A Maryland rabbi who billed himself as the "Jewish Indiana Jones" admitted Thursday that he made up exotic stories of rescuing Torahs lost since the Holocaust to bilk donors into giving him hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"I know what I did was wrong, and I deeply regret my conduct," said Menachem Youlus, 50, as he pleaded guilty to mail fraud and wire fraud in federal court in Manhattan.
Youlus was charged with using his Save a Torah charity to raise money under false pretenses from wealthy individuals and Jewish congregations, and diverting some funds into personal expenses such as tuition for his children.
He admitted that his phony tales exploited some of the darkest chapters in Jewish history.
"I represented to interested purchasers that I had personally gone to the former concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland, and had there found parts of a Torah scroll inside a metal box," Youlus told U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon. "I knew that to be untrue."
He also was accused of making up a story of recovering a Torah under floorboards in an abandoned barracks at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and of inflating invoices for his trips abroad. Some of his recovered Torahs were bought from dealers, according to charges.
Youlus, of Wheaton, Md., faces a maximum of 20 years in jail on each count. Sentencing guidelines call for him to serve from 51 to 63 months. He agreed to forfeit $800,000 to the government, and also faces up to $1.2 million in court-ordered restitution to victims.
Defense attorney Benjamin Brafman said his client wasn't really a bad guy.
"Today's plea of guilty ends an agonizing voyage by a good man with the best of intentions who ultimately strayed into fraudulent conduct that he now accepts full responsibility for," the lawyer said in a statement.
"Despite the serious nature of his crime," Brafman added, "this otherwise fundamentally decent man should be sentenced with great leniency."
Youlus' sentencing was set for June 21.