A 59-year-old cult leader from south Tel Aviv who was romantically involved with 17 women and fathered 40 children with them was arrested on Tuesday morning on suspicion of “enslaving” members of his group and raping a number of the women.
Goel Razton, a self-styled ‘spiritual guru,’ was arrested during police raids on two addresses in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood on Tuesday morning, following a 7-month-long undercover investigation.
His 17 partners were detained for questioning and later taken with their children into temporary protective care by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services.
A media gag order on the arrests was lifted on Thursday.
Dep.-Cmdr. Shlomi Michael, head of Tel Aviv police’s Central Unit, said during a press conference on Thursday, “We have succeeded in gathering a great deal of evidence regarding the offenses of holding people under conditions of enslavement, and rape.”
He added, “Three days ago, the open phase of the investigation began. The Central Unit, together with other police units, arrested the suspect, and detained 17 women and 38 children – nine of them toddlers.”
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Michael added that the detectives who ran the investigation “were exposed to very difficult scenes, despite their long experience.”
One detective broke down in tears in the course of the investigation, Michael said.
Ratzon’s remand was extended on Wednesday by 12 days during a Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court session held behind closed doors. In addition to rape and enslavement, police said he was under suspicion of inciting the women to commit suicide.
The investigation was launched by Tel Aviv police’s Central Unit in July 2009, when welfare services received information over alleged “sexual offenses within the family,” police said.
After receiving the intelligence, an unprecedented inter-organizational effort was launched, involving dozens of police detectives, 150 social services employees, and central district state prosecutors, who concluded that sufficient evidence existed to prosecute Ratzon.
An amendment to the anti-enslavement law, which prohibits anyone to “hold a person in conditions of slavery, including sexual slavery,” enabled the authorities to act this week. The offense carries a 16 year maximum prison sentence.
The authorities are interpreting “slavery” in this case to mean “psychological slavery,” resulting in total control by Ratzon of the women and children who lived with him in several different apartment complexes.
Armed with the new legislation, sources said, it was possible to move against Ratzon since the evidence allegedly shows that the women had “no choice” but to comply with his demands.
Two of the wives were arrested after being questioned on suspicion that they cooperated with Ratzon or witnessed his crimes. The others were transferred to homes for abused women along with their children.
Ratzon’s arrest was remanded by 12 days, a decision he has appealed. His interrogators say he is cooperating but says he doesn’t “know what they want” from him.
He has denied all of the allegations against him, and says the women were free to come and go as they pleased. During his interrogation he also defended a book of rules and prohibitions for the women, which demands monetary fines for any infraction.
Ratzon is currently being kept away from cameras because officers believe he may try to convey secret messages to his wives, telling them to hurt themselves.
Ratzon, 60, heads a cult of women he calls his wives despite never having officially married any of them. The tribe of women and children live in southern Tel Aviv. All of the women have Ratzon’s name tattooed on their arms, and all of the children are named derivatives of Ratzon’s name. Some of the women have threatened to commit suicide if any harm comes to Ratzon.
The authorities have known of Ratzon’s cult since a complaint was filed against him in 2000, but at that time no clear laws existed on the issues at hand. Social workers who investigated the state of his children reported that they were well-dressed and fed, and that they did not appear to suffer from neglect.
However social services were not satisfied that all was well with the “family”, and six months ago succeeded in convincing one of the women to come forward and complain. The woman then returned to the Ratzon complex and acted as an agent of the police.
After the complaint was filed police found they could act on it, due to a law passed in 2006 which prohibits trafficking of humans and includes a clause on enslavement.
Ratzon is considered by his companions to be the savior (Goel in Hebrew) of the universe, and is attributed godly and supernatural abilities. Many of the women have tattooed his name and portrait to several parts of their bodies.
The names of every one of Ratzon’s children include his own first name. For instance, one of his sons is called Avinu Ha-Goel (our father the savior) and he has a daughter named Tehilat Ha-Goel (glory of the savior).
As part of the seven-month case involving undercover operatives, police looked to similar cases from around the world involving cults and slavery.
The case of David Koresh’s Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, formed the basis of the approach taken by social workers due to its importance in the psychology of the cult and the possibility of mass suicide.
Social workers were carefully selected by the ministry to deal specifically with this case and all were prepared for the possibility that some of the women may try to commit suicide with Ratzon’s departure.
The suicide pact was highlighted last year in Channel 10 documentary made about the family. Sources told The Jerusalem Post this week that social workers watched the film hundreds of times to become completely familiar with the women they were about to rescue.
The ministry said that it was allocating a separate budget to deal with the ongoing treatment and rehabilitative counseling required for the woman.