Snuff photos show limits of police gag orders in smart phone age


A smartphone was burning a hole in someone’s pocket on Saturday as he (or she) stood over the headless and dismembered body of a young woman dumped in a suitcase next to the Hagana train station in south Tel Aviv.


Moments later there was a picture, and within a day, the shot and a few others went viral on WhatsApp on a cellular collision course violating with impunity a police gag order – one that restricted the release of information on a major development in the case that was made on Tuesday.
Ambulance workers wheeling away the body of Ilona Denise, a Romanian woman beheaded, dismembered, and stuffed in a suitcase, allegedly by her boyfriend. (Credit: Ben Hartman)Ambulance workers wheeling away the body of Ilona Denise, a Romanian woman beheaded, dismembered, and stuffed in a suitcase, allegedly by her boyfriend. (Credit: Ben Hartman)
(Ambulance workers wheeling away the body of Ilona Denise, a Romanian foreign worker beheaded and dismembered, allegedly by her boyfriend. Photo: Ben Hartman)
While there’s probably no clear public benefit to their publication, a quick glance at the photos indicates several details about the victim that are banned by the gag order.
Anyone who’s seen the photos (by now it’s believed to be thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of Israelis) knows a wealth of details that shed light on who the woman was or, more specifically, what type of woman she was, or wasn’t.
Eyes might be the window to the soul – but the body can reveal if a person was an emaciated drug addict who spent every day in the sun. It can indicate if the victim was heavily tattooed, or well fed and having no obvious signs of illness. The body can also provide details about the murder. Did the victim have bruises or stab wounds? Was the victim naked or clothed? Was he or she mutilated and beaten, or was there just a single fatal wound? If a news outlet were to publish such a photo in violation of the gag order, it could potentially be a severe case of obstruction of justice, and it could expect to face the consequences. But WhatsApp? Good luck finding where the photos originated.
The pictures were taken either by a passerby before police arrived, or by someone with access to the crime scene. This could have been one of the first responders.
First responders often take pictures and can be very helpful, giving reporters details of closed crime scenes.
The photos also could have come from one of the dozens of cops at the scene, quite a few of whom were standing around looking none too busy. Most police officers have smartphones, and they, like reporters, might like to take pictures at work and show their friends how messed up their day was.
Since one of the photos online shows a crime-scene investigator in the frame, indications are that at least one of the shots was not taken by a passerby before police arrived.
The fact that the suitcase was reported as a suspicious package and apparently was first opened by the bomb squad would appear to add yet more evidence to the theory that the photographer was a cop or first responder.
Tel Aviv police said on Tuesday that they opened a board of inquiry to probe who took and sent out the photos, but added that if it turns out to have been a cop, the investigation will be handed over to the Justice Ministry department for investigating police.
The controversy over the picture is taking place at the same time that officers have made a major breakthrough in the case, which has been covered under the gag order but is scheduled to be announced Wednesday morning after the order is lifted.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the photos might reveal even more about the inability of police (and also the press) to control the flow of information into the public domain in today’s smartphone era. In the not too distant past, the only cameras on the scene would have belonged to police crime scene photographers and photojournalists kept on the other side of police tape.
Today, with every bystander, first responder, detective, beat cop and journalist having a camera in his pocket, such pictures are begging not only to be shot, but to take flight instantly through WhatsApp and other smartphone apps.
Earlier this year, an erotic video made by a woman’s boyfriend in an elevator went viral in Israel via WhatsApp.
The woman had little recourse, being that there was no website hosting the video – just countless Israeli cellphones with it on their memory card.
The controversy over the headless photo played out on Tuesday in the Tel Aviv crime reporters WhatsApp group. This is a forum for police to report incidents, but also for reporters to share information, phone numbers, crime scene photos and, quite often, good-natured insults.
Three veteran reporters argued that whoever sent out the photos did more harm than good, and that there was no journalistic value whatsoever to the pics.
One went so far as to argue that the police should open an investigation into who took the pictures in order to prevent such cases from happening in the future.
On the other end, two veteran reporters made the case for omerta, with one saying, “Let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot here,” arguing that such leaked photos are an important tool in the reporter’s repertoire, a valuable source of information that police won’t give out.
There appeared to be a consensus that there is no public benefit in running the photos, but the disagreement remained over whether or not such pictures, and the phenomenon of leaking them, are valuable to reporters in the field.
In the meantime, one woman’s tragic end has been viewed by an untold number of Israelis, a final indignity to add to an already horrifying death.