Goel Ratzon arrives at a courthouse in Tel Aviv Yossi Zeliger / AFP / Getty
Police described the apartment block in the city's downscale Hatikvah neighborhood as a slum harem. "The living conditions of the women were tragic," Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told TIME. "When I entered one of the houses, I was shocked by what I saw. The filth was horrible, and there was nowhere to walk without stumbling on something. It was a three-bedroom apartment, where 10 women and 17 children were living."
Ratzon's unusual domestic arrangements first came to light in a documentary broadcast on Israel's Channel 10 in January 2009. It showed Ratzon's "wives" cooking, cleaning and shopping together, eagerly anticipating the arrival of "Daddy" and competing over whom he would choose to spend the night with. On the show, Ratzon explained the secret of his magnetic attraction was that he was "perfect." "I have everything a woman wants, all the qualities a woman wants. I give women the attention they want. It's made of many things, but fortunately, I have everything," he said. Because there was technically no multiple marriage (no ceremonies or documents were involved), authorities had no basis for charging Ratzon with polygamy.
The women, too, appeared to be content, if not happy. They wore modest clothing that neighbors likened to those of religious Muslims, and they had Ratzon's image tattooed on their bodies. The children's names all included a version of Ratzon's own. One wife had Ratzon's portrait tattooed on her upper left arm, his head surrounded by snakes with the legend "Goel Ratzon, my love forever." A similar tattoo on her upper right arm portrayed him with a cobra crowning his head and the legend "My Goel, my love." Her neck was inscribed twice: "To Goel, with love."
"No one has love like we have here. I went through a lot before I arrived here and he is the ultimate for me," she explained on television. One of the other women defended Ratzon's little kingdom, saying, "People think we are in a place where we are imprisoned and forced to become some kind of poor Cinderella. They don't understand that there is humanity, respect. He has something special and good." Said one of her companions: "He's the Messiah that everyone talks about. The day he decides to reveal himself, this country will see it."
Ratzon had built a reputation for spiritual redemption (which is what goel means in Hebrew) by way of a center in Tel Aviv that combined teachings on the Kabbalah with healing. In 2000, he told a reporter that he had had a vision of a "soul" appearing to him and telling him that the secrets of the Torah would be revealed to him, allowing him to no longer work hard in his life. He became known as a healer for young women, some of whom fell in love with him. One of his "wives" said she was smitten after he cured her of a mysterious disease that had left her bald at age 10. Some of the women in the household severed all contact with their own families, insisting no one forced them to stay. On the TV documentary, some accompanied Ratzon to a Tel Aviv mall to trawl for more "wives."
Still, Ratzon, 59, ruled his clan like a kingdom — or a police state. According to a book of domestic bylaws that he laid out for his huge household, the women faced fines from $50 to $500 for such infractions as sitting idle when there was housework to be done or talking to repairmen. To an extent, the situation was state-subsidized: some women claimed state benefits as stay-at-home, single parents. Others, however, worked outside, earning money for the family kitty. But not everyone was happy. Days before his arrest, Ratzon reportedly took one of his "wives" to the hospital because she was suffering from an overdose of antidepressants.
Because there was no evidence of a crime, just a weird lifestyle, no charges have been brought against Ratzon. "The welfare department [had] been in touch with some of the women and children for the past couple of years," Sharon Melamed, a social worker in the Tel Aviv Municipality Welfare Department tells TIME. "There was never a reason to suspect any criminal behavior. The children were clean and well dressed. They showed up to school regularly. There were no signs in their behavior that could indicate neglect or anything like sexual exploitation."
But there was much suspicion that many of the women in the alleged harem, still in their 20s, had been troubled teenagers who originally went to Ratzon for therapy. In June of 2009, a 24-year-old woman, the daughter of one of Ratzon's "wives," filed a complaint against him with the Tel Aviv police. The mother, who was arrested along with Ratzon, is suspected of introducing her biological daughter, then 14, to the healer for purposes of sex; she is now facing charges of encouraging and failing to report underage sex. Using Clause 375a of a new Israeli law against human-trafficking that makes it a crime to hold a person "in conditions of slavery," police then tapped Ratzon's phones and began surveillance. Parallel to the police investigation, parents of some of the young women hired private detectives to launch an undercover inquiry.
If formally charged, Ratzon faces a maximum 16-year prison term for each of the slavery and rape charges. Through his lawyer, Ratzon denied the allegations. After so many years of inaction, the police seem confident they can prove his guilt. "We have managed to gather a great deal of evidence relating to the offenses of holding people under conditions of enslavement and rape," deputy commander Shlomi Michael, head of the Tel Aviv police's Central Unit, told reporters.
— With reporting by Yonit Farago / Tel Aviv