'TA cult leader enslaved 17 women'

Police arrest self-styled 'spiritual guru' Goel Ratzon, 59, after 7-month undercover investigation.

Self-styled spiritual 'guru' Goel Ratzon.  (photo credit: Channel 10 [file])
Self-styled spiritual 'guru' Goel Ratzon.
(photo credit: Channel 10 [file])
A 59-year-old cult leader from south Tel Aviv who wasromantically involved with 17 women and fathered 40 children with them wasarrested on Tuesday morning on suspicion of "enslaving" members ofhis group and raping a number of the women.
Goel Razton, a self-styled 'spiritual guru,' was arrested during police raidson two addresses in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood on Tuesday morning,following a 7-month-long undercover investigation.
His 17 partners were detained for questioning, and later taken with theirchildren into temporary protective care by the Ministry of Welfare and SocialServices.
Police have refused to disclose at this stage whether the children had becomevictims of sexual offenses, saying that the investigation was still active.
A woman who had previously lived with Ratzon before leaving the cult is widelybelieved to have tipped off the authorities and set the investigation inmotion. Ratzon's defense attorney, Shlomzion Gabai, said her client hadsuspected that a former insider acted as a source on behalf of the authorities.
Ratzon was cooperating with police during the investigation, and answeredquestions, telling police that everything that went on in his homes took place"out of free will."
Sources say he is attempting to portray a "business as usual"approach during questioning.
A media gag order on the arrests was lifted on Thursday.
Dep.-Cmdr. Shlomi Michael, head of Tel Aviv police's Central Unit, said duringa press conference on Thursday, "We have succeeded in gathering a greatdeal of evidence regarding the offenses of holding people under conditions ofenslavement, and rape."
He added, "Three days ago, the open phase of the investigation began. TheCentral Unit, together with other police units, arrested the suspect, anddetained 17 women and 38 children - nine of them toddlers."
Michael added that the detectives who ran the investigation "were exposedto very difficult scenes, despite their long experience."
One detective broke down in tears in the course of the investigation, Michaelsaid.
Ratzon's remand was extended on Wednesday by 12 days during a Tel Aviv Magistrate'sCourt session held behind closed doors. In addition to rape and enslavement,police said he was under suspicion of inciting the women to commit suicide.
Two women were also arrested - one on suspicion of physical abuse, and theother on suspicion of failing to report abuses to the authority.
The investigation was launched by Tel Aviv police's Central Unit in July 2009,when welfare services received information over alleged "sexual offenseswithin the family," police said.
After receiving the intelligence, an unprecedented inter-organizational effortwas launched, involving dozens of police detectives, 150 social services employees,and central district state prosecutors, who concluded that sufficient evidenceexisted to prosecute Ratzon.
Despite a number of media reports claiming that police were upset with socialservices for failing to act sooner to disband Ratzon's cult, police strenuouslydenied making such accusations.
"We would like to stress that the investigation was carried out in closeand full cooperation with social services and state prosecutors, and policehave no links to the various claims being floated in the media," Tel Avivpolice said.
Police prioritized the investigation above other cases and were allocatednearly unlimited funds out of fear for the safety of the women and children,one source close to the investigation said this week.
Goel Ratzon has long been the target of suspicion by authorities, and welfareservices are facing intense criticism for not acting sooner to disband thegroup.
But the women who lived with Ratzon did soon a voluntary basis, and both policeand welfare services believe they were powerless to act until newanti-enslavement legislation was introduced in 2006.
Previous checks on children from Ratzon's group, carried out by social servicesat kindergartens, found that they were well dressed, well fed, and equipped forschool, a fact social services believes ruled out the possibility of anintrusive investigation up until now.
An amendment to the anti-enslavement law, which prohibits anyone to "holda person in conditions of slavery, including sexual slavery," enabled theauthorities to act this week. The offense carries a 16-year maximum prisonsentence.
The authorities are interpreting "slavery" in this case to mean "psychologicalslavery," resulting in total control by Ratzon of the women and childrenwho lived with him in several different apartment complexes.
Armed with the new legislation, sources said, it was possible to move againstRatzon since the evidence allegedly shows that the women had "nochoice" but to comply with his demands.
The undercover investigation made use of electronic monitoring equipment, andmay have relied on an insider or a former insider. Detectives mapped out whereeach woman and child slept in Ratzon's Tel Aviv housing complexes.
Social services are now highly concerned over how the women will react to thearrests and the sudden manner in which their routine was disrupted. One sourcedescribed the women as "being in a state of mourning."
Social services must now decide which women can be released to the care offamily members together with their children. Other women may be permitted tocare for their children only under the supervision of professionals. Some womencould be deemed to pose too great a risk to their children, requiringseparation. One woman is suspected by police of collaborating with Ratzon in amanner which jeopardized the safety of minors.
Authorities are viewing the first stage of the operation to disband the cult asa success, but say that the process of rehabilitating the women and children isa long and arduous one.
"This is a human and social phenomenon that is unacceptable in any civilizedcountry," one source familiar with the investigation said. "Thesafety of the women and children was at risk.”