Residents of Kew Gardens Hills and Forest Hills have been subjected to the harassment of Alexander Anthony Soto for many months. The 50-something-year-old would regularly torment passersby as he stood at busy intersections holding high a handmade sign reading, “Jews pay police to kill children.” The signage depicted his convoluted conspiracy theory and suggested an array of proof to his assertion. Back on April 13, I personally responded on behalf of Queens Borough Safety Patrol-Shmira to the Main Street bus stop just off Jewel Avenue after a call of a disturbance was phoned in. At that time, and in the many that followed, due to the nature of freedom of speech laws, the NYPD has been unable to significantly intervene. Shmira volunteers and NYPD officers would regularly urge the man to carry on his day and eventually he would board a bus. Soto was often seen traveling via an MTA bus, affixing the sign into the window for onlookers to notice as he traveled along the predominantly Orthodox Jewish areas of Main Street towards Jewel Avenue, and Jewel Avenue towards Continental Avenue.

This past Shabbos, Soto apparently upped his game as he began walking the streets of Forest Hills from as early as 10 a.m., primarily in the Cord-Meyer Development area. He walked along 110th Street and 112th Street, searching for homes with exposed surveillance cameras. He would then stand with his sign held close to the camera, often for upwards of ten minutes, hoping to gain the attention of homeowners. Soto seemingly enjoyed the hysteria his action caused and took thrills in holding rambling conversations with scared and anxious proprietors. Similar incidents popped up over the afternoon, but none led to violence.

“As residents, we know our environment best. We live in uncertain times where anti-Semitism has become more barefaced. We must be more vigilant by not ignoring unusual activity in our midst,” said Hiski Meirov, Shmira’s founder. “If you are the only person who saw an incident and declined to report it, then it is as if it did not happen.”

Around 7 p.m., Soto reappeared at the corner of 69th Avenue and 112th Street, near the Shmira Forest Hills base, where again he stood before a CCTV device in an attempt to antagonize the residents of the home. However, this time there were children playing in the enclosed courtyard. Residents and visitors to the home in question saw that the man was not leaving and became nervous. Confused and scared for their families, the adults reached out to Shmira, who immediately responded. Members repeatedly requested for the man to leave as there were children nearby, but Soto refused. The members persisted and encouraged Soto to find a new location and move away from the houses. Instead, Soto responded, “I can be wherever I want to be,” pulled out a camcorder, and began recording footage of the children and Shmira members.

Soto proceeded to extract a box cutter from his right pocket and then advanced towards the Shmira members. By this time, passersby had begun to record the incident and the homeowners had brought out their guard dog – a large black Rottweiler. Members noted that residents were clearly on edge and soon shouts of “Call the police!” were heard. Due to the nature of the unfolding incident and the presence of a weapon, police were summoned. On arrival, the police seemed accustomed to this man’s antics, as there have been a consistent string of 911 calls. However, the police never had sufficient reason to arrest Soto and again appeared reluctant to follow through with an apprehension. Their resistance quickly dispelled as they learned of Shmira’s involvement and the threat to the children.

Soto was arrested on the second-degree misdemeanor charge of menacing, fourth-degree charge of criminal possession of a weapon, and harassment in the second-degree. He is currently remanded on Riker’s Island’s West facility, where he will remain until his July 9 hearing in the Queens Criminal Court.

Soto, who speaks fluent English, evidently maintains a social media presence on YouTube, where he has accrued roughly 500 recordings of New Yorkers, nearly all a form of harassment. The videos, spanning the past five years, display obvious signs of a mental illness, as he leads a life fraught with various conspiracy theories. He is often ordered to stop filming by his subjects.

In November of 2015, Soto was arrested in Queens and charged with possession of burglar’s tools after an officer observed him walking with a duffle bag that had a saw protruding. Soto was found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial and was committed to South Beach Psychiatric Center, a Staten Island mental wellness facility. Then in February of 2016, the facility desired to extend Soto’s stay until September, but he was released by mid-August. Also in 2015, the United States District Court Eastern District of New York dismissed a habeas corpus petition submitted by Soto against the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and the South Beach Psychiatric Center.

Yoni Fricker, a longtime Shmira coordinator, provided timely advice for parents: “With long Shabbasos and kids often being out at play, we must make an extra effort to ensure that children are constantly under adult supervision, especially when walking around the neighborhood.”

Since the height of the pandemic and with the continued rise of anti-Semitism, Shmira has kept their services available seven days a week. Rabbi Noach I. Oelbaum acts as the rabbinic authority of QBSP-Shmira and has granted permission for a dedicated group of members to carry hotline phones and radios to communicate amongst themselves over Shabbos. Shmira remains available as a response during times of pikuach nefesh, like when the lives of our community’s children are at risk.

 By Shabsie Saphirstein