By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO
When the action hits, it's fast and furious. After days of planning, hours of surveillance by undercover cops, then choreographing teamwork to pull it off without a hitch, the six-member Beersheba police squad led by Detective Marnina Sondack rushes into the illegal bingo parlor, badges held aloft, stunning patrons and operators alike.
"It's not like American Westerns, where we run in and say, 'Put your hands up!'" Sondack laughs. "But we come in shouting and generally making a lot of noise: 'Stay where you are!' and 'Show us your teudat zehut!' The point is, we want to surprise them so they don't have time to destroy any evidence."
Tonight the goal was achieved. Just two weeks after the illegal gambling parlor opened, Sondack, 39, and her Samag 5 Border Police squad shut it down.
"We'd known about it almost from the beginning," she says, noting that the gambling den, located on Derech Hebron on Beersheba's east side, was under steady surveillance while the team worked to assemble the evidence that would be needed to convict the perpetrators once the case reached the courts.
"It was good. There were about 30 or 40 patrons in there, mostly women. We interrogated about 20 of them, detained six at the station for further questioning, and finally, at the end of a very long night, arrested two. They were the ones responsible for the place," she says. "I'm pleased with the way it went down."
Not that this was anything unusual for the 11-year veteran of the Beersheba Police. Ask Sondack what she does, and she quips, "I bust whorehouses and gambling dens."
As one of five or six female detectives in the entire southern region, Sondack works "vice." Her job description is to clean up illegal gambling and prostitution in Beersheba, a tall order by any standard.
For the last 10 months, since Sondack gave birth to baby Otzma, her work as a detective has become even more challenging.
"I love what I do. I mean, I really love it. But now, at times, it's very hard," she says. "Policing is time-consuming and intense, and for a single mother, it's tough - and I don't mean just for me, but for the police, too. I'm just not available 24/7 anymore."
Oddly enough, what sparked Sondack's decision to join the police was the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
"I was teaching at Bar-Ilan [University], working in the political science department, and had no plans to change careers," she recalls. "I'd spent the night of November 3, 1995 with friends, watching videos at home, but when I turned on the news the next morning, the newscast showed police officers throwing Yigal Amir up against a wall.
"'Wow, what's happening here? What are they doing to Yigal?' I thought. Yigal was my friend. I knew him well. Then came the news that Rabin had been assassinated. When I realized what had happened, I literally fell down. I was horrified. That was the beginning. It changed me enough that I felt I had to do something more active, something to change things in this country.
"I was living in Arad at the time, commuting, working on my thesis. Our synagogue was broken into, and the police came and were asking a lot of questions. I'd looked around, saw what I thought happened, and said to one of the officers, 'Look - I think they escaped that way.' The police officer agreed, and told me I might make a good volunteer. So that's what I did. I enjoyed it so much I changed careers with no regrets at all."
After joining the police, the Indiana-born Sondack, who made aliya from New York with her family in 1980, was assigned to a special unit, one responsible for major crimes from Ashdod to Eilat.
"Every day I'd be in a different city, sometimes two cities in one day. It was very dynamic, something interesting every day. I love being out there, working outside, catching criminals," she says. "It's fun, but I know I'm doing something important, too."
THE DAY starts early at the Sondacks', a house she bought and renovated by adding a second floor. Otzma wakes up first, Sondack says, followed by the three dogs, all of whom want breakfast.
"I leave the house at about 7 a.m. to take Otzma to my sister's home. I really struggle when I leave her, especially if she cries, but my sister has a baby almost the same age as Otzma, so it works out well for both of us. I needed someone I could count on, and she can use the extra money."
Sondack has an office in the police buildings on Rehov Sokolov in Beersheba's Aleph neighborhood, and usually starts the day there. Today, though, she heads directly to police headquarters on Rehov Herzl, where the police share a half-Ottoman, half modern building with the IDF. The objective for today is to check out a number of small candy-and-cigarette shops that informants have reported also harbor illegal gaming devices, such as sophisticated slot machines.
In Israel, Sondack says, gambling is legal - with a caveat.
"Gambling is legal as long as it's carried out by Mifal Hapayis (the state lottery)," she explains. "What's illegal is for private citizens, without proper legal authorization, to offer gambling to the public with gaming or slot machines, or games of chance like bingo. The problem with extralegal gambling operations is that they channel money into other kinds of crime - drugs, prostitution and money that supports violence and other crime. So our job is to shut them down, once we become aware that a store or shop has illegal devices.
