Escaping Abuse: How Lerai Koppel Became a Fugitive

December 26, 2022
Leah and her chldren

Last week, eight and a half years after she took her three children and fled to Israel, Lerai (Leah) Koppel landed back in LAX and was arrested by LAPD on charges of kidnapping. A few hours later, with her attorney and her son Adam by her side, she signed a pre-arranged deal admitting to a misdemeanor in exchange for having the 2014 kidnapping charges dropped, allowing her to avoid jail time. In a phone interview the day before she boarded the plane to return to the U.S., Koppel recounted how she went from being a hard-working mom with a successful career as a teacher, to a fugitive.

“My ex-husband abused us for years; it was an emotional, verbal and physical abuse. I filed numerous police reports, had restraining orders, but nothing helped. I stayed at a shelter for thirty days after he had threatened my life, our dog was found dead, and he said that I am going to be next. A homicide detective told me that this things never end well and I should leave. At one point he even pointed a gun at my sons and threatened to kill them. They told me, ‘Mom, if we need to, we will defend ourselves against him.’ They urged me to leave and I agreed; I saw no other way.”

Koppel, 60, packed a couple of suitcases and filled them with clothes and police reports that documented years of severe abuse and bought a one-way ticket to Israel for her and her children: Adam (14), Zach (13), and Amy (10).

Soon after, her ex-husband opened a criminal case against her and demanded that the kids be returned to the U.S. “I came in front of a panel of seven judges, and they all said it’s a black-and-white case and that they won’t extradite me back to the States. Once Israel realized my ex was dangerous, they backed me up all the way. They understood my life is in danger,” said Koppel.

While Israel did give the father of the three children the opportunity to see them under supervised visitations, he declined to do so. “He didn’t feel he had done anything wrong and didn’t want to go through intervention or have any of that.”

Years passed and Koppel found work as an English teacher. “I didn’t know what to do and how to make a living, and someone said, ‘You can teach English to Israeli kids,’ and so I did. They came to my home, sat by the kitchen table, and learned English with me. It was a stark difference from the job I used to have back home—I trained teachers and worked with the school district—but it was fine. I had to make a living and support my kids.”

On November 2 of this year, she finally felt secure enough to travel, and decided to go on a vacation to Greece. She went on a cruise with her youngest daughter Amy, now 18, and older daughter, Stephanie (35) from a past relationship.

“I knew that I was on the Interpol red list and checked from time to time to see if I still appeared there, but couldn’t find my name anymore and thought that the red notice was removed,” she admitted. “I didn’t consult with an attorney, but at that point all my kids were adults, I had an Israeli passport, and my ex-husband had passed away a year ago in October due to alcohol abuse. My son Adam was told by one of his father’s sisters that he drank himself to death; he was a heavy drinker.”

Taking all that in mind, Koppel felt she could finally put the past behind and relax a little. However, once she arrived in Greece, she was politely asked to step aside and was put on hold.

“A police officer took me to the police station and immediately realized that something didn’t make sense. The case was from 2014, my kids were adults, it didn’t add up. He felt so bad he decided to come to court with me. He said he doesn’t usually do this, but it all seemed wrong and he wanted to help.”

The judge realized it was an unusual case and agreed to release her for the time being until the case could be resolved. “I was told I can’t leave Greece and needed to sign in at the local police station every Monday. I went to the hotel and waited to see if they’ll decide to extradite me back to the USA.”

The dream vacation that became a nightmare still had some redeeming moments. “I have to say that I met amazing people, like George, the police officer and his family who brought me food, coffee, and tea throughout my stay. His family came with him to visit me, we sat and drank coffee together; we all became fast friends. He also encouraged me to get out of the hotel and see the island. He told me, ‘Try to take care of yourself.’ There were days that were really, really hard. I didn’t know what was going to happen and George and his family kept encouraging me that things will work out. In a way it reminded me of the beginning time in Israel, when I just arrived and everyone were so helpful and welcoming, but at the same time, it was scary because I didn’t know what’s going to happen, and am I going to be extradited or not.”

Six weeks after the ordeal began, it ended with the Greek judge’s decision to let Koppel return to Israel. It was so unexpected that Koppel and her attorneys, in Israel and the U.S., still don’t know what to make of it.

Attorney Jim Tierney, Koppel’s high school friend who represents her, said in an interview with the Jewish Journal that it’s a mystery why the Greek authorities decided to release Koppel despite the Interpol warning. “The DA in San Bernardino also asked me how come she was not extradited back here, but I really don’t know. I guess they realized this is not an ordinary case; they received all the documents detailing what entailed and decided to let her go.”

Back on safe land, Koppel had a hard decision to make: remain in Israel for the rest of her life, or go back to the U.S. and fight the case against her. She decided to do the latter.

Back on safe land, Koppel had a hard decision to make: remain in Israel for the rest of her life, or go back to the U.S. and fight the case against her.

“We have an agreement in place with the DA for her to return here and appear in court on Thursday,” said Tierney. “LAPD will arrest her once she arrives at LAX and then she will go directly to San Bernardino court in Victorville. The deal is that she will enter a non-contest plea to a reduced charge, a misdemeanor, which means that she doesn’t admit any wrongdoing but wants to resolve the matter without dragging it in court. They want this matter to be resolved.”

Koppel first met Tierney through his girlfriend (now his wife) who was her best friend back in 1979.  They kept in touch with her throughout the years and when Koppel started having problems with her husband and needed an attorney, Tierney was the obvious choice.

Koppel wants to stay in the U.S., where her sons are currently living. Her son Adam is at West Point Military Academy and Zack is an army ranger who is deployed in Kuwait. Amy, now 18, had returned to the States for the first time in order to plead with the DA to remove the charges against her mom. “She traveled back when I was still in Greece,” said Koppel. “She met with the DA, explained the situation and how everything I did was in order to save their lives, but he said that although he understands, I still need to face the consequences of my actions and go to court.”

Tzvika Gabriel, an attorney with Keep Olim (a non-profit organization that supports new immigrants to Israel), who had been helping Koppel ever since she moved to Israel, believes not only that Koppel should not face criminal charges, but also that she should be compensated for the mishandling of her case by the Californian authorities. “This was sheer negligence,” he said.

The day before she boarded the plane that took her back to the U.S., Koppel went to Jerusalem, said a prayer and placed a little crumpled piece of paper between the cracks of the Western Wall. “This is the first thing we did when we got to Israel: We went to the Western Wall and asked God to help us, and by the grace of God, people have been protecting us ever since. You can go crazy thinking why did this happen to us, why were we victimized like that again and again? The last few days were so dark and hard, but the beauty of humanity gives me hope. So many people have been good so good to me and my kids, and I forever will be grateful to them.”

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.