a plethora of traffic crimes. The passenger, Steven Bradford, wasn't charged. Mr. Bradford told police the two were en route to a relative of Mr. Bradford's in Wilkinsburg, and that he repeatedly told Mr. Disabato to slow down.

Moments before he struck the synagogue, police said, Mr. Disabato hit a moving car while trying to make a right turn onto Forward Avenue. Witnesses said he backed up and sped off, then turned north onto Shady.

Synagogue officials said the crash caused $30,000 in damage. Long skid marks still marked the street, and a yellow ribbon of caution tape surrounded the battered entrance of the synagogue.

Ms. Robkin, who said her life was spared by her decision to stay inside and listen to the rabbi, called it "the most frightening thing I've ever been through."

Mr. Disabato defended his actions to his captors, saying he was mentally ill, that he was God and that "he was sent by God to do this purposeful act," police wrote in his criminal complaint. He talked about Osama bin Laden and religious propaganda, and said he and a friend were "hanging out at my apartment, and I got a call from God telling me to do this," the complaint says. "I'm not crazy," he said. "I'm just doing God's work."

Police called the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force but did not consider the crash a hate crime as of Wednesday. Police who questioned Mr. Disabato asked him if perhaps he wanted to change his story to a more reasonable one.

"Isn't it true that when people say they are God, they get off with an insanity plea?" he said, according to the complaint. "I'm not crazy and I don't hear voices. I just got a feeling sent by God to drive real fast for some reason."

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Category: Synagogue/Jewish Security

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