A Tragedy Diluted: Behind the Headlines of Shul Crash Suspect


poale-tzedekBy C. DiSabato

We all fall prey to our emotions at times. Our better judgment, often due to an unwillingness or incapacity to seek the truth, mistakenly guides our decision-making processes.

The numerous reports and blogs surrounding the circumstances of the April 27th car crash on the steps of a Squirrel Hill Synagogue outside of Pittsburgh serve as glaring examples.

For many, the ‘Messiah man’, as the individual was sensationally referred, is a sideshow…a freak…and even a religious zealot according to primarily Jewish publications and blog posts.

Yet, as is normally the case with incendiary news headlines and emotionally misconstrued reporting, the truth has been marred by insensitivity, poor judgment and complete lethargy in discovering the root cause of the occurrence.

The young man responsible for careening into the front steps of the building is not a religious zealot, nor does he medically have the capacity to determine whether he actually believes himself to be the Messiah.

How am I so sure? I’ve known him for all 30 years of his life, fifteen of which have been spent in a living gehenom battling the crippling effects of mental illness. How do I know? I’m his brother.

Any real journalist understands that the true story is hidden deep beneath the eye-catching headline. This story is no different.

First, everyone must objectively remember that this is nothing more than a car crash. In fact, the location of the crash reportedly has been the site of numerous accidents in the past.

Had this accident occurred outside of a supermarket and the same incoherent comments been made by the driver, everyone would have quickly recognized that the mental state of the man was surely less than ‘sane’ and dismissed any propagandist notions implied by the reports.

Instead, ludicrous insinuations of ‘hate crime’ and religious zeal played on the emotions of readers/viewers. Some reports went so far as to mention Osama bin Laden and quote one woman on the scene as likening the noise of the crash to that of “a bomb.”

A car accident involving a mentally ill young man has been manipulated and construed into something far from the truth. But sadly, this is nothing new for a ‘shock-driven’ media in the modern age.

Fact is all-too often replaced with sensationalism. Truth is lost in flashy headlines.

Ultimately, societal taboos are perpetuated by an unwillingness to utilize journalism for its intended purpose — as a civic safeguard for the society it represents.

This by no means lessens the seriousness of the event, nor in fairness, does it suggest that reporters on the scene over-stepped ethical boundaries by merely quoting eyewitness accounts.

Furthermore, the relief my family feels in that no one was injured (save for unverified minimal claims by the passenger) cannot be understated. Although I do not personally practice organized religion of any kind, the fortuitous outcome in terms of non-fatality is nothing less than a ‘miracle.’

Yet, were we members of a society unafraid to develop a better understanding of mental illness, the headlines might have read, “Meat-headed Marine Mauls Mentally-ill Man.”

Do not misconstrue my sentiment. This is merely an example of a sensationalistic headline emphasizing my point about responsible journalism. This headline would have been as inappropriate as the ‘Messiah’ headlines, considering there were reportedly 30 other people responsible for apprehending the driver and passenger.

None-the-less, to be clear for those who would twist my actual words as the original headlines did in the case of my younger brother, my family has a long legacy of military service traceable from my great-grandfather to father. This has instilled a deep personal respect for the commitment and sacrifices made by service personnel.

Had I been confronted with the same situation as Mr. Cohen, the Marine who helped restrain the two young men at the scene, my actions would have paralleled his.

Now to the story behind the story…the real headlines that otherwise would never be known because it is far easier and financially beneficial for media entities to report on sensational topics than conscientiously address faux pas subjects like mental illness.

Ironically, the story begins nearly 15 years ago behind the wheel of a car in front of a different ‘religious’ location, a Catholic High school in the Midwest.

At the time on this particular day, the grossly mislabeled ‘Messiah man’ – my brother Adam – was like any other high school student.

He had just finished his final class of the day; enjoying the minimal responsibilities afforded the majority of teenagers in America, socializing with “friends” outside the school’s entrance.

But this particular day for Adam did not mirror the normal day for most high school students in the United States.

While sitting defenselessly in his car, Adam was violently assaulted. Although the circumstances leading up to the attack remain somewhat unclear to authorities, family members and witnesses, the results were clear as glass.

The attacker, aided by a collaborator providing a distraction, delivered a violent punch to the side of Adam’s head. The unsuspecting blow made direct contact with Adam’s temple.

A medical degree is not required to understand the seriousness of a pinpoint strike to this region of the body.

Adam was hospitalized thereafter having suffered brain-trauma and displaying immediate signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to treating medical professionals.

There aren’t enough words to describe the heartbreak and struggles experienced by Adam, or our family, since that day.

