To hear more audio stories from publications like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.
There is little about the limestone courthouse in Nazareth, a predominantly Arab town in northern Israel, to suggest that it would be the setting of Israel’s most-talked-about trial.
Only three rows of seats make up the courtroom’s public galleries. This means that the murder victim’s mother may find herself seated directly behind the wife of her daughter’s suspected killer. The place is so ill equipped for onlookers that, should a prosecutor choose to play the defendant’s confession on video — as happened when I attended on a Sunday in March — the scrum of reporters and photographers have to strain behind her laptop to watch.
The case of Tair Rada, a 13-year-old girl who was found with her throat slit in a bathroom stall of her middle school, has riveted the country almost from the moment she was killed in 2006. The murder took place in broad daylight in Katzrin, a sleepy town in northern Israel. “A ‘Twin Peaks’ story,” as one reporter who covers the trial told me. In 2010, a Ukrainian-born man named Roman Zdorov was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. But doubts about his guilt have dogged the case, furnishing material for no fewer than six prime-time investigations and as many books. Last year, a Supreme Court judge granted Zdorov a new trial. Over the past 10 months, 85 witnesses have testified. Most days, the case has dominated the headlines, often eclipsing interest in the ongoing corruption trial of Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s former and longest-serving prime minister.
Zdorov’s trial, which involves not only the mystery of a murder in plain sight but also a swirl of conspiracy theories and a grieving mother who refused to accept the police’s findings, has become a “national obsession,” as Maariv, the daily newspaper, has put it, with much of the attention focused on the defendant. Zdorov arrived in Israel from Ukraine in 2002 on a tourist visa and stayed. He is now 44, burly and impassive, with a buzz cut that accentuates a broad, square face. At the time of the murder, though, he was a scrawny 28-year-old with halting Hebrew. He worked temporarily in Rada’s school as a floorer. After the police arrested him, he protested his innocence, but a few days later he confessed to the murder twice and re-enacted it. He then recanted his confession, testifying that he had been tricked into giving it. He spent 15 years behind bars, during which time he appealed twice and lost. But public pressure kept mounting in his case — an unusual rallying behind a poor immigrant who is often described as “invisible.” He became a symbol of institutional rot, Israel’s Josef K.
Zdorov is the first high-profile defendant in Israel to have his case transformed by social media. His conviction in 2010 coincided with the rise of Facebook in Israel, resulting in a digital petri dish where speculations and counterspeculations about the murder bloomed. There were rumors that the real killer was a serial rapist who escaped from prison the month before Tair’s murder. Rumors that the murder was carried out by more than two assailants. Rumors that Tair’s friends killed her. In 2013, three young filmmakers set out to investigate the various theories. Inspired by a boom in true-crime documentaries that tried to expose miscarriages of justice, their four-part docuseries, “Shadow of Truth,” portrayed Zdorov as the unwitting victim of prosecutorial overreach and offered up an alternative suspect, a woman known in the series only by her initials: O.K. She was 24 at the time of the murder and was once a student at the school where the murder took place. The series relied on testimony from O.K.’s ex-boyfriend, who described her as a sadistic and violent young woman — “somewhere between a tormented soul and a monster,” as he put it.
The documentary, which premiered in March 2016, was an instant sensation. Though it was shown on a little-watched cable channel, it quickly became one of the most-viewed programs in Israeli history. On the night it aired, “shadow” and “truth” were the most-searched-for Google terms in the country. With polls showing that 51 percent of Israelis believe that the judicial system is tainted with corruption, the series tapped into broader distrust with the country’s public institutions. That May, hundreds of protesters gathered in Tel Aviv, carrying signs that said, “Today it’s Zdorov, tomorrow it’s you!”
Many Israelis credit the series and the outcry it generated with the decision to award Zdorov a new trial. But legal observers have balked. Israel’s former state attorney Shai Nitzan has called “Shadow of Truth” and true-crime productions like it an “imminent danger to democracy.” He went on: “Criminal trials aren’t a reality show, where the public gets to vote by text message. Do we really want to live in a country where a person’s life, fate and liberty are decided by media polls?”
The house where Tair Rada grew up in Katzrin — squat and set back from the street by a footpath of flagstones — sits in a neat, unobtrusive row of houses that make up a town of fewer than 8,000 people. It is perched in the verdant Golan Heights, a disputed area in an arresting landscape. Because of its proximity to the Syrian border, many of Katzrin’s residents are career military workers, like Shmuel, Tair’s father, who died in 2016. He and his wife, Ilana, raised three children in the house, but now Ilana is alone.
