A Shot in the Dark

He has known Tel Aviv inside-out for decades. "I passed by these streets, this intersection, hundreds of times. I sat here, in a cafe, dozens of times. I parked near the place and across from it. But I never heard of it." The speaker: a police officer who is not involved in the investigation of last week's double murder in the gay-lesbian club in the basement of the building at 28 Nachmani Street in Tel Aviv.

The veteran officer, who was in the area on assignment, was hinting he believes the killing was not the murderer's first visit to the club nor was he there by chance. At some point the killer was one of the regulars and had returned for his own secret reasons - hatred or jealousy, revenge or consolation.

A gag order is preventing the media from raising questions about the case. The crime reporters, and particularly the photographers who are lurking for prey at the corner of Nachmani and Ahad Ha'am, know more than the papers are being allowed to share with their readers. At the moment they can only raise questions and try to infer the investigation's direction and progress according to the police resources allocated to it by the Tel Aviv District and from earlier, similar cases in terms of public interest. A few years ago there was a tangled investigation in the Shin Bet security service. The head of the investigations branch, or the "Sheriff," as he was known to his friends and often also to the subjects of his investigations, was assigned to solve a mystery which, as it eventually turned out, evolved from the botched attempt to assassinate Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal. Keepers of secrets had the honor of engaging in prolonged and sometimes overlong conversations with the Sheriff. A battle between sophisticated adversaries take time before success is achieved.

Hundreds of people have been questioned, or will be questioned, in the Nachmani Street case. Eyewitnesses, passersby, neighbors and, in time, suspects, too. There are also the wounded, who may be questioned under hypnosis to elicit details repressed in the shock of the event.

Investigations of this kind are largely conducted from the victims outward. To find the murderer, you need to find the motive; and when one is looking for a motive for an assault, the assailant's portrait might be reflected in the victims' faces.

On that Saturday after the Sabbath ended, as did the lives of two young people, the district police chief, Major General Shahar Ayalon, decided that the Tel Aviv Central Unit (Yamar) would handle the case. The Yamar commander, Shlomi Michael, assigned half his troops to the case - three of six teams. One of the most experienced Yamar unit heads, Superintendent Momi Meshulam, was appointed head of Special Investigative Team Nachmani. Previous cases entrusted to Meshulam included the assassination attempts on underworld kingpin Ze'ev Rosenstein, the escape of the serial rapist Benny Sela from police custody and the hit-and-run killing of Meital Aharonson.

Yamar now has to cope with the organizations, the drugs, the detainees in other cases and all the rest with only half its force. The concentration of effort reflects recognition of the distinctive nature of the Nachmani Street crime as a magnet for public attention - from the citizen who lives in the neighborhood and wonders what about his fate had be been faced with an armed killer to the prime minister, whose bodyguards swarmed over 28 Nachmani on Thursday ahead of his visit there.

Hard-bitten detectives, who are accustomed to grim scenes, emerged visibly moved from encounters with the families of the two killed in the shooting spree. They needed both fortitude and forbearance so as not to miss any ramification in the systematic process of ruling out the various alternatives.

To illustrate the complexity of an investigation like this, it is useful to recall murder cases that have jolted the Tel Aviv District and challenged its detectives: Judge Adi Azar, the lawyer Anat Fliner, Prof. David Niv. Those were tough cases to crack and for a time remained in the realm of the unsolvable, until the first two were split wide open and the third in part. No doubt, the investigation of the Nachmani Street killings will also consist of a similar mix of skilled detection, advanced technology and stratagems focused on turning suspicions and snippets of undercover information into evidence that corroborates indictment.

In the division of labor between the district units and national headquarters, the local expertise belongs to the district and the police wide resources exist in Jerusalem and are placed at the investigators' disposal on a case-by-case basis. One of these resources is the criminal identification laboratory (CIL). Its local personnel are the first at the scene, to collect findings; but the CIL at National Headquarters is the professional reservoir of ballistics and document and DNA analysis. The fingerprints that have incriminated generations of offenders have grown less important as perpetrators of crimes increasingly took care to wear gloves. If past experience is any indication, the CIL worked in round-the-clock shifts last week to analyze the bullets that struck the victims and the casings that were left at the scene: from the bullets to the pistol and from it, the hope is, to where it was last registered.

Conjectures that are found to be true do not necessarily create incontrovertible facts, but only more conjectures. Not every precise hit on a victim is amenable to explanation, and when an analysis of the crime scene shows that the murderer was a shooter who hardly ever missed, it is impossible to deduce from this whether he is: (1) a former member of the security forces or the graduate of a course for airplane security guards; (2) a local member of a criminal gang; (3) a hired killer of the kind that are being imported into Israel; or (4) none of the above.

This is also a test of intelligence personnel, who are under pressure to get their sources to provide - not always gratis - information that the senior police command considers to be of supreme importance. According to what the police have made public in previous cases, they have at their disposal additional capabilities - for listening, for photographing, for tracking by means of mobile phones (if the offender was foolish enough to take his mobile phone with him instead of leaving it at home or hiding it in someone else's belongings to create an alibi for himself). The data bases, broken down into segments of previous crimes and personal traits, can be cross-matched, thereby reducing the list of potential suspects. The police also use profilers who produce psychological portraits of suspects, particularly useful in cases of serial crime, and if there are no suspects, then of victims. This is no simple problem; the murderer may have been driven by impulse while at the same time he planned and executed the crimes in cold blood.

In the latest edition of the police magazine, a chief superintendent from the technologies directorate boasts about a multilayered system called "Landscape Shot," offering aerial photos with maps and imaging of every site requested. It is possible to overlay this system with a precise chart of the mobile phones at a particular site at any given time, as well as their movements. For example, it is possible to incriminate a bank robber who is fleeing the scene at a known time and connecting with his getaway driver or motorcyclist. According to the police, this system can depict the movement of the person under surveillance "forward and backward in a time sequence." Just what the police might need to investigate the Nachmani Street case.

While Meshualm's special investigative team piece together every clue to lock onto murder suspects and apprehend them, his colleagues had other worries. It is the duty of the police to maintain public order and prevent friction between groups from turning violent, for example, in public demonstrations and especially in the bastions of any particular group. That was the purpose of the police commissioner's warning not to jump to conclusions about this case and attributing responsibility to the atmosphere that preceded the murder.

And there is fear the murderer will strike again, from the same motive that sent him to 28 Nachmani Street or to lead the investigators astray. While the initiative seems to be in his hands, the advantage of surprise attack fades, especially as victims begin to remember. The elimination of potential suspects from mass lists is a slow, systematic process and proceeds with with the accumulation of findings. In the end, the outcome may not be close to the investigation's beginnings, but the investigators will have the upper hand.