JERUSALEM - An Israeli man who kept a cult-like harem of women and fathered dozens of children with them has been arrested on suspicion of enslavement, rape and incest, police said Thursday.
Police say Goel Ratzon kept 17 women in a state of near-total obedience in at least three apartments in the Tel Aviv area. Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said they bore him 37 children, some of whom were born to his own daughters.
Ratzon, a self-described healer about 60 years old with flowing white locks and a bushy white beard, controlled the women's money and sometimes abused them if they dared to challenge his control, police alleged.
Authorities have investigated Ratzon before but did not find enough evidence to charge him. A recent law against human trafficking opened the door to pursue enslavement charges, Rosenfeld said.
A documentary about Ratzon that aired on Israel's Channel 10 TV last year said he kept 32 women and 89 children in his apartments. Authorities are investigating whether other women and children can be linked to the case, Rosenfeld said.
The TV documentary showed women with tattoos of his name and face on their bodies, in almost angelic portrayals. Many of the children's names included his own first name. He was quoted as saying the women lived with him under their own free will, and it showed pictures of them combing his hair and feeding him.
Some of the women told the station that he had rescued them from difficult circumstances.
Ratzon, whose first name means "saviour" in Hebrew, is being held in a Tel Aviv jail pending a court appearance Jan. 24, Rosenfeld said. He was arrested Tuesday, but police only lifted a news blackout Thursday. He has not been charged.
Ratzon is being represented by the Tel Aviv public defender's office. His appointed lawyer, Shlomzion Gabai, said Ratzon denied all the allegations. She said the women were not held against their will and were free to go as they pleased. She said he also insisted that all the sex was consensual.
"He may be different, but he's not a criminal," Gabai said.
The children have been turned over to welfare authorities, and some of the women have been released, police said.
As many as 10 women were living in one three-bedroom apartment with 16 children, Rosenfeld said. All the apartments were dark, filthy and rundown, and the women and children's movements inside were monitored by Ratzon from a separate apartment he kept, he said.
There, Rosenfeld said, he would have sex with the women - some of them his own children.
"The women didn't really understand what their situation was, they didn't understand what freedom was," he said.
Rosenfeld said the women would work and turn over wages. Ratzon, he said, kept a book of rules. One was forbidding women to make calls without permission. "Every time they wouldn't do something according to what he said, they would have to pay him a fine," sometimes running nearly $300, Rosenfeld said.
Ratzon was arrested after three of the women complained about him to welfare authorities, who forwarded the complaints to police.