Serial rapist Sela nabbed near Nahariya thanks to civilian tips

After two weeks on the lam, Benny Sela was back in jail Saturday morning following a capture that Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter described as better than anything in the movies. Sela was caught by police just south of Nahariya on Friday evening after a series of civilian tips helped police pinpoint the elusive escapee. His rearrest came two weeks and some 12 hours after he fled police custody at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court on November 24. Since his escape, police responded to hundreds of civilian tips and suspected sightings from Ashkelon to Safed. Although they were not aware of it at the time, police received their first real lead following a break-in Thursday night. A Pardess Hanna resident reported that his house had been broken into earlier that day and that the thief had stolen his car keys and made off with his white Honda Civic. In the early afternoon, police in the North received multiple reports of a man similar to Sela driving a white Honda near the Mount of Beatitudes, just north of Lake Kinneret. Less than an hour later, an off-duty soldier on leave at her home at Kibbutz Kinneret reported to her kibbutz's security director - and then to police - that a man fitting Sela's description had stopped her on the kibbutz to ask how to get to the volunteers' houses. The man, she said, had covered his face with his hand and had acted suspiciously. At one point he requested that she get into his car to show him the way to the building, but the young woman refused. Viewing the kibbutz's security tapes, kibbutz security director Yossi Tzur found an image of the suspicious vehicle driving in through the gate. Police soon realized that the car was stolen and that the driver of the vehicle was reminiscent of the fugitive. Police set up roadblocks throughout the Amakim Subdistrict, stretching from the Jordanian border to Wadi Ara in the west, but somehow Sela managed to evade the searchers. His next known appearance was at Nesher, just outside of Haifa, about four hours after he was seen at the kibbutz. Sela allegedly showed up at the doorstep of family members, holding a bouquet of flowers and asking for permission to shower and eat at the family's house. The father of the family shut the door in Sela's face, and once he had left, alerted police that he had seen Sela and that he was driving a white vehicle. The family later released a statement clarifying that they had cooperated with the police "from the moment Sela contacted [them]. We informed the police immediately, like any good citizen would." They added that they had not been in touch with Sela for several years and that should they be awarded the prize money offered to citizens who assist in Sela's arrest, they would donate it to a charity for victims of rape. Following the family's tip, police set up roadblocks along the roads leading north out of Haifa. Police St.-Sgt. Aasef Deeb and his partner had set up one of those roadblocks on Route 4 near the Regba shopping center just south of Nahariya when they noticed a vehicle that had stopped on the shoulder approximately 80 meters before the checkpoint and turned off its lights. When the two approached the vehicle, a man ran out of the car. Even after he was caught, the suspect allegedly continued to struggle with the policemen until they handcuffed him. The prisoner refused to talk, and according to Deeb, merely cried. Later, he claimed to be an Arab named Usama and said he did not understand Hebrew. In the darkness, the police officers said, it was impossible to tell if their prisoner, who reportedly covered his face with his hands, was Sela or not. Only after arriving at the Nahariya police station did the station's youth crimes officer identify the man as Benny Sela. Reports of Sela's rearrest interrupted the regularly scheduled evening news on the country's major television stations and Ch.-Supt. Avi Edry, spokesman for the Israel Police's Northern District, sent out a statement telling journalists: "I'm dying to deliver the message that Benny Sela is in our hands, but there is a gag order that we are trying to remove this very minute after the suspect's identity was finally confirmed." In the meantime, police officers fingerprinted the suspect and sent the tests to the forensics labs at national police headquarters in Jerusalem to confirm his identity. Police Insp.-Gen. Moshe Karadi was with Northern District chief Cmdr. Dan Ronen and station commanders from across the country when he was notified that a suspect had been apprehended by police in Nahariya. While en route to the scene, he reportedly received a message saying: "You can make a toast now. Benny Sela has been caught." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke to both Karadi and Dichter, congratulating them on Sela's rearrest. "We are all breathing easier," Karadi said. "The police, but mostly the public, were worried after two weeks of searches." "We always knew that alert citizens would be what would help us capture Sela, like any other criminal," he said. "Even if you took a director to stage it, I doubt whether they could have found a better group of people than those who caught him," added an elated Dichter Friday night. •