Wife of accused murderer tells of shock, dealing with mental illness and hopes of restoration

Illustrative image

The tragic first murder within the Messianic community in Israel occurred on March 2, 2020. The perpetrator was Shimon (not his real name), a 28-year-old Messianic father of three. It was later revealed that he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, a condition which blurs the line between what is real and what isn’t, through delusions and hallucinations. Following the incident, the court declared him unfit to stand trial and sentenced him to 25 years in a psychiatric hospital.

Shimon’s wife was deeply shocked by the killing and is now raising their three sons, all below the age of five, by herself. She never imagined that he would do anything aggressive. He was always a calm and shy person. Others also described him that way.

“It was like lightning from a clear sky, with no previous indications that something like this could happen, Bob Knight was killed by Shimon. They were both from our congregation,” said Yochanan Stanfield, an elder in their congregation, in a statement released shortly after the incident.

KNI spoke with Shimon’s wife, Ayelet (not her real name).

“I visit him in the hospital about once a week,” she says. “He is getting good care and feels a lot better. I looked up schizophrenia simulator on YouTube, which shows what it’s like to be in psychosis. Only then did I realize what he must have been through. I showed it to him, and he said that it’s exactly what it was like for him. I’m not sure where to draw the line between medical and spiritual, or if there is any line, but some level of demonic activity must have been involved. I have a feeling I will learn a lot about that over the next ten years.”

To get support Ayelet has connected with a woman in the USA, Amber Violette, who still visits her husband, John, in the hospital. It is now 13 years since he killed their four-year-old daughter Katlin, suffering from the same illness. Ayelet also receives support and therapy from Messianic counselors.

The incident occurred when Bob and Fruma Knight, an older couple from their congregation, visited them. Shimon was seized by a psychotic break and attacked Fruma with a brick while she was holding Shimon’s baby. Fruma fell on the floor, protecting the baby with her body. Bob threw himself in front of his wife and absorbed Shimon’s continued attacks. When neighbors noticed what happened and shouted to him, he stopped. The police came to the scene and arrested Shimon, but by then it was too late. Bob was killed at the age of 75.

Some witnesses claimed that Shimon said “those are the missionaries” after the murder, and the police initially investigated the congregation to see if they were a cult that might have pushed him or persecuted him. That charge was quickly dropped, as the congregation proved its innocence, and Shimon’s mental state became evident.

“I first met Shimon when I visited Israel in 2014,” Ayelet told KNI. “I was visiting my Israeli relatives – his mom is my mom’s cousin. She made Aliyah from the States before Shimon was born. He was in uniform and mentioned that he planned to move to the States to work for a year once his service was over. When he came, I showed him around New York City, we went out to dinner, we bonded. I just thought of him as a relative, but eventually we realized that marriage is permissible for second cousins.”

Neither grew up in a Messianic home. “My parents are secular American Jews, and he grew up in an Israeli religious home,” she tells KNI. “When he was a child, his parents divorced, and his mother became secular. I came to faith just from hearing the gospel. I just knew it was the truth, and I joined a Messianic congregation in Brooklyn. When Shimon visited me in New York, I mentioned that I am Messianic, and he became intrigued. He had never heard of it, and asked a lot of questions. I invited him to my congregation, where he accepted the faith. It was a process very similar to mine – once he heard the gospel, he was convinced.”

Ayelet and Shimon got married in 2015 and moved to Israel. Ayelet is an engineer and Shimon studied industrial engineering from home at the Open University of Israel and worked evenings as a chess teacher in a middle school. Their first son was born in 2016. They were a young couple with small children and only one main income, but their future looked promising based on their education and professions.

“Shimon had many entrepreneurial ideas based on his engineering classes. We planned to save up to buy each of our children a home in Israel, and take our kids and grandkids on vacations abroad annually,” Ayelet tells KNI. Since they didn’t have believing family members, their Messianic congregation became like a family to them.

Warning signs with Shimon’s mental health started in November 2019, after the birth of their third son, when Ayelet was on maternity leave.

“It started subtly,” she says. “He would suddenly drop everything for no particular reason and start small talk with strangers on the street, oblivious to us. It was bizarre. When I confronted him he said he was sorry, and genuinely seemed to mean it, but the next day he would do the same. I realized something was not okay, but a mental illness didn’t even cross my mind. They diagnosed him with ADHD when he was a teenager, so I assumed it had to do with that. If anyone had told me that these are early signs of a mental illness, I would have sent him for evaluation. I learned later that schizophrenia is often misdiagnosed as ADHD.”

