'As We Speak, at Least One Serial Killer Is Operating in Israel'

Israel's police are missing serial murderers because there is no research on the subject, says criminologist Avi Dawidowicz. So he did the research himself

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
Victims of murders along the coastal road, from the 1960s to ‘80s. “I think there were at least two killers; one murdered the victims who disappeared, the other left the bodies on the ground.”
Victims of murders along the coastal road, from the 1960s to ‘80s. “I think there were at least two killers; one murdered the victims who disappeared, the other left the bodies on the ground.” Credit: HOT 8
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Tell me a little about yourself and when your interest in serial killers started.

I am a criminologist and a retired commander from the Israel Police. I served on the force for 30 years, mostly in investigative roles. My interest in serial murders started after I retired, when I entered the academic world. I headed a program for the study of criminal profiling, an area in which serial murder is very significant because it’s a crime that’s very difficult to solve. The serial killer does his utmost not to be exposed and to ensure that the murder he committed will not look like a murder, or will not be discovered at all. Criminal profiling got me into the whole subject, and then I started to investigate the phenomenon systematically – and discovered, to my surprise, that there are no studies about serial killing in Israel.

Weekend banner.

That makes sense. The murder rate in Israel is relatively low altogether, and serial killing is fairly rare even in countries with a high rate.

Almost all the scientific knowledge we have about serial murders comes from the United States – and there, too, only a small proportion of murder cases are attributed to serial killers.

Spoiler alert: After investigating the subject, your conclusion is that serial killers have operated and are continuing to operate in Israel.

It started back in the 1950s, and I am convinced that at any point in time, even now as we speak, at least one serial killer is operating in Israel.

The definition of a serial killer in the professional literature refers to a number of murders attributed to the same person, with some lapse of time between them. There’s a debate over whether three cases of murder are needed, or whether two are enough.

The term “multiple victims murder” appears in the literature, and it is divided into two categories: serial murder and mass murder. As for the rigid definition [of the former] of three victims and more, I am in disagreement with many researchers, because they don’t count attempted murders.

So cases in which the murderer was not successful in killing an intended victim, even though he tried, are not counted.

That is a fundamental mistake. The murderer intended to kill the victim – who simply survived because someone suddenly surprised them, or he got proper treatment in the hospital, or because – and this is a real [Israeli] case – the murderer’s bullet missed his heart by one millimeter. In other words, something happened that was not dependent on the murderer, his intentions or his means. When researchers don’t count these attempts, they are doing an injustice to their field.

‘Only’ one victim

But there are also cases of other victims of the same murderer who have never been discovered, and they too don’t enter the statistical record.

True, but we have no way of knowing about them. If we have a victim, in one condition or another, we can work with that. Let’s take the case of Moshe Levy as an example.

The so-called “kerosene injector.”

Yes. If we count victims, there was “only” one victim, “only” one body [was found]. But if we count the cases in which he used the same method to kill someone – then there were three victims. His case also illustrates the problematics of defining serial murderers in terms of their number of victims, and also the fact that, contrary to the prevailing belief, a serial killer does everything to blur his trail. [In 1984] Moshe Levy murdered his wife Ilana by injecting her with kerosene and other chemicals. She was hospitalized with serious abscesses all over her body. No one knew that he had caused that condition – on the contrary, he cared for her with great devotion to her last day. The incident was not reported as a criminal act.

A few years later, he had another partner, named Susan Amoyal. She too was hospitalized with serious abscesses. Fortunately, and thanks to the resourcefulness of the medical team that discovered a connection between the two cases – the police got involved and caught him in the act. [She survived.] After his arrest, Levy admitted to what he had done to Ilana, and he was convicted and sent to prison, where he died.

In prison Levy had ties with another inmate and began injecting him with various substances, too – so not to count him as a serial murderer is simply ridiculous. We don’t know the true scale of the serial killing phenomenon, because in some cases no body is found. For example, there is the case of a murderer who pushed a car carrying his family over a cliff [also in Israel]. It looked like an accident and was reported as such, and it took time before the investigators understood that it wasn’t.

