A death foretold

Police in Rehovot know that Netanel Sisa'i, an Ethiopian immigrant, was arguing with his wife Sarah in their apartment the day she fell - or was pushed - out of the third-floor window to her death.

avi sisai 88 (photo credit: )
avi sisai 88
(photo credit: )
Police in Rehovot know that Netanel Sisa'i, an Ethiopian immigrant, was arguing with his wife Sarah in their apartment the day she fell - or was pushed - out of the third-floor window to her death. Police also know he was convicted in an Ashkelon court several years ago for beating and threatening her. Furthermore, they have heard from the victim's grown children that their father tried to kill their mother more than once, while beating and threatening her throughout their 20-plus years of marriage, beginning in Ethiopia. "He had a history of violence against her, and I have no doubt, on the basis of his behavior around the time of the incident and from the evidence at the scene, that he was responsible for her death. If he didn't push her, then it was his words and threats that caused her to jump. A person doesn't just jump out of the window without provocation," says Insp. Yarden Calendarov, who headed the investigation into Sarah Sisa'i's October 21, 2005 death in the city's heavily Ethiopian neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe. However, Netanel Sisa'i, in his mid-40s as his wife was at her death, was never charged with murder. "We had no evidence. We went door-to-door and nobody was willing to testify," Calendarov says. Police couldn't get Netanel to confess, either. "He didn't cooperate at all," he says. When Sisa'i was in the holding tank, though, an undercover cop heard him threaten to kill his deceased wife's mother, and he was held in jail on this minor charge, then placed under house arrest in the home of family members in Ashdod, where he is now. The court, however, is expected to let him go free in the coming months. "The maximum sentence for this crime [of threatening murder] is three years, but the court usually doesn't give more than a few months," says Calendarov. Sarah's son, Avi, 22, was serving in the IDF as a medic when she died. He is extremely bitter over how the police handled the case. "The police didn't seem too interested. They did a superficial job of investigating," he says, adding that this is a complaint made often by Ethiopian immigrants seeking police intervention against violent husbands and fathers. Avi says neighbors told him and his sisters that right after their mother's death, which happened around 8:30, they saw Netanel run down from the apartment and try unsuccessfully to drag her body away, then give up and run off. Avi adds that one of Netanel's sisters said he admitted the murder to her and asked her for money to fly to Ethiopia. But police did not consider any of this information credible. "The children were very manipulative in what they told us," says Calendarov. When told of his use of the term "manipulative," Avi says angrily that this just illustrates the police's lax handling of the case. "We've lost all faith in the authorities," he says, adding that about two months before her death, his mother asked the Rehovot welfare department to get her and her two younger daughters into a battered women's shelter. "They told her they could find a shelter for her, but not with the two girls, so she decided not to go," Avi notes. I asked the Rehovot spokesman's office about this and was told, "The details as presented are not accurate, to put it mildly. The applicant in question received a response in line with her request and her situation as she described it." Orna Ben-Zvi, head of municipal welfare services in Kiryat Moshe, says that in the six months the Sisa'i family lived in the neighborhood prior to Sarah's death, she did not apply to her office to go to a shelter, nor did she or anyone else in the family complain to her office about Netanel's violence. "The only contact she made with our office was to request material help once," says Ben-Zvi. During those six months, the family did not complain to the police about Netanel's violence, which Avi now regrets. He was in the army, his older sister was out of the house and his two sisters living at home were 11 and 16. But when Avi returned home after the murder, he heard from his sisters and an aunt about how his father was behaving toward his mother in those last months. "Once time he took her to a forest, tied her to a tree and tried to kill her. I don't what he did or how she survived. Another time, on a hot day, he closed all the windows to his car and locked her in from morning to night," he says. In the years before coming to Rehovot, Avi says Netanel stabbed his mother, tried to throw his sister down a flight of stairs and beat them all frequently. "One time when he tried to murder my mother, she complained to police and he sat in jail for two months, but then the shimagles and other elders talked her into retracting her complaint," he says. "Another time my mother and sister complained about his violence, and he sat in jail for one night, and then a social worker came to our apartment to follow it up, and he threw the social worker's papers in her face and scared her away for good." When he was 15 or 16, Avi learned from his mother why she married Netanel. "She didn't want to marry him, but he forced her into it," says Avi. "He tried to kill her father with a pistol." The family immigrated in 1991. At first Netanel worked as a nurse at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, but about a decade ago he was fired for hitting another employee. "After that he didn't work regularly and my mother basically supported him and us. But he still took her money and put it in his bank account," Avi continues. In the years before her death, Sarah opened a shop in Rehovot where she sold Ethiopian spices. "She was a businesswoman, she was supporting herself, she didn't need her husband and her husband found that hard to take," says Calendarov. Following Sarah's death and Netanel's imprisonment, the family lost their apartment to the mortgage bank. Avi, who now works as a medic with private tour groups, lives with his three sisters in a rented apartment. Their worst fear is that their father will return. Despite this, though, they make their presence felt at his court hearings. "My mother would want us to be strong," says Avi. When he was growing up, his father beat him "more than once," Avi says, but he wasn't big enough to fight back, or to protect his mother. "I always thought that when we grew up, things would change because I would be able to defend her," he says.