On a clear wintry day in 2006, Ilana returned home from work and saw that Tair’s backpack was missing. She glanced at the kitchen and saw no trace of Tair’s having eaten, as she usually did when she got home from school a little after 2 p.m. Around 4, Ilana started to worry. Tair had dance practice that afternoon, and when Ilana called the community center where it was held, she was told her daughter hadn’t shown up for class. She called Tair, but there was no answer. This wasn’t like her, Ilana thought. Tair was always responsible. “Not an average 13-year-old,” Ilana said when I visited her at her home recently. Panicking, she called her husband, who, together with neighbors and colleagues, combed the nearby woods. As evening fell and their search yielded nothing, they decided to examine Tair’s now-empty school. There, inside the girls’ bathroom on the second level, the door of one of the four stalls was locked. A family friend of the Radas bent down and saw bloodstains and a pair of shoes. He called another friend, who hoisted himself over the stall and discovered Tair’s body, in jeans and sneakers, sprawled on the closed toilet lid. “Everything inside me was erased at that moment,” Ilana told me.
An autopsy revealed that Tair was killed around 1:15 p.m., a time when the school building was teeming with teenagers. She had sustained two stab wounds to the neck, cuts to her chest and hands and several blows to the head. At least six girls later testified that they had gone in and out of the bathroom around the time of the murder but hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary. Gossip began to circulate about a falling-out between Tair and her girlfriends. A front-page article the next day read, “SUSPICION: KIDS MURDERED GIRL AT SCHOOL.”
But the police had no leads. Residents sent them on implausible hunts, such as to a cemetery in the middle of the night, where a satanic ritual was supposedly being conducted. The police questioned everyone who worked in the school; among those interviewed was Zdorov. He had been laying tiles in the school basement, and on the day of the murder he was wrapping up a month of work there. When an investigator asked to see the clothes he wore that day, Zdorov said that he had thrown out his workpants because they were too small. He also got rid of the blade he used on his utility knife. This — and his having no alibi — raised suspicions, and Zdorov was arrested. In the interrogation room, he sat quietly and dabbed at his perspiring face with a tissue. Early on, without being asked, he volunteered that he did not commit the murder, and added that though he knew that some murders resulted from insanity, it was “not easy” to bring him to that state. The police had little to go on. There was no DNA evidence linking him to the crime scene, and there was no motive.
For three days, Zdorov sat in a small cell that was occupied almost entirely by two narrow bunk beds. He became friendly with a Russian-speaking cellmate. Close to midnight, 12 days after the murder, Zdorov, worried that his cell was bugged, said aloud that he was innocent. Shortly after, he started whispering to his cellmate. “I made one mistake,” he said. “I didn’t clean the blood in the men’s toilets.” What about the knife? his cellmate asked. “There was a little bit on the blade,” Zdorov said, and he added that he washed it.
Unknown to Zdorov, his cellmate, who had introduced himself as Artur, was in fact a police informant. As the two men sat on a lower bunk, Artur tried to reassure Zdorov, while at the same time grilling him for information. The strategy worked. Zdorov told him that kids at the school had taunted and cursed at him regularly. “Russian bastards,” they would say. “All your mothers are whores.” They had repeatedly unplugged his electric tile cutter and harangued him for cigarettes. He said that on the day of the murder, Tair walked by and asked him for a cigarette. He refused, and she started cursing at him. “I caught up with her and —” he indicated a slitting motion across his throat. He later turned to Artur. “Would you be able to contain yourself? When they curse your wife, your sister?” He went on: “I lost control. I swear, I won’t take on schools anymore. Or kindergartens. I don’t want to. Those kids are not educated.”
“Three minutes were enough for you to finish her?” Artur asked at one point.
“Less,” Zdorov replied.
When Zdorov again demonstrated slitting his throat with two decisive motions, Artur asked him: “Where did you learn to kill like that?”
“The internet,” Zdorov said. “I read a book, a K.G.B. introduction to knife battle.”
Zdorov then leaned in and whispered in Artur’s ear: “I thought they would only find her the next day. The truth is, if I knew who she was, I wouldn’t have done it. She’s the daughter of a friend of a guy I do handiwork for, Reuven.” (Reuven Janah later confirmed this in court.)
Armed with his hourlong confession, investigators questioned Zdorov again the following day. Until then he had denied any involvement in the murder, even when presented with (false) information that Tair’s blood had been found on one of his tools. Now he reversed course, giving them a detailed confession. That evening, he was driven to the school, where, handcuffed, in a plaid flannel shirt, he led investigators up the stairs, appeared to hesitate for a moment, then entered the girls’ bathroom and re-enacted the murder on a female officer.
