Death Penalty May Be Sought – Kids Drugged? Dad Pleads Not Guilty In Killings — (The New Jersey Record)

SSRI Ed note: Father on antidepressants splits with wife, in bitter custody dispute, he suffocates his 2 children. Gets consecutive life sentences, dies in prison.

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The New Jersey Record

July 1, 1994

Author: By MARY JO LAYTON, Staff Writer; The Record

Bergen County authorities say they are investigating whether Avi Kostner’s two children were drugged before they were suffocated, a factor that could bolster a death-penalty case.

Kostner pleaded not guilty to the killings Thursday.

“It’s possible [the children were drugged]. There was medication found in the home,” Prosecutor John J. Fahy said.

If toxicology reports expected within a few weeks indicate the children were drugged, that evidence and other factors would be crucial in building a death-penalty case against Kostner, Fahy said.

Fahy declined to elaborate.  However, a law enforcement source said investigators discovered a prescription for a depressant drug they suspect Kostner may have used to render his 12-year-old daughter, Geri Beth, and 10-year-old son, Ryan, unconscious before killing them.

Authorities suspect the children may have been drugged before they died, because their bodies showed no signs of injury or a struggle.

According to court records, Kostner, 50, of Teaneck, suffers from depression and has taken medication for the condition.

“The decision [to seek the death penalty] will hinge on how much premeditation was involved,” Fahy said. The prosecutor said he expects to make a decision within a month, after he receives the toxicology reports.

Kostner could not use his condition in an insanity plea, Fahy said, because “depression is not a mental illness that would cause someone not to be responsible for his actions. It’s not a legal defense.”

If the state seeks the death penalty, Fahy said, he would consult with Kostner’s attorney to determine whether a serious mental illness existed.

In court Thursday, Kostner was shackled and handcuffed, but appeared composed. He lowered his head frequently as he responded to routine questions by Superior Court Judge Sybil R. Moses.

His attorney, Carl Herman of Livingston, entered not guilty pleas to both counts of murder. Kostner is being held on $1 million bail.

Kostner, who had been remanded to the Bergen Pines County Hospital, where he had been under psychiatric observation, was transferred Thursday afternoon to the Bergen County Jail, where he remains on a suicide watch, Fahy said.

Authorities say Kostner has told them he suffocated his children nine hours apart with his bare hands, but authorities are still piecing together the series of events that led to the children’s deaths on Sunday.

Their bodies were discovered in the back of a truck parked behind Teaneck Town Hall, with Kostner slumped over the steering wheel.

Even when defendants confess to crimes for which they are charged, they are permitted to plead not guilty in court and routinely do so upon consultation with their attorneys.

Investigators suspect the killings may have been committed in response to a decision by Kostner’s ex-wife, Lynn Mison of Wayne, to move the children to Florida. The move was to have occurred today. Fahy said that based on court-designated visitation rights, Kostner would have had the children for a month, beginning in mid-July.

The couple had been engaged in a bitter custody fight, which was fueled by religious differences between Kostner and Mison. She had converted to Judiasm when the couple married, but renounced the faith after the divorce and had been raising the children as Christians.

In weighing evidence to determine whether the killings were premeditated, Fahy noted that the children died about nine hours apart and that investigators have collected seven mailings containing a family portrait of Kostner and his children, four of which were postmarked with Monday’s date and bear Kostner’s signature. One contained a letter, but Fahy refused to divulge its contents.

The photos were received by The Record and other publications in North Jersey.

A handwriting analyst hired by The Record determined that the writing on the envelope was Kostner’s.

On at least three occasions between 1986 and 1988, Kostner, frustrated with the Family Court’s treatment of his case, called for dramatic measures to improve the judicial system regarding fathers’ rights, said Bruce Eden, chairman of the New Jersey Council For Children’s Rights.

According to Eden, Kostner said “somebody is going to have to kill someone to wake them up.”

“It was a general statement, but I was wondering if it was going to be him,” Eden said.

Eden said his organization sent a letter to the court about a year ago detailing the “volatile” situation involving Kostner. A copy of the letter was unavailable Thursday.

Copyright 1994 Bergen Record Corp.
Record Number:  1675176


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Masada Madness — (Jewish Journal)

By Jewish Journal

June 11, 1998

Kostner’s children were found dead in the back of a borrowed Isuzu Trooper on June 26, 1994, killed by a combination of tranquilizers and suffocation. Both showed signs of struggle. Kostner was in the front seat, unconscious from an overdose of the same tranquilizer. He confessed to the slayings two days later from his hospital bed.

Avi Kostner, the New Jersey man who said he killed his two children because he couldn’t bear to let his ex-wife raise them as Christians, is himself dead. He died in prison of cancer on June 1. He was 53. Death came just 13 months after Kostner began serving two consecutive life sentences for the 1994 murders of his children, Geri Beth, 12, and Ryan, 10.

A jury had voted to spare him the death penalty after accepting his lawyer’s claim of mitigating circumstance: that Kostner’s religious belief in his deed showed he was insane. “I prepared a defense based on what would save my client’s life,” the lawyer, Cathy Waldor, said last week. “Some One else, higher than I, made a different judgment. And She took just 13 months to render it.”

