Death of a snake-charmer stuns Israel

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The Independent Online
As Israel's most famous snake-charmer, Ya'acov Sela drew large audiences on television thanks to his deft handling of poisonous reptiles. But when his body turned up in a shallow grave in the Golan Heights at the end of last week, police found that he had not died from snake bite but had been shot to death with a pistol.

Sela, 34, disappeared on 16 April, when most Israelis were absorbed by Israel's intervention in Lebanon. His girlfriend said he had gone to the United States and that she and her son had spoken to him there by phone. His family and friends thought something must have happened to him, because he had not told them he was going away. Nobody had seen the red Citroen he normally drove.

The fate of Sela, a man renowned in Israel for charming and catching snakes, who was often called in by police and conservation groups, only became clear last Thursday.

A group of pupils from school near Haifa were doing national service in the steep hills of southern Golan, near the Syrian border, when they saw a hand sticking out of the earth. They called the police who carefully removed the soil to reveal a partly decomposed body, later identified as Sela.

Even after the discovery of the body, Sela's girlfriend, Rina Hirschtig, 42, stuck to her story that she and her son Harel, 21, had received telephone calls from him in the US.

She said: "If, God forbid, it's him, I'm very upset because I loved him very much, but we have no connection with the matter." Despite her denials, police arrested Mrs Hirschtig, her son and his friend, Daniel Koenig, 21, as murder suspects.

The breakthrough in the case came at the weekend, when an unnamed juvenile went to the police and allegedly implicated the three who were by then under arrest.

With his help, they finally found Sela's missing Citroen, which they had been looking for in northern Israel, in the area where the body was found, in the industrial area of Kfar Sava, a town outside Tel Aviv.

They also confiscated a pistol belonging to Mrs Hirschtig, which they believe was used to kill him on the night he disappeared in April. Mr Koenig has reportedly taken part in a police reconstruction of the murder.

Police believe money was the motive behind the killing. Sela had done well out of his snake-charming and his status as a celebrity. When he visited the kibbutz where his girlfriend lived, her son allegedly took his chequebook and wrote out cheques worth 50,000 shekels (pounds 11,000).

Sela discovered the theft and, after a dispute, thought the Hirschtigs had agreed to reimburse him. Exactly what happened next is unclear, but Sela was apparently lured to his car and shot and killed somewhere in northern Israel. His body was buried in the Golan, where his killers presumably thought it would not be discovered.