According to Israeli law, a suspect’s confession is enough to secure a conviction as long as there is an additional piece of corroborating evidence. When the case went to trial in 2007, the state prosecution pointed to several such pieces of evidence. There was Zdorov’s precise knowledge of Tair’s positioning when she was killed, and his knowledge that she had cuts on her hands and chest — details, the prosecution argued, that only the murderer could have known. He also gave investigators an accurate description of what Tair looked like that day, down to her loose hair bun held together without an elastic. He included other details in his confession that the prosecution characterized as “authentic,” such as scrubbing his wedding ring with a toothbrush to get rid of blood, or hiding his headphones under his shirt so as to “not get anything on them.” Then there was the matter of the “two voices” in his confession to Artur, implying that he wanted the police to believe one thing (that he was innocent) while unburdening himself of something else in private (that he was guilty). In 2010, Zdorov was convicted unanimously by three judges. “His testimony is riddled with lies, manipulations and inconsistencies,” they concluded. Raviv Drucker, a veteran journalist for Channel 13, has called it “one of the strongest convictions we’ve had here.”
Despite Zdorov’s conviction, speculation that he was not the killer — and that perhaps the killer was someone closer in age to the victim — refused to die down. This was fueled in part by an unlikely source: Tair Rada’s mother. From the start, Ilana Rada did not accept the police’s findings that Zdorov was her daughter’s murderer. In her view, the police had been overly eager to shut the case and failed to examine all possible leads. She told me: “Did you find the murder weapon? No. Is there forensic evidence? No. You can get a confession out of anyone.” To her, there was still the possibility that Tair’s classmates were somehow involved in or knew about the murder, though the state prosecution had thoroughly ruled this out. Perhaps it was a mother’s wish: not to have her daughter’s last moments defined by a snide remark she may have said to a stranger.
The belief that teenagers were involved in the murder found fertile ground online. In 2011, a man who presented himself as a private detective started a Facebook campaign that targeted a few of Tair’s girlfriends, suggesting that they were involved in the murder in posts that quickly gained traction. (He also served as an expert witness for the defense, before it was discovered that he was not a detective but an electric equipment salesman.) One of his followers was Roi Wais, now a 38-year-old dog groomer living in a suburb outside Tel Aviv, who began reading up on the murder case. “I became addicted,” Wais told me. He began sharing his thoughts on Facebook, he said, adding, “Every post I wrote got 15,000 likes!” Their theories that Zdorov had been framed soon trickled into mainstream newspapers. “Journalists called every day asking for something new, and we gave it to them,” Wais said. Azi Lev-On, an Israeli political scientist at Ariel University who researches social media, was astonished to find that among the top three Facebook groups in Israel in 2016 — a decade after the murder — was one dedicated to exonerating Zdorov.
‘He likened the various theories in the case to an image of a dress that had gone viral a few years earlier, in which everyone saw a different color.’
These days, the group — “The Whole Truth About the Murder Case of Tair Rada, of Blessed Memory” — numbers some 200,000 people, the equivalent of a large Israeli city, representing a “hub of anti-establishment activity,” Lev-On noted. Its members also use the platform to call attention to other perceived instances of state overreach. For some, the interest is political: Just as Zdorov has fallen victim to an overzealous prosecution, they argue, so has Netanyahu in his corruption trial. In 2020, Netanyahu’s son Yair tweeted that Zdorov and another man who was convicted of burning the home of a Palestinian family in 2015 “are innocent!!!” In the case of Zdorov, supporters function as “semi-experts,” as Lev-On put it. On any given day, it seems, members of the group pore over court documents, debate distinctions between cuts made by serrated and smooth knife blades and crosscheck witness testimonies for possible holes. Many attend the trial and use courtroom lunch breaks to take selfies with Zdorov.
They contend that the police used borderline-illegal subterfuge to gain Zdorov’s confession. No attorney, for example, was present in the room at the time of his confession (though the interrogations were all taped). When Zdorov said that he had stabbed Tair in the forearm, an investigator can be heard correcting him: “The wrist.” “Yes,” Zdorov replies. There was Zdorov’s hesitance before leading investigators to the girls’ bathroom, suggesting, his supporters argue, that he didn’t know where the crime took place and was merely trying to placate the officers. And there was the absence of his DNA inside the small stall.
