26 Years Later, DNA Used to Arrest Suspect in Murder of Israeli Woman

New DNA technology ties Valery Sakovic to the 1993 murder of 27-year-old photography student Vardit Beckerknut

Valery Sakovic, 64, was arrested on suspicion of murdering Vardit Beckernut, February 6, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Last week, the police arrested Valery Sakovic, 64, in the 1993 murder of Vardit Beckerknut. Using recent developments in technology, police were able to connect Sakovic to the murder using a DNA sample found at the scene of the crime. Judge David Shaul Gabai Richter extended Sakovic’s remand by 10 days on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, the Jerusalem District Court rejected the police’s appeal against lifting the gag order on the case, allowing the press to report on the proceedings.

The body of Vardit Beckerknut, a 27-year-old photography student who lived in the Judean Hills kibbutz of Kiryat Anavim, was found in the Eshtaol forest near Beit Shemesh in November 1993. Her body showed signs of violence and suspected rape. She had last been seen waiting for a ride from Tel Aviv, and was suspected to have been killed by a man driving a Subaru. Despite extensive efforts over the years, and even though a DNA sample believed to belong to the murderer was collected at the scene, her murderer remained at large for 26 years.

In his interrogation, Sakovic, a Belarusian immigrant and divorced father of two, admitted he was at the scene, but denied any involvement in the murder. He was arrested on the basis of evidence obtained using new technology that did not exist at the time of the murder, recalling the recent solving of the 1998 murder of Noa Eyal. A few weeks ago, police detectives arrived at the Welfare Ministry housing where Sakovic resides and obtained a DNA sample with his consent, which matched the DNA found at the murder scene.

According to the police, Sakovic immigrated to Israel in 1990, and returned to Belarus in 1994. He moved between the two countries several times, and last returned to Israel in 2018.

At the hearing on Tuesday, the police spokesperson said that others had been investigated in connection to the murder. Sakovic’s lawyer, public defender Michael Ironi, said that the police appeared to be exerting heavy pressure on him to confess to the murder. He also claims that the police do not have sufficient objective evidence to tie Sakovic to the crime. “I don’t want to find myself in similar cases,” Ironi said, “with a case built entirely on a confession, if it is a false confession.” Ironi also argued that his client is cognitively impaired and suffers from numerous medical problems.

Judge Gabai Richter announced the extension of the suspect’s remand: “The evidence in the case far exceeds the threshold of a reasonable suspicion. It includes objective evidence in addition to the DNA evidence.”

Earlier this month, outgoing Jerusalem police district commander Yoram Halevy visited Raya Beckerknut, Vardit’s mother, and expressed his hope that her daughter’s murderer will be caught. “I hope they’ll catch Vardit’s killer and that I will get to see it before I die,” Beckerknut told Haaretz. “The police have stayed in touch with us in the last years, and Yoram, too, who is handling it personally. My husband died eight years ago and he didn’t get to see this.” Beckerknut also commented on the Noa Eyal case. “I’m happy for them [that her killer was caught], and I hope that we will also get some kind of closure after so many years.”