Exclusive: How I caught Benny Sela

Cop who nabbed serial rapist in '99 is sure colleagues can do it again.

sela billboard 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
sela billboard 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The detective who caught serial rapist Benny Sela in 1999 is confident that police can repeat the feat if they go about it the right way. Police Senior St.-Sgt. Maj Arnon Notman told The Jerusalem Post patience was required to catch Sela the first time and that it will enable police to win out this time, too. "He's complex and alert, but we are more complex and alert. And we have patience," said the veteran officer, who now teaches at the Israel Police's school for detectives and intelligence coordinators. "Patience is the key trait of a good detective. Ultimately, Sela will make a mistake. It's only a matter of time." Notman said he is certain that Sela was - and is still - working alone. The moment he learned that Sela had escaped from police custody in Tel Aviv last Friday, Notman reported for duty at the Yarkon Subdistrict, where the search for the convict was being organized. "The difference between '99 and today is that back then we didn't have anything. We were hunting in the fog." Then, officers had five different police sketches portraying the unidentified suspect and a loose description that suggested he was tall and athletically-built, a "monster"-like hulking figure. In retrospect, Notman said, it was easy to understand how his victims produced this description of the short, slender Sela, who is only 1.65m tall. He attacked his victims from behind, Notman said, hitting them on the back or neck and knocking them to the ground. Throughout the entire horrible process, Sela stayed behind his victims, so they would only get glimpses of him. Afterward, Sela would force them to shower, telling them that he would kill them if they left the shower before a half hour had passed. Notman said that from 1997 to 1999, his detective squad worked nonstop to identify the "Tel Aviv rapist." They questioned up to a hundred men a day who met the description compiled from victims' statements. "We worked in the streets like crazy men. We didn't do anything but that. We didn't even want to go home," Notman said. Then came the fateful morning of December 14, 1999. Notman remembers every detail. He began the morning with a large force of detectives, but by the early afternoon most had been reassigned to more pressing duties than combing the streets of Tel Aviv's Hadar Yosef area for the elusive suspect. Notman still had one detective on a motorbike and one patrol car when he noticed a pedestrian on Rehov Keren Kayemet who resembled the police sketches. The suspect entered a car and began to drive through heavy traffic on the Ayalon Freeway. Notman dispatched the detective on the motorbike to follow, but the suspect soon lost him. Meanwhile, Notman, still in Hadar Yosef, received an emergency call over the police radio. A young woman had just escaped from a man who had tried to attack her in the Kitan fabrics parking lot. The suspect, she said, was wearing black jeans and a purple T-shirt. Notman sped to the location, assigned a detective to speak to the woman, and pursued the suspect. "I thought to myself, where would he go, and headed to the neighboring area of Givat Haprachim." Givat Haprachim is directly across the street from the Kitan parking lot. Calling for reinforcements, Notman began to circle the neighborhood. As he arrived at Rehov Weinschel, another alert came over the radio. A man in black jeans and a purple T-shirt had attacked an eight-year-old girl at 17 Rehov Weinschel. Notman and reinforcements finally cornered their man against a fence. "When I arrested him I didn't think that this was the serial rapist. I did know, however, that this was the right suspect in the two attacks earlier that day." It was only when the suspect was sitting in Notman's car that he realized that the slight, short man's face resembled the sketches. "I looked at one angle and then the other. Each part of his face was similar to a different sketch, but each was similar to at least one of them," he said. He called the team that was working on the case and told them he was bringing in a good suspect for the serial rapist. "When I brought him in, at first, they didn't believe it. 'You're bringing us this midget?' the other detectives asked me." But 10 minutes later, after running his ID card through the system, investigators made a surprising discovery. Their suspect had already been in prison, and when he was incarcerated, the Tel Aviv attacks had stopped. The suspect now had a name. Benny Sela was asked to give a DNA sample, and refused. But detectives "got one through, well, 'methods,'" Notman said, and within 72 hours, they had their answer - Sela's DNA matched samples collected from nine of the serial rapist's victims. After two years of intense searching - and two years of intermittent searching before that - the Tel Aviv serial rapist was behind bars. Until last Friday. Sela's escape was, said Notman, "a bit frustrating," but, "in this line of work I have to be disconnected from my feelings. Otherwise, I'd sit and cry." "We have good police, and they do as much as they possibly can with the resources they have. They have so much motivation - the commanders never had to order people to come from home to help in the searches - they just showed up. Here, we work from the heart."