Perhaps most significant, his supporters believe, was a trail of bloody shoe prints on and around the toilet seat, which did not fit Zdorov’s shoe size. The prosecution successfully argued in the first trial that they most likely originated with someone from the search party or one of the paramedics. But Yarom Halevy, Zdorov’s current defense attorney, secured a new trial last year in part by sowing doubt on that assumption. Relying on testimony from the head of Israel’s National Forensic Institute, Halevy claimed that Tair’s blood dripped on those shoe prints, suggesting that they were imprinted at the time of the murder — not five hours later, when Rada’s body was found. This, Halevy asserted, meant that the shoe prints could have belonged only to the murderer himself. Or “herself,” as he ominously put it.
Among those fascinated by the groundswell of support for Zdorov was a journalist and budding filmmaker named Ari Pines. In the fall of 2013, Pines was working on an article about online activism for Zdorov’s exoneration. He mentioned it to a friend, Yotam Guendelman, who ran a small film-production company, one night over drinks. Guendelman shot mostly commercials and music videos but had loftier ambitions. “Ari started telling me the story, and it became clear that every person he’d spoken to had a different theory of what had happened,” Guendelman recalled. By the end of the evening, the two friends had settled on the rough outline of a film: “You can take the same set of evidence to build different narratives and believe them,” Pines said. He likened the various theories in the case to an image of a dress that had gone viral a few years earlier, in which “everyone saw a different color.” A third friend, Mika Timor, who worked with Guendelman, became a producer on the film, which they eventually expanded into “Shadow of Truth.” (Timor declined to speak for this article.)
Pines and Guendelman’s interest in true crime was sparked, as high school film students, by such productions as Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line,” from 1988, which recounted the wrongful conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer. They wanted to bring similar scrutiny of the criminal-justice system to Israel, to “a case that became a symbol,” Pines said.
As the filmmakers started production, they came across a testimony in the police files that captivated their interest. In April 2012, a 28-year-old man named Adir Habany filed a formal complaint with the police. Habany told investigators that six years earlier, his girlfriend at the time, Ola (born Olga) Kravchenko, confessed to him that she had killed Tair. Kravchenko suffered from a psychiatric condition, he told the police, that drove her to kill people. She had recurring fantasies about a “wolf named Tahav that lives inside her and that keeps pushing her to get blood,” Habany said. On the day of Tair’s murder in 2006, he said, she called him at work that afternoon and told him that “things were going to get messy.” They were living in Katzrin at the time. Habany, who had long hair and black-framed glasses, worked as a computer technician for a nearby kibbutz. Kravchenko, with large almond-shaped eyes and a curtain of hair that fell behind her back, worked odd jobs cleaning homes and waiting on tables. In her spare time, she drew — delicate sketches of women, many of them tortured or holding guns to their heads.
That night, Habany said that he and Kravchenko had invited a few friends over. Conversation turned to Tair’s gruesome murder, which dominated the news. After the friends left, Habany told investigators that he had recalled Kravchenko’s portentous phone call to him earlier that day and, when they were in bed, asked her whether she was the murderer. That’s when Kravchenko confessed, according to Habany: She had disguised herself as a man, with pants that she had taken from him, a wig and a piece of fabric to “flatten her chest.” She told him that she had sneaked into the girls’ bathroom and staked it out for two hours. “And then she just killed a girl,” he told investigators, adding, “If I sound cold, it’s not because I’m cold toward it, but because that was the attitude.”
The police were incredulous. Why had he waited six years before telling anyone? Why would a woman dress up as a man in order to enter a girls’ bathroom? And if she really did confess, how could he have knowingly carried on a relationship with her for six more years after that?
At first, Habany dismissed the question, but a few days later he broke down and told them: “I was [expletive] scared, I’m still scared of her.”
“You’re like some character out of a Turkish telenovela,” an investigator observed at one point.
The police already had a convicted suspect in the case, serving a life sentence. Still, they started an investigation. For four days, they questioned Kravchenko, who denied everything Habany said, including, at first, that she harbored any violent impulses. She called his complaint a “bunch of nonsense and the petty revenge of a small man.” She unspooled for investigators a story of her own: about a nine-year relationship that had turned increasingly obsessive and violent, and that she finally managed to end the previous month. Habany raped her twice and beat her repeatedly, she said. Once, when she forgot to leave spare keys for him, he slammed her head against the wall, causing a concussion. Another time, she said, he punched her so hard in the jaw that she couldn’t chew for almost two weeks. As part of their investigation, the police seized Kravchenko’s phone, where they found over 700 messages from Habany, according to court documents, many bearing explicit threats in English following her breakup from him.