Because the connection is not always obvious.

The murderer will always try to cover up the murder, and it’s also difficult for authorities to point clearly to serial killings, either out of fear that it will cause panic, or because they are simply unable to make a connection between cases. We’re not in Hollywood.

In books and movies the murderers always follow the same pattern, and they also make sure to leave a “signature.”

Criminologist Avi Dawidowicz
Criminologist Avi DawidowiczCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Hollywood movie murderers will always choose the same [type of] victims, the same gender, the same age, the same method. But in reality, it just doesn’t work like that. A murderer can kill both men and women of diverse ages and in completely different ways, and so on. That’s what’s known as “linkage blindness” – the inability or blindness of law enforcement when it comes to finding the connection between various unsolved crimes. That’s the reason that here in Israel we underestimate the phenomenon. The authorities find such cases difficult to solve and have a hard time making the connection, because objectively they are difficult to identify.

Missing the connections

There are several hundred missing persons in Israel. Do you think that some of them could be victims of serial killers?

Definitely. These are cases classified as missing persons and not murder cases.

If there are so many flaws and difficulties regarding identification, in making connections and dealing with statistics, how can you be so sure that there are unrecognized serial murderers?

Because this working assumption is based on the fact that a serial killer can operate across time spans of 20 or 30 years, and that some of his actions were likely not counted or reported as acts of murder, but as accidents or as situations involving missing persons. I exclude terror attacks, professional assassins, killings within clans and the like, but still, at least one serial killer has operated in Israel in every period. There are many unsolved cases, there are so-called “unknowns” – namely, bodies and body parts whose identity we don’t know. Given that a certain percentage, albeit very small, of murder cases are serial killings, that is the inevitable conclusion.

Your study includes a table listing the cases of serial murders that have occurred here, a total of 14.

That is why I maintain that it’s happening at any given point in time. If you take all the serial murders in the country, those that fit the definition we talked about earlier, and you examine them on a chronological axis – you will see that there wasn’t a year when a murderer of that kind wasn’t operating here. Over the years, there was always somebody. That doesn’t mean that he commits a murder every day, of course. A serial killer usually targets about five victims on average.

You count the Jewish underground organization in your list.

What they [i.e., the Jewish terror group that targeted Palestinians from the early 1980s until a few years ago] did matches the pattern of serial killing. We have a series of actions, over the years, with breaks. The motivation there is ideological – and that, too, exists in serial murders. Hate crimes.

Hollywood movie murderers will always choose the same type of victims, the same gender, the same age, the same method. But in reality, it just doesn’t work like that.

Let’s talk a little about motivations. If we try to distinguish between them crudely and simplistically, there is the psychological motivation – the release or fulfillment of some inner need – and there are murderers whose motive is utilitarian or material.

The distinction is between an expressive or emotional impetus, and an instrumental one – and each such category divides into subcategories – like ritual murderers, for example. In Israel, because of the small number of [serial murder] cases, this subdividing isn’t needed. What is clear is that it’s the rare and exceptional murderer, again contrary to Hollywood, who’s a psychopath who hears voices and sees apparitions. That happens in movies. The studies everywhere show that psychopathic killers are a minority within a minority.

Coastal road murders

Beyond the cases that have been discovered and the murderers who were caught, you argue that there have been murders in Israel which, from the police’s point of view, are considered separate incidents, but which you maintain are serial murders.

Take, for example, the story of the young women in the area of the coastal road.

You’re referring to a long series of disappearances of young women, which began in the 1960s and ended in the 1980s. Some of them are still missing.

Some people find it difficult to accept the premise of a serial murderer [perpetrating that series of crimes], because it covers such a long period. But those are the time spans in which a serial killer operates. A murderer like that can stop for years, even many years, and then awaken again.