"Sometimes we're tipped off by a regular informant, sometimes it's an observant citizen, and sometimes it's something I've seen myself. Once we've verified that the illegal slot or gaming machines are there and in use, I give marked money to a cop, who goes in and gambles with it. Then we arrive and confiscate the machines. Once we find the marked money inside the machines, we've got our proof that illegal gambling took place."
Sounds simple, but usually the tough part lies in verifying that the machines are actually there. Sondack brims with stories about elaborate strategies criminals use to camouflage illegal gambling dens. Sometimes a customer just needs a password to enter a secluded room; other times, the door to the gambling den itself is obscured, blocked or made to look like something else. In some cases, gambling dens are not only hidden, but fortified with heavy metal doors that require electric saws and industrial-strength drills to gain entry.
JUST IN case that's what they encounter today, Sondack packs a formidable array of equipment designed to bring the miscreants to justice. Her "black bag" bulges with high-powered binoculars, a police camera, a ring of keys that fit most common gambling machines, an electric screwdriver and an assortment of small tools to take them apart, should the keys fail to fit.
"I used to confiscate the whole machine," she says. "Now I take only the motherboard."
Then there's the paper: evidence stickers and the forms she'll need if arrests are made. Besides that, Sondack totes a gigantic duffle bag loaded with the heavy equipment - several enormous crowbars, heavy door-breaking mallets, and wire-cutters that look strong enough to topple the Brooklyn Bridge.
Sondack and her assigned team retreat to a tiny office room to plan the day's strategy. The team members - Cmdr. Motti Shabtay, Boris Haimov, Oded Gutman, Bistrov Ruslan and Yitzhak Butbul - gather around the single desk to hear Sondack explain what they're going to do.
"Border Police used to be assigned primarily to guard Israel's borders," she says. "But now much of that function has been taken over by the army, so they're available to help where needed. That's great, because these guys are really good. I've got five men assigned today, so we can work as two teams, doing two separate things.
"First, we're going to put someone in position to watch a gambling den," she continues. "They'll watch to see customers going in, so they'll be doing surveillance. Second, I'm going to give some marked money to another guy, send him in to one of the little stores and have him play on the machines. Then we can go in, take the machines, find the money and shut them down."
Sondack draws her battle plan on a piece of white paper, marking where all the buildings are in relation to the streets and roads, and the team decides where those doing surveillance will station themselves so they won't be conspicuous.
"I don't think there are any bushes in this area," Sondack says, referring to the time-honored clandestine surveillance technique of crouching in the bushes, swaddled in a camouflage poncho. "But you should be able to stand both here and here to watch without being too obvious."
Plans made, they head out, climbing into an oversized white and well-marked police van, which presents yet another issue. The surveillance team will be dropped off, but the van itself can't be anywhere close enough to tip anyone off. Where will it park, so the squad can meet up again? They finally agree: Several blocks away, there's a parking lot at a vegetable store that will do.
Everyone has their cellphones, and after a hearty group handshake, the designated surveillance men walk off, easily blending into normal pedestrian traffic.
The Miltonian adage, "They also serve, who only stand and wait," is apt for police work, because a significant part of it involves standing and waiting. Once the scouts are in place in their two locations, the remaining crew in the van sit and wait until they get the word.
In the interim, Sondack reflects on what it's like to be the woman in command - something the male team members seem to accept without question.
"Sure, they respect me," she says. "I've done all of this, every bit of it, just as often as they have. Maybe more. In this town, there isn't a bush I haven't been under or a roof I haven't climbed. I've earned my place just like they have. And sure, of course, sometimes I've failed. Everybody fails once in a while - people just make a bigger deal out of it when it's a woman. Obviously there are men who are more powerful than I am, but the truth is, all men aren't big and powerful, either.
"Of course there are some things some men can do better than I can - like subduing someone who's big. But there are things I can do better than they can. There are many situations where I can blend in with my surroundings better, like out at the shuk, where for several days I masqueraded in full regalia as a Beduin woman. The Beduin finally caught on, but it was easier for a fully-covered woman to blend in out there than it would have been for a man to look like a Beduin male.
"Not only that, but women have different ways of seeing things. The smart people I've worked with realize that having a woman officer on the team is an asset, not [just] a situation to be tolerated."
Sondack laughs, recalling one facet of her training that was harder for her than for the men.
"Men know cars," she says. "I didn't. Guys discuss cars and models like women talk about fashion. In police work, you have to be able to identify what make and model car you're chasing or looking out for. So I worked overtime. Whenever I went home, I'd wind through a series of parking lots, looking at the cars and studying them until I could identify every one at a glance. I read car magazines until I knew as much about cars as any man. It was one thing I had to learn that they already knew."
