Is an Israeli murderer the new Elizabeth Holmes? - opinion

The cold-blooded murderer, who was recently released from the medium-security Ma’asiyahu Prison after serving 25 years of a 30-year sentence, has become the great hope of the medical community.

 Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, speaks during the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting in New York, September 29, 2015. (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, speaks during the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting in New York, September 29, 2015.

The story of Harel Hershtik is the stuff of soap operas. It’s so unbelievable that it even surpasses the tale of disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who was convicted in January on four counts of criminal fraud.

The rise and fall of the woman, who managed to raise billions of dollars from extremely high-profile figures for a blood-testing device that never actually worked, carries particular fascination in our start-up nation, where the fake it until you make it hi-tech mentality of Silicon Valley is rampant.

But, Hershtik’s case involves much more than a medical invention that has captured the interest of famous Israelis. Unlike Holmes, who will serve time in jail as a result of her company’s dealings, Hershtik built his firm, Scentech Medical, from behind bars.

Yes, the cold-blooded murderer, who was recently released from the medium-security Ma’asiyahu Prison after serving 25 years of a 30-year sentence, has become the great hope of the medical community – and industry, of course – for creating a breathalyzer test to detect COVID-19. His aim is to be able to use the same principle to diagnose almost any other disease, as well, including cancer.

To this end, Scentech is in the process of merging with shelf company NextGen BioMed, which is listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Its chairman is former Israeli national security adviser Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, whose appeal on Hershtik’s behalf before the parole board was instrumental in securing his freedom five years earlier than slated.

MARKET DATA at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.  (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)MARKET DATA at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

“There has never been an investor in one of my companies who didn’t know who I was,” he told Channel 13 on Sunday, in the first of a two-part series covering his uncanny history.

Among the prominent people in question, aside from Amidror, are Shmuel Shapira, former director general of the Israel Institute for Biological Research, and former Hadassah Medical Organization CEO Zeev Rotstein.

They explained that Hershtik’s innovation could change the face of medicine and that he had already served a long sentence for his crime, which he committed when he was young.

HEREIN LIES the rub, Hershtik was 20 years old when he carefully plotted and carried out the killing of Yaacov Sela, in 1996. In other words, he’s only 46 today, still young enough to enjoy a full life – and one of real luxury, to boot.

Sela, a well-known snake capturer and breeder with a fan base and protégés – among them Hershtik – will never have that opportunity. Nor did Sela see his senseless death coming, though he had been at odds with Hershtik, whose mother he happened to be dating.

The conflict began when Sela, 34, discovered that Hershtik had stolen tens of thousands of shekels from him and threatened to go to the police if the money was not returned with interest. Hershtik pretended to agree to the arrangement, but he never intended to honor it.

Instead, he came up with a plan to lure his former mentor away from Kibbutz Deganya Bet, where they both lived, so that he could execute his murder plot. He asked Sela to drive him to a bank in Tel Aviv, ostensibly to withdraw the cash that he owed.

He brought along Danny Koenig, a mentally ill 21-year-old whom he used as an accomplice. Partway through the drive, they stopped the car, on the phony grounds that Kenig needed to throw up.

Koenig exited the vehicle and, with a gun provided by Hershtik, fired at Sela three times. At this point, Hershtik also got out, took the weapon and shot Sela a fourth time.

The two then drove back to Deganya, where they try to bury Sela in the kibbutz graveyard. Failing at the task, they took him to a forest in the Golan Heights.

A nationwide search for Sela shortly ensued. During the three-week hunt, Hershtik and his mother spread a rumor that Sela had fled the country after being responsible for a hit-and-run accident.

Hershtik also gave TV interviews, in which he coolly attacked Sela’s character and even claimed that he’d spoken to him on the phone.

Sela’s whereabouts remained a mystery until a group of boys volunteering for Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund came across his body in a shallow grave. Following a police investigation, Hershtik, his mother and Koenig were arrested.

His mother ended up being sentenced to 10 months in jail for obstruction of justice. Koenig was given the relatively light sentence of 15-years, due to his psychiatric condition.

HERSHTIK WASN’T a typical prisoner. He used his time at Ma’asiyahu Prison to complete two doctorates, one in chemistry and the other in math.

He also got married three times and started his technological ventures by constructing a modem with parts of an old computer. This gave him access to the Internet, through which he forged business contacts in the outside world.

“I’m a genius,” he told Channel 13. “And one of the things that being a genius enabled me to do was find a way to accomplish all that, despite the impossibility of it.”

This is undoubtedly true, since even the most conscientious and intelligent prisoners rarely reach such heights, certainly not while under the watchful eye of fellow inmates and wardens. What rang utterly false was Hershtik’s assertion that he gained empathy while locked up, saying glibly that he “used to be a narcissist.”

Judging by his comments and demeanor, he is clearly just as much of a narcissist as he ever was, which is how he was able to persuade so many people in high places to put their faith in his ideas – and in his revolving-door wedding vows.

Indeed, while he may be done with manipulating the mentally ill into helping him kill a beloved snake charmer, his snake-oil-salesman capabilities are alive, well and thriving. This is not only something that should be of great concern to the likes of Amidror, Shapira and Rotstein; it raises serious questions about the purpose of imprisonment and the extent to which someone like Hershtik deserves societal forgiveness.

Asked about his theft of Sela’s money in the first place, let alone his method of eliminating the debt, he said, “I was young and stupid, and if I could, I would go back in time and give myself the hardest slap and shake myself into understanding that [long pause] this isn’t the way.”

NOT ONCE did he express remorse for having slain Sela. His sole regret surrounds the difficulty that brought on himself. This emerged when he was challenged about having led an almost normal existence, as opposed to that of a criminal incarcerated for life.

“Could be,” he said. “But we don’t know what I could have achieved outside.”

He then took the conversation in an ill-deserved direction.

“You know, if I could, I would recommend that every judge in the country, upon being appointed to the bench, spend a weekend in jail.”

It’s a sentiment that most prisoners probably harbor, with no small amount of justification. Yet, given his specific circumstances, Hershtik has no right to suggest it. That he had the nerve to do so indicates a total disconnect between his actions and their consequences.

IF HIS medical invention emerges as a success, it will a huge boon to healthcare. However, as was the case when Holmes first announced that she would be able to perform hundreds of tests from a single drop of finger-pricked blood, Hershtik’s similar breathalyzer endeavor is nowhere near complete.

The public hasn’t even been treated to the coronavirus test, whose touted accuracy is the ostensible basis for his and his backers’ optimism where detecting countless other illnesses is concerned. This is as bad a sign as the trust placed in an unrepentant executioner.