The call from the missing boy’s mother came in at 6:14 p.m. on Monday, not to the city’s 911 hot line or to the local police precinct, the 66th, but to a gritty tire repair shop on a desolate stretch of Wallabout Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The mother reported that her son, Leiby Kletzky, 8, of Borough Park, had failed to return from day camp.
Members of the Brooklyn Shomrim, whose unarmed volunteers help patrol the borough’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, were dispatched, and the search was on.
“The word went out like lightning — we were running against the clock,” said Sam Rosenberg, 56, who runs the Brooklyn Shomrim communications center in the bustling Marcy Tires shop with his brother Mendy, 51. For the past 32 years, the Rosenbergs, who are Hasidic Jews, have handled the phone calls between fixing flats.
After Leiby’s disappearance, the brothers received a barrage of tips. They also helped marshal hundreds of civilians to look for Leiby, who the police say was murdered by Levi Aron, 35, a supply-store clerk from Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood.
The Shomrim helped spot Mr. Aron’s gold car and, about 2 a.m. Wednesday, gave its license plate information to detectives who had just identified Mr. Aron as their suspect after following up on surveillance video from Monday that showed him with Leiby and visiting a dentist office. The police arrested him 40 minutes later and found parts of Leiby’s body in Mr. Aron’s refrigerator-freezer.
In the roughly 32 hours before Mr. Aron’s arrest, Shomrim members flooded Borough Park, on foot and in cars. They helped maintain order, first as the area erupted in a panicky search and later during the funeral procession.
Word spread rapidly to the hundreds of Shomrim members in Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Flatbush. It reached beyond Brooklyn, to other Hasidic areas in the Northeast. Offers to help look for the boy poured in.
“They came from as far as Monsey, Monroe, Lakewood, N.J., Passaic, Lawrence,” Sam Rosenberg said. “There were people here from Boston.”
Sam Rosenberg, his hands and mechanic’s outfit smeared with grease, said the flood of calls was so overwhelming, they began forwarding some to a command center the Shomrim had set up in Borough Park.
The Rosenbergs say they usually field about 100 calls a day and then dispatch responders by radio. Their small booth has several phones, a two-way radio and phone lists posted for volunteer patrol and rescue groups from Long Island to Montreal. Tire sizes and prices are usually spoken in Yiddish, and many signs are in Hebrew.
Many residents in Hasidic areas in Brooklyn opt for the Shomrim hot line over 911, as Leiby’s mother did on Monday. On Thursday, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly noted that “there was about a two- or two-and-a-half-hour gap between the notification to Shomrim and the notification to the Police Department.”
He said that a delay in notifying the police was a “longstanding issue with Shomrim” and that traditionally, “certain members of the community have confidence in Shomrim and go to them first.”
Mr. Kelly did praise the Shomrim as a positive force and said that in this case, the delay apparently did not hamper the investigation.
“We have no problem with Shomrim being notified, but obviously we’d like to be notified at the same time,” he said.
The Rosenbergs have often claimed that the Shomrim responds faster than the police, and that their members have the advantage of speaking Yiddish, the primary language in the Hasidic areas. The brothers say they and the patrolers know their territory like a spider knows its web, and with a flurry of phone calls, they can have local residents blocking streets to trap suspects.
They attribute the low crime rates in Hasidic areas like Borough Park partly to Shomrim patrolers, who work on foot or often two to a vehicle that may be equipped with a radio and a siren. The patrols also often carry walkie-talkies.
Sam Rosenberg said that many children who are reported lost are nearly always found quickly. Shomrim officials sometimes begin the searches themselves, partly to avoid bothering the police unnecessarily.
“We get 10 calls a day for lost children — you can’t hit a panic button every time,” he said. “We know exactly where to search. We search the yeshivas and the buses and work swiftly.”