The Shande of Sharon

The long, strange tale of how a fateful encounter and a shameful secret ruined Rabbi Barry Starr.
Illustration by Yarek Waszul.

Illustration by Yarek Waszul.

Detectives arrived at Nick Zemeitus’s doorstep in Milton on an overcast evening in May 2014. Inside, the place was a mess: no running water, trash stacked high in the kitchen, human waste malingering in unflushable toilets. The whole home reeked of mildew and garbage. Zemeitus—scruffy beard, lip piercing, and tattoos—let them in. Usually, Milton Detective Louis Bullard says, “You see suspects nervous, shaking, unable to talk.” Not Zemeitus.

As police searched the house and sat with Zemeitus’s four-year-old daughter, two investigators questioned Zemeitus in a bedroom, where he lit into one hell of a story. It began with an ad for sex on Craigslist and ended with a respected rabbi paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for his silence.

According to police, Zemeitus claimed that he’d gone to Rabbi Barry Starr’s house in Sharon more than two years earlier expecting to have sex with a middle-aged woman. Instead, he said, he found Starr, then 61, wearing a dress. Enraged at having been “lied” to, Zemeitus threatened to tell Starr’s wife about their rendezvous. In response, Zemeitus told the cops, Starr “then offered to pay Zemeitus $100 to keep the meeting quiet.”

That was only the start. The rabbi kept paying, Zemeitus claimed: more than $200,000 over the next two years.

When the detectives left Zemeitus’s house that day with his bizarre confession, it seemed they had enough evidence to charge him. But it was not until a year later—almost to the day—that the Norfolk District Attorney’s Office charged Zemeitus with extortion and larceny, his girlfriend, Alexa Anderson, with larceny, and Starr with larceny and embezzlement.

The tale of this shande—this scandal—ran in newspapers from Boston to Jerusalem, with headlines like “Alleged Extortionist Has Long Police Record; Files Indicate Rabbi Paid $480,000” and “Sharon Asks What Happens When a Good Rabbi Goes Bad.” After the story faded from the news, however, I continued to wonder about Zemeitus. What would it take to sustain such a scheme over the course of years? What kind of person would think to target a rabbi?

Last summer, as a long shot, I sent Zemeitus a Facebook friend request. To my surprise, he accepted. I explained I was a reporter and wanted to interview him. He never responded—but he didn’t unfriend me, either, which meant that I could easily see years of his photos, comments, and posts. As I began to scroll through his Facebook feed, deeper and deeper into his past, the picture that emerged was contradictory, sometimes anguished, and often ugly.

 

In December 2010, one of Nick Zemeitus’s Facebook friends jokingly suggested that the two of them commit a series of bank robberies. “You and I should _____ before 2010 ends,” Zemeitus posted.

“Rob like 6 banks,” the friend replied. Then he relented, writing, “I shouldn’t play around.”

“Well if the cops are reading this right now,” Zemeitus wrote back, “just know I have nothing to do with this crazy bastards bank robbing ideas. Thank you sincerely The innocent guy.”

As far as anyone knows, Zemeitus never robbed any banks. But his life had been marked by several crimes, starting with his father’s. In 1985, when Nick Zemeitus was barely a year old, his dad, Richard, plowed into the back of another car at more than 75 miles per hour. The impact killed the other driver, Michael Ventresca, a prominent political organizer who had just agreed to help Joseph P. Kennedy’s Congressional campaign. Police found cocaine in Richard Zemeitus’s system. After pleading guilty to vehicular homicide, he told the judge he had been on his way “to pick up teething medicine for his young son” but blacked out behind the wheel.

In 1986, the elder Zemeitus was sentenced to 6 to 10 years in Cedar Junction state prison in Walpole. Two years later, he walked away from a work-release program, only to be rearrested for allegedly exposing himself to customers at Jordan Marsh. Despite his incarceration, father and son later became very close. They were living together in March 2008 when Richard Zemeitus was arrested in Brockton for possession of drugs. He died the following October at the age of 48, after falling and hitting his head during an evening in with friends.

Milton Detective Louis Bullard remembers responding to the house that night to investigate the sudden death. That was his first of many run-ins with Nick Zemeitus, who arrived home soon after his father died. “He was hysterical,” Bullard recalled. “I really felt bad for him. I was informed that he was an only child, and he had to be responsible for burying his dad.”