“Your phone, facebook and mail were allways followed, and are now closed for you,” he texted her on March 31, 2012.
“Once a slut always a slut. Wanna see our sex movies on the internet? I’ve started to work on some of them and uploading it tomorrow. Bitch.”
“Enjoy your last day as a free person.”
“Just dont be a coward and kill yourself or anything.”
“I’m gonna trash your name and life so hard you’ll be ashamed to show your face you piece of [expletive] slut.”
A week after first contacting the police, Habany was arrested for rape, sexual abuse and giving false testimony. A search on his computer yielded a document saved under the name “Confession” written earlier that year, which read like a script of what Habany told the police. It included direct references to the court ruling on Zdorov, suggesting that he had researched the case. The police held Habany in custody for 11 days. There, he confessed to raping Kravchenko once. He also confessed to beating her on about 15 separate occasions. He said the violence was part of their sadomasochistic relationship and showed no sign of contrition. Instead, he sounded indignant that the police weren’t taking his accusation more seriously. Asked why he hadn’t allowed Kravchenko to see a doctor for her injuries, he said, “Let me go hang myself in the corner and leave me alone, because I have no energy for you or anyone else’s [expletive].” They eventually released him.
After the police questioned her for four days, Kravchenko left her mother’s home in Katzrin barefoot while murmuring and talking to herself. She arrived at a nearby college dorm and used a broken beer bottle to attack a man she had started seeing after leaving Habany, who had rejected her. A police van arrived. Kravchenko resisted and tried to bite one of the officers in the neck. According to the officer, she told him, “I’m hungry for the good stuff.” She was arrested and again questioned by the police.
That interview shows a woman in the throes of a psychotic episode. “I woke up feeling I was in a warm place, with blood and innards all around me,” she told an investigating officer. She also divulged that she carried a knife with her that morning.
“Do you have a special interest in this knife?” the officer asked.
“No — in people” Kravchenko replied. “In what’s inside them.”
She described herself as “starving” and said that her violent urges were increasingly hard to control. The officer asked if she had ever acted on those urges. Kravchenko told her, “I don’t want to answer.”
A week later, Kravchenko was involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Acre, in northern Israel, where she stayed for more than two years. The police investigation into Habany’s claims concluded that “there is no evidence, direct or indirect,” linking Kravchenko to Tair’s murder. In 2015, the Supreme Court, denying Zdorov’s appeal, rejected Habany’s claims. But until last year, Kravchenko’s file as a suspect in the murder of Tair Rada remained open.
Two competing narratives faced Pines and Guendelman, the filmmakers, as they examined Habany’s claims. One was of a cowed man who took great risks to testify against his murderous ex-girlfriend, and a police force determined to bury his account. The other was of a woman suffering from severe mental illness, a long history of physical and sexual abuse and a vindictive ex-boyfriend who framed her for the country’s most notorious crime.
Pines and Guendelman told me recently that they had been skeptical of Habany’s version, but that a “further twist,” as Pines called it, led them to believe that he was being truthful. That twist was the recollection of Anat, a woman who had become one of Kravchenko’s close friends in the psychiatric ward. Anat committed suicide in 2015. (I’m withholding her last name out of respect for her family.) In the weeks before she died, she told two of her social workers that Kravchenko had confessed to her that she had killed Tair. (Kravchenko denies telling Anat this.) The filmmakers learned about Anat’s recollection from one of her friends, who described it on “Shadow of Truth.” “As soon as we understood that there were two people who had never met — Adir and Anat — and that they both said the same story without knowing about each other, this was consequential,” Pines said.
In the last episode of “Shadow of Truth,” the filmmakers aired their explosive new theory. They gave the final chapter over to Habany’s version of events. He appeared in silhouette and was identified only by his initials, A.H. In that episode, the country learned about Kravchenko — or O.K., as she was called — whom Habany, in a measured tone, described as having had the murder “very well planned.” Kravchenko used to calm herself down by imagining herself “swimming in a pool of blood,” Habany said. The filmmakers dramatized his version of events with re-enactments: a trail of blood drops, a bloodied backpack, a female hand holding a knife. They used a mug shot of Kravchenko but covered her eyes with a long black stripe, as if in a redacted report. To bolster Habany’s credibility, they interviewed his attorney at the time, who said: “I’ve known the client and his family for several years. These are normative, very trustworthy people who have no reason to make up a story that isn’t true.” As a further indictment, the series included Kravchenko’s drawings of demonic creatures and women wielding swords and guns, a visual portfolio of insanity.