Sixteen young women, some of them not found. The modus operandi look different. The only common element is the geographical area. How can you know that this actually involves a serial killer?

We are talking about an area with a radius of less than 40 kilometers. Research shows that serial killers operate in areas they are familiar with. The time range, as I said, can extend across decades. So we have the time and the space. We see similar features of the type of victim. Young women. Most of the victims who were found were attacked with so-called cold weapons. There is also the common denominator of traveling or taking rides. Some of the women accepted a lift, some traveled or intended to travel by public transportation, and then met him. Given all that, does it make sense to think that these are 16 distinct cases of murder?

You write in an article that in your estimation there were two murderers involved.

A criminalist performs a DNA extraction at a lab in the NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner, 2010.
A criminalist performs a DNA extraction.Credit: Mary Altaffer / ASSOCIATED PRESS

From the get-go, the working assumption should have been that it was a set of serial murders, rather than 16 separate murders. I think there were at least two killers. It’s possible that another killer also operated, who was not connected to the other two. I am excluding the Rachel Heller case from this list, despite the singular acquittal. [In 2002, in a long-anticipated retrial, Amos Baranes received a “mute acquittal,” that is, there was no determination that he was not the murderer of 19-year-old Heller, in 1974.] We have uniformity in terms of time, space and method, and also in the profile of the victims: namely, young women.

One needn’t look for “one to one” in the method: that is, the characteristics of the assault are not necessarily identical in every instance. Furthermore, even when there is no indication of an assault, it can’t be inferred that none took place. It might have been something else. The murderer might have achieved satisfaction in a different way. As a rule, when a young girl is involved, and there are no clear circumstances, the motive is usually sexual. It is not a terror event and it’s not a robbery.

What about the women who weren’t found? It’s hard to make victims disappear. That indicates planning. .

We know, after all, that this is a person of higher than average intelligence. We see an organized pattern – certainly if we’re talking about concealment of a body. If he succeeded in wresting control over the victims and kidnapping them so elegantly, he also has the skills to hide the body. It’s not so hard to make a body disappear.

No?

Absolutely not. To dismember a body and hide the parts? Unfortunately, it’s not difficult. The important thing to take into consideration is that we are not counting attempts. That is absolutely critical for anyone who wants to research the subject. Think of every case of the murder of a girl like that. There may even have been a double-digit number of attempts – girls who refused to get into a car for a lift, or who ignored the man when he approached them at a bus stop, and they don’t consider it important enough to report it to the police. It’s possible that there was also some sort of attempt at assault, and that the girl even went to the police, but it was classified as a minor offense and disappeared into the police oblivion. No one was able to connect between these cases. Today, fortunately, that is less likely to happen, because of digitization.

Many of the murders of the 1970s, the ‘80s and even in the early ‘90s are connected to hitchhiking.

True. Hitchhiking was a significant thing then. But today there are other things. Today we have a date-rape drug and we have social media. The type who in the 1980s would stalk a female hitchhiker is probably the person who puts the date-rape drug in her drink today.

You have written that you attribute 10 cases of children who disappeared in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s to a serial killer.

Between 1974 and 1994 there were 10 cases of children who disappeared in the Tel Aviv area. Eight of them have never been found. The two bodies that were found were of a boy named Shai Binyamin and a girl, Nava Elimelech, and the murderer had tried to hide them, too, but unsuccessfully. All the children were aged 10 to 16. Seven boys, three girls. Eight from the Tel Aviv-Jaffa-Bat Yam area, one each from Givat Shmuel and Ramat Gan. From the viewpoint of time and space, profiles of the victims and method used, in my opinion that is a logical conclusion. Ten cases in such a small area, of children who were kidnapped when they were alone, heightens the probability of serial killing.

If he succeeded in wresting control over the victims and kidnapping them so elegantly, he also has the skills to hide the body. It’s not so hard to make a body disappear.

Do you think the police could have done more? In your articles you use strong words, such as “denial.”