My baby brother, my parent’s youngest son, was stripped of his chance to live a fruitful, ‘normal’ existence.

Years of therapy, lengthy stints in psychiatric facilities, expert-approved prescription drug cocktails, failed relationships, anxiety, depression, listlessness, lethargy, suicidal thoughts, ridicule by extended family, social ineptitude and overall emotional pain have consumed him from that point on.

Adam’s development following the brutal attack was nothing like that of the average high-school kid heading toward adult-hood. He has known nothing but fear and failure, emotional and psychological growth stunted – truly by no fault of his own.

Just as this recent car crash affected the lives of others, so too has his situation and state-of-being affected those closest to him. Yet, insensitive and irresponsible headlines have denigrated his, and my family’s, heart-wrenching fight to achieve some semblance of ‘normalcy’ for the past 15 years.

The conveniently flashy headlines dilute the fact that Adam comes from a home guided by parents who have selflessly sacrificed for their children’s’ well-being from day one.

Specifically, had it not been for my mother’s professional experience in the mental health field, the “tragedy” of damaged Synagogue steps could have been potentially preceded by actions of far greater consequence years earlier.

A marriage of 35 years, 3 bachelor’s degrees among us, 1 master’s degree, ownership of two small businesses, a life-time of support and most poignantly, a half-lifetime of suffering through the effects of mental illness as a family…all marred and denigrated by sensational headlines.

As you read this, my brother sits alone in an Allegheny County jail cell, naked, on suicide watch.

Many of you in the general public and those psychiatric “experts” who denied Adam admittance into Western Psychiatric Institute a short time before the accident, in spite of recommendation by his social worker, will go about daily lives and sleep soundly tonight.

Some of you will laugh with friends over a beer after work. Others of you will go to class at the local community college or esteemed university. If you are fortunate like me, you will look into the eyes of your wife or child and know that an unbreakable bond of love is shared between you, confident that tomorrow brings hope for a bright future.

Adam DiSabato, my baby brother, my parent’s youngest son, will look into the abyss and see only darkness.

He won’t laugh with friends, go to class, hug his wife or daughter, and sadly, he will not see hope for a brighter tomorrow. Not because he’s stuck in an Allegheny County jail cell, but because the seemingly unbreakable bars that confine and control him are in his mind.

Our only hope, as members of a family who lost someone dear to us years ago, is that someday he will break-free from the pain and suffering of an illness others are too afraid to understand and rightfully find a way to live, love and laugh, ‘normally,’ like you and me.

{Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. This letter should be studied all over, especially within our community.
    It is powerful on many levels and aspects.
    There is no need for any comment on it… i will pray for your brother and the whole family of yours.
    Hashem should bless you and give you brighter days.

  2. Thank you, and I hope this gets widespread distribution. You may never hear of the positive ripple effects that will result, but result I’m sure they will.

  3. unfortunately the news cycles on the internet are so fast that its uncontroled
    so i take everything with a ‘pound of salt’

  4. Is it possible for the Matzav editor to post the e-mail address of the author?

    This story is truly a rachmanus.

    The person is not a developmental disabled person who would be described as a ‘shota’ in halacha. This person who suffered a traumatic brain injury and his behaviors are as the gemarah calls ‘itim chocham, itim shota’. When the symptoms flare up they are called a shota but they are otherwise stable. A mentally ill person CAN have a license and do well when things are okay.

  5. The article is about the media. We shouldn’t miss the point. Our unsatiable thirst for news and headlines, whether or not truly accurate, causes untold suffering daily.

  6. Having had family members with mental illness, this letter brought tears to my eyes. We should please merit to have the true Messiah come so no person may be ill, physically or mentally.


  8. I was one of the people who was able to catch and hold the passenger of the car that crashed into our shul. Believe me when I say that I have a great deal of empathy for Mr. DiSabato and the strain his circumstances have put on him and his family.

    However, when the accident occurred, there was no thought other than that we were being attacked. We were not aware of Mr. DiSabato’s impairment. There was a loud explosion, and a cloud of smoke. The driver of the car, Mr. DiSabato, called to the passenger to “Run, Run!”. It is truly a miracle that no one was on the sidewalk in front of the shul, and that no one, including the people in the car, were hurt, but that initial reaction was perfectly reasonable.

    The two questions I have are, why did Mr. DiSabato have a driver’s license, and, if he is on medication, why was it not monitored?

    This is not the first time a car has missed the turn and run up onto the shul’s property causing damage. The City of Pittsburgh will be placing a barrier along the sidewalk to hopefully prevent this from happening again.