Soon the surveillance men check in. They didn't find any illicit gambling machines in the shop they were watching. They want to move on to another shop.
In the second operation, the proprietor of the shop had left, walked out to use a public telephone, so they had to wait for him to return. Again, the team compares notes, and they head out to check a different store, this one a mini-grocery in the Heh neighborhood. The scouts set out to check, the van drives several blocks away to park in an apartment lot, and again, everyone waits.
ASKED WHAT her most memorable event was, Sondack doesn't hesitate.
"I was first on the scene in 2004 when terrorists blew up two buses on Rehov Rager," she recalls. "I was driving to court and heard a boom. I put the siren on, got as close as I could, then parked and ran. At first I only saw the one bus - it was on fire, and honestly, I didn't even think. I ran into the bus. Everyone was dead except for one man, and I could tell he was in shock.
"One thing the news never tells you about is about the slime. Inside that bus, I was slipping and sliding. The floor was covered with melted human tissue and wastes. It's not the blood or flesh that got to me, it was that slime.
"The man I found alive couldn't understand what had happened, so I had to work to convince him to get up and get out with me. I knew the bus might blow up any minute, but finally I got him up and we scrambled out, both of us sliding in the mess. Somehow I kept functioning the rest of the day - on autopilot, I think. I helped secure the scene and dealt with a lot of hysterical people.
"When I tried to go to sleep that night all I could think of were dead bodies," she recalls. "That's one day I'll never forget."
Another day was memorable for a different reason: "It was in August and extremely hot. I was hiding, waiting to watch a drug deal we knew was going to go down. I hadn't expected to have to watch all day, though, so I ran out of water sitting there under the bushes. I started to dehydrate - my head was pounding and all my joints were aching.
"Finally, five minutes before the end of the day, he did the deal right in front of my eyes. It was a great bust - even though I had to go to the hospital because I was so dehydrated," she says.
"The bad thing was, nine months later, I saw that drug dealer on the street. 'Hey, are you on vacation?' I asked him - prisoners in Israel get vacations from prison. 'No,' he said. 'I'm out. I gave my nine months,'" she tells. "I couldn't believe it! Under the law, what he did should have earned him a 20-year sentence. And the judge gave him nine months? I thought about that a lot - I'd worked so hard, even to the point of having to go to the hospital, just in order to catch that guy, and he got nine months!
"It's frustrating," she continues. "I'm out here trying to clean up the streets and the system doesn't cooperate. It's tough to keep giving your best, to keep going, when that kind of thing happens. I work hard at not letting it bother me. I just do my job as best I can and not worry about what happens afterward. That's one thing about me: I never give up."
THAT SAID, today is not one of the days in which the criminals are cooperating. They've either hidden their gambling apparatus too well, and it will take more work, or they've moved along to other locations.
"All in a day's work," Sondack says. "So we didn't catch anyone today. We could have - we were close enough to catch that guy using the phone. We could have forced him back in and taken apart his machines. But it would have been a waste of time - mine, and that of the interrogators. The problem was, he was outside - I didn't have enough evidence. I just refuse to act in those circumstances.
"So we didn't score today, but last night we busted two prostitutes and closed up that place. Besides that, we learned a lot today. We'll be back and get them later. It wasn't a wasted day."
It's long after dark when Sondack leaves work and retraces her morning route to go pick up Otzma. Sondack relaxes, recalling one of the good days.
"I was living in a third-floor apartment, and behind me was an elderly neighbor. She had a knee problem and wanted to sell her apartment and move to a ground-floor unit. She had the money to buy a new place, but she couldn't sell her apartment because there was a prostitute operating across the hall from her," she explains.
"The prostitute wasn't noisy, but the lady complained about the clients who would mistakenly knock on her door in the middle of the night, or bother some of the younger tenants as they came and went," Sondack says. "No one wants to live next door to a prostitute - it's just a dirty feeling, to live in that atmosphere. I went to work, got rid of the prostitute, and ultimately she was able to sell her apartment."
"That's what I love about this job. I can solve problems for people," Sondack says. "Sure, there are frustrations, but I remind myself that because of what I do, there are purses that will not be snatched, women who won't be victimized, and take-home pay that won't be gambled away and used to fund more criminal activity."
"Busting whorehouses and shutting down illegal gambling dens is important," she adds. "It makes life better for everyone."
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