Israeli Feared Dead as Arizona Police Trace Burned SUV

Police say board member of local synagogue primary suspect in death of his wife and three daughters.

An SUV found burning in the Arizona desert with five bodies inside on Saturday was registered to a missing family of five, police in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe said Tuesday. The mother is a native Israeli.

Neighbors who talked to The Associated Press said that Yafit Butwin, who reportedly immigrated to the United States from Israel in the mid-1990s, and her husband James were going through a divorce and that he was battling a brain tumor.

Robert Kempton, the Butwin family acquaintance who first called authorities, told police on Monday that he was worried about them after receiving a note from James Butwin with instructions on how to operate his construction business without him, Tempe police Sgt. Jeff Glover said.

Investigators went to the Butwin home, but Glover declined to specify what evidence was found. He did say that no murder weapon was found in the home.

Glover said that the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office notified them that the SUV in the desert was registered to the Butwin family’s home.

He said that although they can’t be entirely certain that the Butwins are the same five people found in the burning SUV, investigators are so sure that they’re dead that they aren’t looking for them and believe there are no outstanding suspects.

Glover said that the Butwins were experiencing financial difficulties, and court records show that Yafit filed for divorce in September and that the process was ongoing.

Two of the couple’s children were teenagers and one was a pre-teen. The five bodies found in the desert have not been positively identified because they were burned so badly beyond recognition, said Gregory Hess, chief medical examiner for Pima County. He said the bodies could have included older children but not younger ones.

Kempton, who said he and his wife were planning a summer trip to Israel with the Butwins, told The Associated Press that James Butwin’s tumor had returned and that he was discouraged that treatment wasn’t helping him.

Kempton said he has lived in the well-manicured, upper-middle-class neighborhood for 12 years, and the Butwins moved in a few years afterward.

An attorney for Yafit Butwin, Steven Wolfson, told The Arizona Republic newspaper that Yafit Butwin immigrated to the United States in the mid-1990s from Israel and married Butwin in New Jersey. He said the couple was still living together during the divorce under a temporary agreement to share the home. Wolfson said that Yafit Butwin never sought an order of protection and said there was no hint of domestic violence.

Earlier Tuesday, the sheriff’s office said they were also investigating the possibility that the burned bodies belonged to five men involved in illegal activities.

Sheriff’s spokesman Tim Gaffney said a man called investigators Saturday and said that his brother-in-law was involved in illegal activity and feared that he could be among the dead. The man said his brother-in-law told him the night before the bodies were found that he was “going to Vekol Valley to make money” with four of his acquaintances.

The man told investigators that when he tried to call his brother-in-law and the other men on their cellphones, the calls all went straight to voicemail.

Sheriff Paul Babeu said Monday that the location of the smoldering SUV in a known smuggling corridor and the nature of the crime itself had him all but certain that a violent smuggling cartel was responsible. Babeu said that the burned car likely is the same car that a Border Patrol agent saw four hours earlier Saturday when it was still dark.

The agent saw a stopped white Ford Expedition and became suspicious, but when he approached, the vehicle fled and the agent lost track if the vehicle, Babeu said. When the sun came up, the same agent saw car tracks in the area leading into the desert and shortly after, found a smoldering white Ford Expedition, Babeu said.

When the agent approached the car, he saw four burned bodies lying down in the back of the vehicle, and one body in the back passenger seat.