Kostner had refused for nearly two years to let Waldor mount an insanity defense, seeking repeatedly to dismiss her as his counsel. He wanted to stand trial to defend his actions. But the court rebuffed him. He finally pleaded guilty in February 1997 to forestall an insanity plea.

Even then, he tried to use the sentencing hearing as a soapbox. He insisted to the end that he killed the children as a religious duty. Nobody took it seriously. Prosecutors called him a vengeful, self-absorbed man who murdered his children to get back at his ex-wife and then tried to hide behind his religion.

As for Jewish community leaders, they uniformly expressed horror at Kostner’s religious claims. “No one wanted anything to do with him,” Waldor says.

Kostner’s children were found dead in the back of a borrowed Isuzu Trooper on June 26, 1994, killed by a combination of tranquilizers and suffocation. Both showed signs of struggle. Kostner was in the front seat, unconscious from an overdose of the same tranquilizer. He confessed to the slayings two days later from his hospital bed.

Kostner had taken the children out for dinner, a movie and bowling. He was to have handed them over to their mother the next day, after losing a seven-year custody battle that centered on their religious upbringing. Instead, he handed them Xanax over dessert, telling them it was vitamin C. Their mother, Lynn Sturman Mison, had converted to Judaism shortly after her 1979 civil marriage to Kostner, but returned to Episcopalianism following their 1986 divorce. She later remarried. In her divorce petition, she called Kostner an abusive, self-centered, manipulative man.

Few disagreed. His own children once begged the judge not to make them stay with their father. His allies in a local “men’s rights” group, where he sought support in his custody battle, described him as a “taker” who tried to manipulate everyone he met.

Kostner lived for two decades in and around Teaneck, N.J., becoming a fixture in the local Jewish community. He was a regular at several synagogues and a volunteer scoutmaster with a Jewish Boy Scout troop. Most knew him as a college-educated, impeccably dressed businessman who had served with distinction in the Israeli army. The truth was very different. Long Island-born, Allen Carl Kostner was a high school dropout, abandoned by his father and raised, he said, by an alcoholic mother and an abusive stepfather. He served briefly in the U.S. Navy but was convicted of dereliction of duty and discharged in 1963. He moved to Israel but never took citizenship or joined the army. He left after the Six-Day War, settling in New Jersey. He subsisted for long periods on a psychiatric disability pension, with stints as an Amway salesman, cab driver and Hebrew teacher. He often turned to synagogues for handouts or odd jobs to pay his rent and family-court costs, claiming that he was a victim of his in-laws’ supposed anti-Semitism. “Everyone helped him out,” says Rabbi David Feldman, of Teaneck Jewish Center.

Feldman knew Kostner better than most. He stuck with him, visited him in prison, agreed to say “Kaddish” for the children. Feldman says: “[Kostner] was not a religious man. Dealing with the man, knowing what moved him, I can tell you it was not religion. He did those terrible things for reasons of domestic strife, not religion. To say otherwise is a disgrace to religion.”

Kostner wanted to prove otherwise. He wanted a trial to air the “issues” in his case: fathers’ rights, unfairness in the family courts, his in-laws’ supposed anti-Semitism and, especially, the religious duty of Jews to resist apostasy at all costs.

It would have been a grotesquely interesting trial. Kostner would have tried to have rabbis and historians testify to the ancient, honored Jewish tradition of mass suicide in the face of forced apostasy. He would have cited Masada, the medieval martyrs of York and the Maccabean tale of Hannah and her sons as precedents. Witnesses might have been called to testify to the modern consensus that the loss of children through intermarriage is today’s Holocaust.

The prosecution would have had to reply that times have changed, that Jews are no longer at war with the non-Jewish world, that intermarriage and even religion-switching are now facts of life. That, Kostner must have hoped, would have won him some grass-roots Jewish support.

Broader questions would have been raised outside the courtroom. Some might have argued that Kostner’s fragile mental state left him vulnerable, like Yigal Amir, to the inflammatory rhetoric around him. Some would have urged reflection on the danger of angry words, with predictable retorts blaming Kostner’s deeds on liberal permissiveness.

But there was no trial. No one explored the meaning of Kostner’s crimes. No one wanted to. Now he’s dead. We’re off the hook.

Kostner was buried on June 5, after a delay while Feldman hunted for a cemetery. The body was refused at the cemetery Kostner had requested. He wanted, Feldman said, to rest near his grandfather, “the only one who ever showed him love.”

Feldman found another cemetery and buried Kostner there, at the edge of the park, away from other graves, because he “was not repentant,” Feldman said. “He regretted the loss of the children, but he didn’t regret the deed. He continued to believe that he was justified.”

Kostner considered himself a martyr in the Jewish war for survival against apostasy. He was monstrously misguided. But he didn’t invent the war.

J.J. Goldberg is the author of “Jewish Power: Inside the Amercan Jewish Establishment.” He writes regularly for The Jewish Journal.