Ayelet describes how the paranoia started around February 2020. He told her the neighbors looked at him funny and was worried someone had told them something about their Messianic faith. “At first I believed him,” she said. “The Messianic faith isn’t that popular, and there are people who spread false rumors around it. I never noticed neighbors looking at me funny, but I had no reason to disbelieve him.”

A week and a half before the incident, the paranoia increased and he started floating more outrageous paranoid theories about neighbors or family members being “after him.” She tried to calm him down, telling him he was wrong, and every time he seemed to accept her reassurances.

They lived in an area that is a stronghold of Israeli organized crime, and in late February 2020 an incident occurred that rocked his mental health even more. A criminal operative was going to plant a bomb in someone’s home, but accidentally blew himself up across the street from them. The explosion rocked their street and there were police cars everywhere.

“It was 3 in the morning. I was already up, nursing. He woke up in panic. We saw the police cars, and later our neighbors told us that there had been body parts strewn across the street. We closed the doors and didn’t go out. He thought the bomb was intended for him. It was around that time he stopped sleeping. I was really concerned about him.”

After that incident the paranoid theories became more and more ludicrous, and he couldn’t talk about anything else. He kept talking about unrelated people who don’t know one another and don’t even speak the same language, who were all conspiring against him. She later learned that during this time he was also hearing voices. Besides not sleeping, he also ceased eating and showering. He wouldn’t even change clothes, and all he could talk about were his paranoid delusions.

“I never once suspected a mental illness,” Ayelet says. “We notice all these signs after the fact, when it’s too late, but it’s very hard to even think that when you’re in the middle of it. It didn’t even cross my mind.”

One day it reached full-blown delusions where he acted strange the entire day. “It only took one day of that for me to realize that he needs help,” Ayelet says. “He walked out of the house, talking on the phone with random people, I have no idea who. He looked through the Bible to find verses, but pointed to verses that had nothing to do with anything. And then he said he thought the entire Messianic body in Israel are all fake believers, and it’s all a stage. That they are secret Yad L’Achim or mafia operatives trying to kill him. That’s when I realized something was terribly wrong with him.”

Ayelet still didn’t realize that it was an emergency, and she wasn’t aware that there were emergency psychiatric hospitals that could have admitted him. She thought he might be oversensitive and if he would only get more sleep, he would be better. She prayed with Shimon and communicated with the congregation. “I told them that we are going through a spiritual attack and asked for prayers, without giving specifics,” she says. The next day she booked an appointment for him with a psychiatrist and they went the same day. That was Thursday, February 27, 2020 – only four days before the incident.

“I drove him there, and on the way he had an anxiety attack with trouble breathing. Then he asked me if I was taking him to get shot. That was the first and only time he showed any paranoia signs of being afraid of me. I told him no, of course not, and he dropped it. We prayed together in the car. We got to the psychiatrist who seemed professional, but he spent most time just talking to Shimon behind closed doors, not letting me in. He didn’t ask me anything. We got a medicine called Seroquel to take for three weeks and then come back. He said he couldn’t diagnose him after just one meeting, but had to wait to see how the medicine would affect him. I was disappointed, I was hoping we would find out what the problem was.”

The medicine seemed to help, and Shimon an Ayelet spent the weekend in a hotel in Jerusalem, reconnecting and meeting people. “He didn’t have any additional weird episodes now, and he started to sleep again, so I thought the medicine was working,” Ayelet says. “We met a friendly couple and had Kiddush together. It turned out the husband was the head of investigation at the police station of our town. Only two days later he was the one taking my finger prints after the incident,” she recalls with a shiver.

After the fact, Ayelet contemplates whether Shimon still suffered from the same mental state at this point but became better at hiding it from her, maybe suspecting her of being part of the conspiracy against him. She was shocked when she later read the warning label of the Seroquel medicine:

“Increased suicidal thoughts can occur when first starting treatment with Seroquel … it is recommended that patients and their family members watch for changes in mood and behavior, such as: increased depression or anxiety, and/or rise of suicidal thoughts, restlessness, aggression, or sleep disturbances, particularly upon starting treatment or when a change to the dosage is made.” (Emphasis added)

“He had never been aggressive before,” Ayelet says. “He would never get angry. Never. He was the calmest person I know. Even during the whole delusional time he never yelled, he just stated his delusions calmly as a matter of fact. I don’t know if the medicine caused the aggression.” Ayelet emphasizes that she is not at all against the use of psychiatric medicines when they are needed and used correctly. “He is receiving medication in the psychiatric hospital where he is now. Not Seroquel, but something else, and it really helps him. I visit him every week. Now he can look back at everything and realize how absurd his paranoia was.”