“Shadow of Truth” was an extravagant production, with sunset drone shots of Katzrin and a black, white and red opening montage that appeared plucked out of “True Detective.” It had all the formal trappings of the true-crime genre: floodlit talking-head interviews, a keyboard clicking out seemingly damning details — all enhanced by a menacing musical score. The effect was one of dramatic revelation.
Viewers were also shown a number of Habany’s threatening text messages to Kravchenko and her accusation of rape (though not the fact that Habany had admitted to it). And the series ended with an audio recording in which Kravchenko accuses Habany of trying to “ruin my life in any way possible.” But the takeaway was clear. In interviews the filmmakers gave in 2018, when a piece of DNA evidence surfaced that many people thought backed their theory (and that was later deemed inconclusive), Pines said that he was “glad” that the version Habany told them “turned out to be true.” Guendelman said, “I think we can say with quite a bit of certainty that O.K. murdered Tair Rada.” (They later apologized for those interviews, and in others they were more circumspect.)
Critics lauded “Shadow of Truth”; one called it an “exemplary and terrifying documentary.” Another review, in Haaretz, placed it at the “top of documentary productions of recent years.” A poll taken after its release found that 62 percent of Israelis believed that “O.K.” was Tair’s real murderer — not the convicted Zdorov. The series won three Israeli television academy awards, including one for Best Documentary Series. In 2017, it was licensed by Netflix in a lucrative deal and was made available for five years in 190 countries.
I first met Kravchenko last November in her apartment in a cinder-block housing project in Haifa. She was driven out of a previous apartment in the northern town Kiryat Shmona four years ago, when neighbors recognized her as “O.K.,” and she spent the intervening years shuttling between family and friends. (“People with families are very nervous, they’re afraid to send their kids to school,” a woman who lived near Kravchenko in Kiryat Shmona told Channel 12 in 2018.) Kravchenko opened the door barefoot and apologized for her dirty feet. Her kitchen was full of seedlings, which she sprouts for salads. A balanced diet helps keep her schizophrenia at bay, she said. She noted that she wasn’t currently taking any medication, adding, with a smile, “Feel free to run.”
I followed her to a small bedroom that she had converted into a studio. You could see the distant shoreline from the window. An easel with a still-wet canvas stood in the center of the room. It depicted a flame-haired woman, a young girl and a wolf that stared back at the viewer, appearing subdued. The woman and the wolf “guard me — or the girl,” Kravchenko explained. “It’s my subconscious — or my unconscious, rather.” In conversation, Kravchenko is measured, circumspect, unsparing in her self-analysis, with flashes of wry humor. For a long time, she refused to accept her diagnosis as a paranoid schizophrenic, she told me. “Which is how every schizophrenic person acts, by the way.”
She grew up in a “difficult home,” as she put it. Her parents met as art students in Odessa, Ukraine. When Kravchenko was 3 and her sister 5, they lost both their grandfather and father to murder in a few short months. Their grandfather, a high-ranking commander in the Soviet military, was temperamental and belligerent and possibly mentally ill, Kravchenko said. He was killed when an assailant strangled him and torched his house. Ola’s mother, Tania, was suspected in the arson and spent almost a year in Soviet detention. (According to Tania, his body was exhumed, and new evidence cleared her of the murder.) Shortly after, Ola’s father’s body was found, hanging from a tree in a forest. He had been a penniless artist in St. Petersburg, “extraordinarily talented” and “hypersensitive,” according to Tania. No one knows how he died, though friends of his later told her that they had seen two men chasing him in the woods. Ola’s family moved in with Tania’s mother. Four years later, they immigrated to Israel, settling in Katzrin.
Kravchenko found it hard to fit in. She worked on shedding her accent and avoided the children of other Russian or Ukrainian immigrants, who make up about a third of Katzrin’s population. She often wandered out of class, disappearing into nature. The school repeatedly called her mother to come find her. She distinctly recalls the first time she heard voices. She was 17 and driving home with her mother. “She started saying all these unpleasant things about me: that she didn’t want to drive me home, that she was tired of taking care of me, that I was always nagging.” But when Kravchenko looked over at her mother, “her mouth wasn’t moving.” Soon the voices became numerous and frequent, disguised as the voices of people Kravchenko knew well. “They were always critical of me, always nasty,” she said. “There was no telling them apart from real voices.”