I don’t think we can allow ourselves, from the standpoint of the perspective and knowledge we have today, to judge the investigators of that time harshly. They didn’t have the know-how we have today. Whether they didn’t want to cause panic, or they truly didn’t succeed in making the connection, let’s not forget that back then there were automatic information sharing between police units. It wasn’t until the end of the 1970s that the first such national unit was established.

Then why did you speak about denial?

There is no doubt that the desirable situation would have been for the cases [involving the children] to be united and examined collectively. That wasn’t done, and that is a fact. I don’t think it was a case of malice or of looking away. I think they took it very seriously. Avraham Turgeman, commander of the Tel Aviv district at the time, would finish a day’s work with the police and then travel to sit all night with the special investigative team dealing with the murder of Nava Elimelech, night after night. He couldn’t let it go. Everyone who dealt with those cases is burdened with them to this day.

By the way, at one point they did interpret the cases of the children as a series; the assumption was that if they could apprehend the murderer of Nava Elimelech, one of the cases where we had a body, we would be able to solve the other cases. That’s why vast resources by any scale, were invested in this instance. Unfortunately, to no avail. I am not arguing with the fact that there were flaws of various kinds in some investigations, but there was no malice. To the contrary.

Could the insight that it was a serial killer have helped with the investigations in real time?

That’s a million-dollar question. I believe it could have. I will tell you why: It would have rendered superfluous the debate between the profilers and the investigators. You know, there is a sort of competition between the two groups: the investigators will always say that the profilers don’t really help them, and vice versa. Professionally, I will say in all honesty that I don’t know, but in terms of conception – there is no doubt that if someone who was considered an authority in the field had come and persuaded the investigators that it was a serial killer, it is definitely possible that something might have changed. Whether regarding the way the cases were handled or in keeping them from becoming cold cases.

You said that a serial killer is operating in Israel now. Do you have a hypothesis or a guess about which cases of murder might be involved in that?

No. I am not the police. To know that, I would need to go through all the files and not fall into the trap of looking for the pattern.

If so, what significance, if any, does your assertion that a serial killer is operating in Israel have? Can it really help?

The operative significance of my conclusion is that we need to change the way we work on cold cases.

In other words, you are suggesting a framework for thinking – a way to bring that viewpoint to the table.

Yes. Classic investigative treatment is all well and good, but the technological developments open up additional possibilities. If I were asked, I would suggest to the police that just as they’ve been able to streamline themselves forensically, with DNA, they should make the leap in other spheres as well. They need to arrive at a smart system that can analyze the cases and do cross-checking. That’s expensive, and there is great difficulty both in entering the data and in building up artificial intelligence. I know there have been attempts along these lines, I’m not familiar with all the projects. I know that police units abroad have done it.

But if the method of murder is different in each case and the time span may be long, and overall there aren’t very many common denominators and there are no hard data for crosschecking – then artificial intelligence won’t be able to help, either.

You can work with indicators of time, space and method of operation. Because this involves a connection between information systems, it will also be possible to check potential suspects. After all, we know that many serial killers have a criminal background, because some of their attempts ended in a different offense, such as assault or trespassing. The system can mine information from all sorts of sources – army records, the Israel Prison Service, passport control – and crosscheck it to see who was abroad and was therefore not taken into account, who was on furlough from prison and can therefore be taken into account. That way you get a list of potential offenders.

Take the case of [convicted serial rapist] Benny Sela. With the primitive technology they had back then, they were able to compile list of potential suspects. Benny Sela was among the first 100 on the police list of suspects, and if he hadn’t been caught by chance, in the end he would have been summoned for an interrogation.

With a fusion of case analysis and data mining, good cross-checking is possible. We also have geolocation capabilities. All of those elements can be put to use. It won’t end with a wild flood of information. They won’t solve hundreds of cases, just a few. But in terms of doing justice, every case is a world unto itself.

Comments