In the second false alarm in 24 hours, a Tel Aviv resident's Sunday evening sighting of escaped serial rapist Benny Sela in the city's Hadar Yosef neighborhood later turned out to be mistaken. The false lead came as police said that while they believed that he was still in the Tel Aviv area, they were at a loss as to Sela's whereabouts. In the early afternoon Israel Police Chief Insp.-Gen. Moshe Karadi held yet another situation assessment with police officers in the Tel Aviv District on Sunday afternoon as almost 2,000 police and Border Police officers from around the country continued their searches for the 34-year-old convict. Following that meeting, Karadi said that police believed that Sela acted alone, and was not aided by anyone in his spectacular Friday morning escape. The top cop added that while reports of Sela have come in to police hotlines from all corner of the country, police believed that he was still in the vicinity of Tel Aviv, which was his hunting grounds during his rape spree throughout the nineties. In other developments in the case, investigations revealed Sunday that Sela had been scheduled for a hearing at the Tel Aviv District Labor Court on a day when hearings weren't taking place, due to a mistake by a court secretary.
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An initial investigation showed that the secretary realized the mistake after printing out the summons and canceled the appointment, but the summons had already been sent.
Apparently, however, the Prisons Service also erred by failing to check its information. According to a statement by Courts Administration spokeswoman Rivka Aharoni on Sunday, the Prison Service should have known that the summons was incomplete and phoned the court.
Sela, who was, until his Friday morning escape, serving a 35-year and nine-month sentence in Eshel Prison, was convicted in 2000 of sexually assaulting 14 women in the Tel Aviv area. Police suspect that Sela was actually involved in almost 40 sexual assaults.
While police detectives continued to reiterate their belief that Sela remained in the Tel Aviv area, police were led on two chases Sunday - and while one of them was proven to be a wild goose hunt, police have yet to confirm that a sighting of a suspicious man near Ashkelon was not in fact the first sighting of Sela since Friday morning.
Police revealed early Sunday afternoon that at around 9:30 in the morning they had received report from a resident of Ashkelon who claimed to have picked up a hitchhiker matching Sela's description.
The man said that he picked up the hitchhiker at around 2 a.m. near the Nitzan Junctiton, but only when watching the morning news noticed the likeness between his passenger and the serial rapist. Police said that they were checking the citizen's story "with the greatest possible seriousness" and dispatched forces to comb Ashkelon for clues.
Large numbers of police reinforced by municipal inspectors flocked to the Ashkelon area and spent the afternoon searching for additional clues. Police also instructed taxi cab drivers and private security companies to tell their employees to exercise extra alertness, distributing Sela's picture. The Lachish Subdistrict also told citizens to report any suspicious movement by people similar to Sela. "But we also emphasize that this is a complaint that is still being checked, and that we must prevent panic in the public."
While police were still trying to confirm the veracity of the Ashkelon sighting, they managed to establish that a second reported sighting was a false call, after locating a man who a cab driver had believed was Sela.
On Sunday morning, police were contacted by a taxi driver who said that he had driven a man similar to Sela in the area of the Beit Lid Junction, located on the old coastal road near Netanya.
The cab driver said that a tired, hungry-looking man wearing blue sweatpants with white stripes on the side, a white T-shirt and was holding sandals, took a ride in his taxi. The cab driver told police that when he became suspicious that the passenger was the escaped rapist, Sela exited the vehicle and fled.
Police ordered residents in the Netanya area to be on alert for Sela, but later located the man and confirmed that he was not the feared convict.