A hot lead brought the search for serial rapist Benny Sela to the mountains around Safed Wednesday as it appeared that at least some of the police investigators' predictions with regard to the escaped convict's behavior might be accurate. Following a Tuesday night let-down when reports of a Sela look-alike in Ramat Gan proved to be unfounded, the search took a sharp turn northward early Wednesday afternoon as at least two independent sources claimed to have spotted the "Tel Aviv serial rapist" in Safed.
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One witness said he was delivering food to soup kitchens in the old quarter of the mountaintop city when a man fitting Sela's description approached him, demanding food.
The suspect, the man said, appeared "exhausted but with clothes that looked new" and sporting a beard and kippa.
Other concerned citizens alerted police that they had found a suitcase with clothes scattered around in front of an abandoned house.
Police arriving at the scene gathered the items and sent them for forensic analysis in the hope they might yield a clue as to the location of Sela, who is usually extremely cautious not to leave trace evidence behind.
The waves of police reinforcement that have moved throughout the course of the past week from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon to Tel Mond, Netanya and Ramat Gan streamed to Safed, as helicopters, K-9 units and hundreds of police on foot combed the city's narrow alleyways and the hills outside the town.
The fact that searches in the area continued well past sunset, hours after they began, indicated the degree of seriousness with which police viewed the Safed lead.
Senior police officers had said Tuesday that they thought Sela might be forced out into the open through a strategy described as a "pressure cooker," and that is exactly what Wednesday's findings indicated.
If the suspect in Safed was Sela, then police suspicions that he was in a religious or haredi community, and that he would be ultimately forced out of hiding by his need for sustenance were dead on.
While optimism prevailed in the North, the Tel Aviv police were squirming under the pressure of the first day of investigation by the Yaron Commission, the external inquiry team appointed by Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter to look in to how Sela managed to escape police custody last Friday.
Among the guests of the commission Wednesday were policemen Issac Bodrashvili and Haim Tirana, the two members of the prisoner escort unit who were transferring Sela when he ran free.
Bodrashvili claimed that he handcuffed the dangerous convict, but the commission was investigating suspicions that the convict had no restraints on whatsoever.
Bodrashivili and Tirana's commander Dep.-Cmdr. Yosef Krispin, head of the Abu Kabir Detention Facility, and Tel Aviv operations officer Asst.-Cmdr. Ya'akov Ish Yemini joined Israel Police's operations chief Cmdr. Bertie Ohayon in facing questions from the investigative panel.
In a related development, the Israel Prison Service revealed during its testimony before the commission over the previous two days that Sela had been given 48 hours advance notice that he would be taken to the Labor Court hearing that was mistakenly scheduled for last Friday. The police, the IPS said, did not receive advance notice.
"My orders demand that I inform the prisoner about the hearing, but not that I inform the police," said Eshel Prison commander Asst.-Warden Yossi Mikdash.