Massive manhunt underway for escaped serial rapist Benny Sela

The Israel Police and the Israel Prisons Service (IPS) traded accusations Saturday night as it became increasingly clear that a series of errors led to the escape of one of the country's most dangerous criminals from police custody. For a Jerusalem Online video of events click here Almost two days after the escape of serial rapist Benny Sela in Tel Aviv on Friday, the law enforcement community faced harsh criticism as Sela's trail grew cold and questions abounded. Sela escaped from police custody in what Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter called a "huge failure," and on Saturday night police expressed concern that the rapist might already have left the Dan region. Almost 2,000 police and Border Police officers from around the country were searching for the 34-year-old convict in Tel Aviv Saturday night. Until Friday morning, Sela was serving a sentence of 35 years and nine months at Eshel Prison in Beersheba. Sela was sentenced in December 2000 for sexually assaulting 14 women in the Tel Aviv area and is suspected of involvement in almost 40 sexual assaults and rapes in the 1990s. Before he was arrested, Tel Aviv women lived in fear of what police dubbed in 1999 the "Tel Aviv serial rapist." The police emergency hot line fielded more than 300 calls offering information on Sela's whereabouts on Saturday. In the morning, a man who lives in the same south Tel Aviv neighborhood as Sela's mother told police that he saw a man fitting the description of the rapist leave her home. Police immediately set up mobile checkpoints in the area, but could not find any evidence that Sela had been in the area. Hours later, dozens of police officers converged on the Arlozorov Train Station in north Tel Aviv after receiving reports of a man in the area who fit Sela's description, but to no avail. Witnesses said the man fled when officers approached him. Meanwhile, Israel Police chief Insp.-Gen. Moshe Karadi, facing harsh criticism for mishandling of Sela's custody, held a situation assessment on Saturday. "The central mission of the police right now is to apprehend the prisoner Benny Sela, and for this mission we are allotting the maximum amount of manpower and equipment," Karadi said during a meeting of the police's general staff during which he delineated plans for dealing with the most embarrassing incident to face the police this year. Police, he said, would continue the searches, which would be extended beyond Tel Aviv, and investigate the escape itself. In addition, he said, police emergency hot line operators would be instructed to exercise special awareness, and all officers would be forced to undergo retraining on escorting prisoners. Sela's escape from police custody in a parking lot at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court Friday morning sparked the largest criminal manhunt in Israel's history. Representatives of the court said it appeared that Sela's appearance at the court was due to a lucky error - or to a carefully planned forgery. Prisons Service officials were presented with a document claiming that Sela had been ordered to appear at the Tel Aviv Labor Court on Friday morning. On Thursday night, Sela was transferred from Eshel Prison to the Nitzan Detention Facility near Ramle, escorted by four heavily armed guards from the IPS's crack Nachshon Unit. Early Friday morning, two Tel Aviv police officers arrived at the facility and were told to escort Sela and a suspect in a fraud case to Tel Aviv courts. The officers said that until they arrived, they were unaware that they were to transfer Sela - who is in the IPS's most dangerous category of criminals. Short of equipment, the officers restrained Sela's hands, but not his legs, for the ride. When the police arrived at the Labor Court, they realized that the courts are closed on Friday, and decided to bring him to the Magistrate's Court on Rehov Weitzman while deciding what to do with him. It was in the courtyard of that court that Sela managed to evade his police guards, scale a 2.3 meter wall topped with barbed wire, and escape into the busy streets of Tel Aviv. The last confirmed sighting of the serial rapist occurred over an hour later, when residents reported a suspicious man removing brown prison-issue pants in a public park in the middle of the city. Investigators expressed surprise as to how Sela, who is 1.65 meters tall, was able to scale the wall in seconds while he was handcuffed. Throughout Saturday, speculation increased that the escape was much more than a lucky break. After court officials opened their records, investigators discovered that Sela was only supposed to receive a summons on December 21, and that no summons had been sent out. Investigators then began to check if someone inside the court or the IPS had assisted Sela. Fellow prisoners said Sela had been exercising "obsessively" every day for several months, reaching a high level of physical fitness, and witnesses said that when Sela took off his prison-issue pants, he was wearing civilian clothing - blue jeans - underneath. Tel Aviv Police chief Cmdr. David Tzur said officers were providing security for several of Sela's victims and were trying to contact others. Three hours after the escape, Karadi arrived at the escort unit and received an overview of the incident from Tel Aviv District Commander Cmdr. David Zur. Hours later, Karadi's boss, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, described the incident as "embarrassing... a humiliating failure." As the day wore on, more and more revelations highlighted the chain of failures behind the escape. Police complained that the Prisons Service was not required to warn police in advance when transporting a dangerous prisoner. The IPS, in turn, said that in previous transfers of dangerous prisoners, police had also sent only two officers - including one driver - to accompany them to court. Both sides agreed there was no clear procedure for the Prisons Service's handing over prisoners to police custody.