On the day of the incident, March 2, Bob and Fruma came to visit. They had done so every two weeks during the past few months, to talk, help around the house, play with the children, and ease the burden of having three small children under the age of five, and not having supporting family members around. They were not aware of the situation, except from Ayelet’s prayer request to the congregation.

As they arrived, Shimon left to go for a walk. Ayelet broke down crying and shared with Bob and Fruma the troubles and ordeals they’ve been through, and that they aren’t sure what Shimon is suffering from. When Shimon got back, Fruma went to the garden, holding their 3-month-old baby. Abruptly, with no warning, Shimon then walked out to the garden holding a brick, and hit Fruma in the head. Fruma fell over, holding the baby. Ayelet screamed to him to stop, the children screamed in terror, but there was no stopping him. Ayelet tried to protect Fruma, but was hurt herself in the hand. At that point Bob came running out, and Ayelet took the baby and gathered the kids. She fled the scene while calling the police.

“I think I just said our address over and over. I was in such shock, I had forgotten my Hebrew, I just shouted in English that they must come immediately,” she told KNI. “The neighbor’s door was open, so we just walked right in. I told them to lock the door, put on a children’s program and give the kids snacks. They realized it was an emergency and complied. The first call I made after I had called the police was to the psychiatrist we had seen a few days earlier. I pressured him to tell me what he thought was wrong. He said he can’t say after just one meeting and he wants further evaluation, but when I told him what just happened, he was shocked too, and revealed to me he believes Shimon might have schizophrenia.”

It took months before she could see Shimon again. “I really felt widowed, and I still do to some extent,” Ayelet tells KNI. “It was hard to let go of all our plans and realize I might not have the chance to grow old with him.”

Shimon was given a lawyer who said in a statement to the press that “from speaking at length with my client, I had a very hard time communicating with him and I got the impression that he was not in the best mental health, to say the least. We have requested that he be evaluated by a psychiatrist so we can see whether he has any understanding or knowledge of what happened, or his surroundings.”

Ayelet later learned that they had locked up Shimon in an isolated cell for 23 hours a day during the first few months. They denied him medicines and he suffered from deep psychosis. The cell was under surveillance and designed to prevent the prisoner from committing suicide, but that didn’t prevent the voices from telling him to. They told him to hurt himself, and he still has a scar from trying to do that.

Now, in the psychiatric ward, he receives treatment. “Shimon is very upset about what he did,” Ayelet tells KNI. “It’s like waking up from a nightmare to him. He doesn’t understand how this could happen. He gets strong medicines and is cognitively okay – he understands, he is no longer delusional. But the strong medicines make him emotionally numb. His mother died in an accident a few months ago, and he wasn’t even able to cry. He is not back to himself and I don’t know if he ever will be. Psychotic breaks can cause permanent damage to the brain, and we won’t know for a long time if that happened to him.”

“I don’t know what God’s purpose for my life is, but it might have something to do with raising awareness about mental illness among believers,” Ayelet says. “I want to learn more about the spiritual side of this. I want to learn what really happens to people in psychosis and how to help them. There are a lot of believers who suffer, and it’s a taboo in many congregations. I was once skeptic about people’s spiritual experiences, but I have seen this first hand now.”

Ayelet explains that people with this mental illness hear audible voices, and she is convinced that they are demons. “They never tell you to do something nice, it’s always evil,” she says, emphasizing that the enemy is very real and alive in our lives.

However, she doesn’t deny science or psychiatry. “It’s a medical issue, you can see it on the brain in an MRI. Some people receive electric shock therapy for it. There are also genetic factors to mental illness, and traumas which can trigger it. It’s all a very complex issue – but I really believe the root cause is spiritual.”

Ayelet asks KNI’s readers to pray for supernatural strength for her. It’s a tremendous challenge to take care of the kids by herself without family. She also asks to pray for comfort for the grieving over her losses. Her children who miss their father and have to grow up without him also need prayers.

Shimon now prays every day and is establishing a renewed relation with God. They allow him to have a simple phone with only calls and SMS, and he talks to Ayelet every day. Even though he was sentenced to 25 years, good behavior can get him released in as little as ten years.

“The chords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. … He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.” Psalm 18:4,16-17.