Judge to oversee Topaz suicide probe

Body of 63-year-old entertainer found hanging from kettle cord despite 24-hour surveillance.

topaz court 248.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
topaz court 248.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
The troubled life of television star Dudu Topaz came to a tragic end on Thursday, when he strangled himself in the bathroom of his prison cell, in Ramle's Nitzan Detention Center. An Israel Prisons Service spokeswoman told The Jerusalem Post that Topaz, 62, took an electric cord from a kettle and tied it to a faucet in a shower cell which was situated 80 centimeters above his head. He then tied the cord around his neck, lay down, and strangled himself to death. Magen David Adom paramedics were called to the prison and attempted to resuscitate Topaz, but they were forced to declare him dead at approximately 7 a.m. The IPS came under a firestorm of criticism, facing questions over how a prisoner who was on suicide watch managed to take his life. Topaz, who was a diabetic, attempted to overdose on insulin in a failed June 4 suicide attempt. "It's a lack of success on our part," an IPS source said. "We did what we could do to prevent it. He was under suicide watch and had two CCTV cameras observing him. He shared a cell with five other prisoners. He was visited every half hour." "We couldn't put a camera in the shower because of privacy concerns," the source said. Following the suicide, the Israel Police appointed a judge to head an independent committee of inquiry, a standard step following a death in a prison. "We may have to change our procedures, we will know more after the inquiry," the IPS source said. "This may also have been a localized failure." The IPS had "many prisoners classed as suicidal. The fact that this was a media celebrity will not affect how we examine this incident." Topaz's lawyer, Zion Amir, told Israel Radio, "From the moment Dudu was arrested, I warned that he was in a bad mental state. Some talked about the danger that would flee the country. I tried to fight to keep him alive." In talks with police and prosecutors, said Amir, "I pointed out the massive drug and pill taking by Topaz. He could have been under watch in a psychiatric hospital with security." Amir blamed the media. "There was such terrible media coverage, such powerful people who ran a huge and terrible campaign. They used the media to shatter him. These words and techniques kill people." Topaz was awaiting trial for hiring goons to beat up several media executives and talk show hosts who had rejected his ideas for television programs. His victims included Shira Margalit, deputy CEO of the Reshet television company, Avi Nir, director-general of the Keshet company, and actors' agent Boaz Ben-Zion, all of whom were assaulted near their homes. "Dudu Topaz and his acts should have been examined in court. People should not be judged in the media until a verdict is given," Amir said. Rani Rahav, a leading PR agent who knew Topaz, defended the media's coverage of Topaz, saying, "Topaz killed himself with prior intent. "Don't blame the media or the IPS for what happened. He planned this. He saved his children and friends, and his sick mother, from the real catastrophe. "In the same way he decided to become criminal, he decided to put an end to this saga. It was a brave decision," Rahav said. Topaz had become deeply depressed after his once dazzling television career floundered. He once said he was "ready to commit suicide for ratings." Topaz was born David Goldenberg in Haifa in 1946. His charisma and good looks helped his career take off in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1981, Topaz was credited with inadvertently helping reelect Menachem Begin's Likud Party after he derided its supporters as chahchahim (riffraff) while speaking at a rally for the Labor Party just before parliamentary elections. The comment was taken as an ethnic slur directed at Sephardim, and is believed to have pushed swing voters to the Likud. Begin mocked Topaz in response, bringing him into the national spotlight for the first time. Topaz later hosted a highly popular satirical TV show, which depicted a range of Israeli characters and stand-up routines. A second successful satire show followed. In the early 1990s, Topaz hosted a weekend comedy and chat show on Channel 1. He soon moved to the newly created Channel 2, where he broke ratings records with his own TV show. A charismatic and handsome variety show star, holding the moniker "The ratings king," he became a household name. In 1995, Topaz assaulted a Ma'ariv TV critic who wrote unfavorably about his program, removing the man's glasses and breaking them, while telling the critic, "You don't understand what you're seeing anyway." Topaz's television appearances were suspended in 2004 following a decision of one of Channel 2's operators, Keshet, to drop Topaz from the screen. Magen David Adom on Thursday denied allegations that it was the first to inform journalists that Topaz had committed suicide, and that Topaz's family members had learned of the death through the media as a result. MDA spokesman Yerucham Mendola said that the Israel Prisons Service's medical staff had performed resuscitation and called MDA. "We were there within five minutes and joined the resuscitation effort with the IPS doctors," said Mendola. "The IPS issued a statement to police reporters about the condition of the prisoner who attempted suicide at Ramle Prison and about efforts to resuscitate him. Only after Topaz died did MDA inform journalists that the man who attempted suicide at Ramle Prison had died. "We did not name him. We stated in our messages to journalists several times that they must hold publication until after the family were informed. Deciding whether to announce the death of a person by name before the family are told is the responsibility of the media and their journalistic ethics," Mendola said. Topaz will be buried at 10:30 a.m. on Friday at the Yarkon Cemetery in Tel Aviv. Judy Siegel and AP contributed to this report.•