It was the third bereavement Zemeitus had sustained in less than 12 months. His mother died in 2007, and her husband—Zemeitus’s stepfather—died in early 2008. On Facebook, Zemeitus often seemed haunted by loss. More than a year later, when his daughter was born, he wrote: “I thank my mother Debbie Gillespie and my father Richie Zemeitus for this gift from heaven, R.I.P.”

Three months later, Zemeitus split up with his daughter’s mother—an event marked by bitter Facebook invectives: “When every person I ever loved has died, I get my angel…sent to me from heaven and you want to now take her away well that won’t happen,” he wrote. “Bitch you are gone for good with no more chances but you will never take my heart away so be ready for the biggest fight of your life because I will die for that little girl.”

In early 2010, Zemeitus posted that he had become a commercial truck driver, just like his dad. (“I hope your looking down and that you are proud of your son.”) And like his father, he got a job delivering papers for the Herald. His existence, though, seemed rough around the edges. He posted that he’d been in a fight (“Waiting at the plastic surgeon for them to stitch my face. 4 huge black monkeys tried to rob me at 7-11”) and later that a friend of his had gone to jail for violating parole (“His [parole officer] is a nasty little hooker”).

By that time, Zemeitus himself had quite a history with law enforcement. At 18, a judge found him guilty of disorderly conduct after he swore at the cops. In 2008—the year his father was arrested on drug charges—Zemeitus admitted to the facts of a drug charge, agreed to random testing, and received probation. That same year, police arrested Zemeitus again, this time for allegedly using a stolen credit card to buy a television. The charge was dismissed. Two years later, police searched his car and turned up illegal weapons—a set of brass knuckles with a sharp edge and an unlicensed 1,500-kilovolt Cheetah stun gun; the charges were dismissed. Months later, Zemeitus was arrested for reckless driving for allegedly threatening another driver, his baby daughter reportedly in the back seat.

Zemeitus’s criminal record apparently didn’t prevent him from becoming a full-time parent. “Went to family court and won my case,” he posted on Facebook in October 2011. “The judge awarded me FULL AND SOLE LEGAL CUSTODY OF MY DAUGHTER!…dada did it for you…I will go to the end of the earth for you, kill for you and die for you. Now, always and forever!”

Even as Zemeitus exulted, it’s clear he was concerned about being able to provide for his daughter. “I could really use a suggestion for some work,” he wrote to a friend who congratulated him. “I would do anything at all. If any ideas just let me know.”

That day was also the third anniversary of his father’s death. “Today makes 3 long years since you where taken so early from us,” Zemeitus wrote. “If I can be only a fraction of the man you where than I will be a great man…. I am raising my daughter with the same morals and loving heart the way you raised me.”

Two months later, he met Rabbi Barry Starr.

 

At the time, Starr was enjoying his 25th year at Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue on a leafy street in Sharon. He lived a short walk away with his wife and two children. Starr had served on numerous state and national boards, including as regional president of the Rabbinical Assembly, an umbrella organization for Conservative rabbis. His congregation adored him. “One of my colleagues who happened to visit here said, ‘This is a huggy and kissy congregation,’” he once told a reporter.

It’s unclear what exactly occurred between Starr and Zemeitus. The version of their meeting that Zemeitus told the detectives at his home in May 2014 contradicts the extraordinary, 909-word letter Zemeitus emailed to Starr two and a half years earlier, on December 28, 2011, which detectives later discovered on Starr’s computer. In it, Zemeitus didn’t mention the rabbi wearing a dress. He said nothing about their having met for sex, or Starr offering $100 in hush money. Instead, Zemeitus wrote the letter in a persona not his own.

“First let me say in noway is this a joke,” Zemeitus wrote. “you need to read this very carefully…. I am the older brother of a young boy you met recently. I was fixing his laptop yesterday and came across some emails between you and him that really shocked me and more than anything disgusted me.”

It’s important to note that Zemeitus apparently has no younger brother. As Detective Bullard indicated, he is an only child, a fact confirmed in the obituaries of both of his parents. Yet in his letter to Starr, Zemeitus continued to belabor his fictional brother’s tender age: “Now my first reaction was to go straight to the police as my little brother is underage and not yet reached 18 years of age and is mearly a minor,” the letter read. “I went through theses emails and learned that you lure boys in with the promise of paying them a hundred bucks to let you proform various sex acts on them.” The sum Zemeitus mentions—$100—is one of the few points of similarity between the version of events he told police and the one in the original letter. When he spoke with police, though, he described the $100 as a first installment of hush money, not a fee for sex.