On The Beat: Solving the worst murder case in Israeli history

On The Beat Solving the

(photo credit:)
(photo credit: )
Covered in white plastic sheets, the six bodies of the Oshrenko family were wheeled out on gurneys, one after the other, from the family's second-floor apartment on Rehov Nordau in Rishon Lezion, as stunned neighbors looked on from behind police lines. A heart-wrenching cry burst from a woman clasping both hands to her face, as she watched the nightmarish scene unfold from across the street. The evacuation process took hours. Forensic workers carefully took samples from the partially-burned out apartment before approving the removal of the bodies. The police's CSI officers were visible from street level as they moved around the apartment, hard at work. Red party balloons hovered over their heads - leftover from a family celebration to mark the third and last birthday of three-year-old Revital. The body of the first victim was removed in the morning. The last corpse was taken to a waiting ambulance after sundown. News filtered through to the rest of the country that the worst incident of non-terrorism related multiple homicide in Israel's history had occurred. By midday Saturday, the usually quiet Rishon Lezion neighborhood had turned into a police hub and a media center, as photographers snapped up morbid images of the tiny body of four-month-old baby Natanel being led out to a waiting ambulance. Make no bones about it, the Central District's Central Unit has thrown everything it has got into solving this murderous riddle. Hundreds of officers have been mobilized to help crack the case. A wide-ranging media gag order - unprecedented in scope - has been slapped on the details of the investigation by police, meaning that it is not possible to confirm press reports that every member of the family was stabbed repeatedly and had their throats slashed. One man who knows what forensic officers were doing in the apartment is Avner Rosengarten, who was until recently a senior Israel Police forensics lab head, and who currently heads the Israel Forensic Science Institute in Jerusalem. Until his retirement in 2007, Rosengarten participated in investigations into many of the most infamous murders that occurred in the country in recent years. "It would have been hard for the officers to bear the murder scene in Rishon, but they had no difficulties in knowing how to proceed," Rosengarten told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. "They will have looked for some very specific things. The first task is to provide a scenario that explains the cause of death." "They will have looked for something on the bodies that can be connected to a killer. They will have sought to understand how the suspect entered and left the apartment," Rosengarten continued. "Maybe a ladder was used to gain access from the front yard." "Technology plays a decisive role. As soon as evidence of a struggle is identified, it's fair to assume that the killer was injured. At that point, forensic officers can begin to look for blood stains that can be differentiated from the blood stains of the victims. If that is found, then the attacker's blood has been found," said Rosengarten. The forensic officers will also be on the lookout for footprints, fingerprints and any unusual item in the apartment. "All of this is part of the collection and analysis process that is designed to explain the cause of death," Rosengarten said. "The majority of what forensic officers remove from the apartment will be useless to the investigation, but they can't know that at the beginning. The entire collection process should take no more than 48 to 72 hours, if it is carried out continuously." TIME IS not on the side of forensic officers during this critical first stage. With every entry into the apartment, the murder scene is further contaminated. And the Rishon Lezion apartment was already a contaminated murder scene, having been ravaged by a fire, broken into by firefighters and hosed down, and the bodies moved by emergency officials who were not aware that they were standing in the worst murder scene in Israeli criminal history. "It's especially hard to collect samples from that kind of scene, but all of these factors will not get rid of all the forensics," said Rosengarten. "Blood stains survive fires and water jets, especially if the stains are on walls. Fire never reaches every point in a room. And findings can still be taken from the bodies and from the clothes of the victims." The second part of the forensic process is the analysis phase. Biological findings, chemicals, toxins, polymeric materials, plastics and, if needed, ballistics are analyzed, as the labs begin the drawn out process of filtering findings taken from the murder scene. The work can take up to several months. Once completed, the analysis should in theory provide police with a "direction" for its investigation, according to Rosengarten. Biological findings such as DNA and fingerprints are run through a database for a search for matches with convicted felons. If none are found, they are stored for a time when a suspect is arrested, and can be used to corroborate or dismantle suspicions against a suspect. "The analysis is the most important part," Rosengarten said. But forensics only forms one part of the investigation. Rumors continue to spread of alleged Russian or Caucasus-affiliated mob involvement, and police intelligence officers will focus on those suspicions as they attempt to guide detectives in the direction of potential suspects. "Yes, Georgian and Russian mobsters do these things, as do Colombian and Thai mafia organizations," said Prof. Menahem Amir, of the Hebrew University's Criminology Institute. "I only know what I see from the media, but cutting throats and setting fire to a home are signs - just signs - of Chechen, Georgian, Russian mob action," said Marc Kahlberg, a former Israel Police officer. The head of Police Investigations Branch, Cmdr. Yoav Saglovitch, said this week that there has not been any major infiltration by foreign organized crime networks in recent years. But one of his predecessors, Cmdr. (ret.) Moshe Mizrahi, told the Post this week that "the police can't see an infiltration because these mob elements have been here the whole time. In 2001, there was a 40%-50% jump in the murder rate. Since then, the murder rate has been more or less stable. So saying there has been no infiltration is like saying that the murder rate is stable." Mizrahi once headed the police's Serious and International Crimes Unit, and reoriented the unit so that it would focus on the deadly criminal elements that did infiltrate from the countries of the former Soviet Union during the 1990s. "We kept track of what these guys were doing. They arrived on the big wave of aliya in the '90s. We had amazing intelligence in this world. Foreign police forces came here to get information from us about these networks," Mizrahi said. "Here they set up the infrastructure, soldiers on the ground, and then the legal thieves arrived - the 'businessmen' with status. They act as arbitrators. They were very powerful. They kept open funds for the families of prisoners. Opshask, they called it. "It's a very pyramid-like structure. At the top you have the senior guys, the consiglieris and the financiers. Anyone who opens their mouth can find themselves dead very fast. Their kids and families can get it too. That's how they prevented investigations. That's what we were investigating. These were the good fellas." Mizrahi spent three years aggressively perusing organized mob figures from the former Soviet Union between 1997 and 2000. "They said I was chasing away good businessmen," he recalled. "In their home countries, bodies were turning up without end. We jailed the head of a Ukrainian mob network for a homicide in Ukraine. It was a very hard job. Our fear was that they would use their power to rub up against the government." "Today, the police have stopped paying attention to them," Mizrahi said.