Around the same time, Kravchenko’s mother suggested she try meditation, and she started attending classes led by a charismatic Chilean-born guru named David Har-Zion. Kravchenko fell under his spell. After several months, she moved in with a group of his followers. She slept on a yoga mat with dozens of people in a large hall. Members were forbidden to form relationships with the outside world and were required to surrender their personal possessions to the group. For three years, she lived in “virtual enslavement,” she said. Har-Zion later fled the country, and Kravchenko found herself all at once unmoored and alone. “I had no life skills whatsoever,” she said.
When she was 20, she met Habany on the streets of Tel Aviv. She was raising donations for Har-Zion’s group at a local market, and he helped his father run a clothing stall there. They began to take long walks on the beach together, smoking marijuana and talking about their pasts. He was 19, bookish and opinionated, and he impressed her with his knowledge of Hebrew literature. He confided in her that at 17 he was committed at a psychiatric institution outside Tel Aviv. (The court later indicated that this was for conduct disorder.) Rather than alarm her, this “only pulled me closer,” she told me. Within six months, she moved in with him. “I was totally his,” she said.
There had been warning signs, but Kravchenko chose to ignore them. “The sex was violent, but I was drawn to it.” By 2005, Kravchenko felt increasingly isolated. Returning home from work one evening, she started talking with a group of young people who frequented a public square. They offered her vodka. The next thing she recalls, she woke up naked in her apartment, her body aching, with Habany screaming at her: “What is this? What did you do?” Kravchenko doesn’t know the person who raped her or remember much about that evening — “I have flashes of the guy,” she told me — but when Habany saw her, he kicked her in the head and stomach, dragged her into the bathtub and urinated on her. Habany later told investigators that he “peed on her,” because he “felt like it.” An investigator drilled into this: “Your partner, your lover … was raped according to you by another man, and you peed on her?” Habany told him, “It’s my personal business — not yours.”
After that night, Kravchenko said, Habany became obsessed with her whereabouts. He didn’t allow her to socialize or go out without him to any place except work. “I didn’t realize that I was being abused,” she told me. “I still wanted to marry him, have children with him.” In 2006, they ran out of money to pay rent and had to move in with Kravchenko’s mother, in Katzrin. Tania was concerned about how Habany treated Kravchenko and tried to warn her daughter. But by then, Kravchenko had lost her sense of self. In a sketchbook from that time, she drew a woman warrior with a sword entering her private parts. “I even bought myself a dog collar,” she said.
Kravchenko doesn’t remember much about the day of Tair’s murder that December. She was home, she thinks, between shifts at the restaurant where she worked. When I asked her why she thought Habany later made this particular allegation against her, she said: “Because it was ready-made. It didn’t take much imagination. I was in Katzrin, the case was talked about, all the details were online.” The murder ignited something in Kravchenko. “Every violent act that happened in the country, I would feel a certain pressure,” she told me. For years, she had sensed a lupine presence around her. “Sometimes it was the sensation of fur on the skin, sometimes a feeling of warmth.” One night in 2007, Habany raped Kravchenko, pinning her arms behind her back in the bath as she cried for him to stop. Habany confirmed this to me. “Yes, there was this time in 2007 where I misinterpreted our sexual games,” he wrote in an email. (Although in 2012 he had admitted to raping her, Kravchenko later learned that the case against him was closed in 2014 with no prior notification, because she was seen as mentally unfit to testify against him.)
After that night, Kravchenko says that she started regularly imagining a female wolf, whom she called Tahav (“moss” in Hebrew). “I didn’t see her, but I felt her — all the time,” Kravchenko said. The wolf “made me think thoughts that weren’t my own. But they clashed with who I am fundamentally — I am not a violent person — so it was a constant internal struggle to resist this force that wanted violence.” She tried to kill herself several times. Her forearms are lined with scars.
The more Habany grew possessive of her, the more she grew indifferent. “He didn’t interest me anymore,” she said. They had saved enough money and moved back to Tel Aviv, where Kravchenko found work at an arts supply store. In early 2012, “I remember this sudden understanding that it’s not forever, that I can leave,” she said. Daniel Shriki, who worked with Kravchenko at the store, recalls her saying that she was going to break up with Habany “and seeming really frightened.” Shriki says that after the breakup, Habany would often come to the store unannounced “and start threatening her.” Kravchenko had planned to go abroad to visit her sister, who was then living in Florida. But that March, Habany texted: “Forget all about planes.” Three weeks later, he went to the police and accused her of murdering Tair.
Kravchenko acted on her violent thoughts once, she says: in her beer-bottle attack of the man who rejected her. On “Shadow of Truth,” that attack was used to show a pattern of aggression and to substantiate Habany’s claim that Kravchenko staked out Tair. But such types of aggression are not comparable, Daniel Levy, a psychiatrist who has treated patients with schizophrenia, told me. One is disassociated and spontaneous; the other organized, premeditated. Yotam Wax, an Israeli filmmaker who has spoken out in support of Kravchenko, told me, “We’re supposed to believe that she’s both crazy and out of control and this Mossad hit-woman?”
Kravchenko’s darkest fantasies involved using a knife to cut and enter a person’s body, she told me. “I wish my psychoses were softer,” she said. “I would suffer less.” But even at her most mentally unstable, her violent imagery had always involved large men, in whose bodies she imagined enwrapping herself — never children, she said. Yet in conjuring the image of Tahav to the police, Habany exploited Kravchenko’s deepest fears about herself.
Efrat Harel-Haiman, a clinical psychologist who treats victims of abusive relationships, calls this tactic “emotional espionage.” Abusive partners “often take perverted pleasure in learning your innermost thoughts, remembering everything you tell them and then using it against you,” she told me. “It’s textbook.”
Twice during our three-hour conversation in her home that day, Kravchenko’s voice faltered. Once, when she described Habany’s reaction after she was raped in Tel Aviv. The second was when she mentioned having watched, the previous night, a docuseries on Netflix called “Don’t F**k With Cats.” “Have you watched it?” she asked me. I had. The series details the search of internet activists for the person who had posted videos of himself torturing and killing kittens. Halfway through the first episode, the series describes an incident I had since forgotten. For some time, the activists thought that they had found the cat killer, but it turned out to have been a case of mistaken identity. The person they wrongfully accused had a history of depression; he later committed suicide. In the series, this is presented as one of many plot twists. To Kravchenko, however, this was something else. “They took his life,” she said, her eyes welling. “It could have been me.”
In 2013, just as Pines and Guendelman were embarking on their series, Kravchenko, who was still in the psychiatric ward, received a Facebook message from a woman whose initials are E.B. (Her full name is being withheld because of a gag order related to legal action against her.) Kravchenko said E.B. introduced herself as a private investigator working on the Tair Rada case, and included a link to a newspaper article about Kravchenko’s arrest the previous year. “She kept trying to solicit information,” Kravchenko told me. “She was totally obsessed.” Kravchenko found E.B.’s insistence strange, but she felt extremely lonely. “I thought of her not as a friend but as someone who cares and whom it’s nice to sometimes talk to.” They exchanged frequent text messages, talking about art and dating. Occasionally E.B. steered the conversation to Tair’s murder.
The police were no longer actively investigating Kravchenko, who was deemed mentally unfit to stand trial. Though her police file was still open then, Kravchenko said that she wasn’t worried when E.B. pried into her case: “I had no suspicion that she had an agenda.” E.B. told Kravchenko that she had met Habany and added that she didn’t know whether to believe him. Over many months, E.B. listed names and specific details about people with whom Kravchenko was hospitalized, in an attempt to draw her out — details that were strictly confidential. “I didn’t understand how she knew these things,” Kravchenko said.
What Kravchenko didn’t know was that E.B. was a hard-core activist working to free Zdorov, and had taken up work as an administrator at the hospital where she was a patient. E.B. left the job after eight months, in July 2014 — the same month that Kravchenko was released. (E.B., in a sworn deposition for a civil suit that Kravchenko brought against her, confirmed that she had worked at the hospital; in a TV interview, she also confirmed that she hid this fact from Kravchenko.) During that time, E.B. had access to all of the ward’s medical records and personnel files. Kravchenko showed me messages from three former patients there who told her that E.B. had repeatedly called them and tried to persuade them that Kravchenko was Tair’s killer. One former patient said in written testimony that E.B. had introduced herself to him as a relative of Tair’s. “When I refused to talk about Ola, she started threatening me in all kinds of ways,” the patient, Motti (whose last name I am withholding because he is still a patient), recounted. “She said that I was cooperating with a murderer,” he went on. (In her deposition, E.B. denied ever contacting any patients from the hospital.) Kravchenko now believes that E.B. had likewise gotten to Anat — her deceased friend who said that she had confessed to the murder — and persuaded Anat of Kravchenko’s guilt. Indeed, E.B. sent messages to Kravchenko indicating that she knew Anat personally. (“She had lost so much weight,” she said of Anat shortly after her suicide.) But she denied ever contacting Anat and declined to comment for this article.
That August, she texted Kravchenko: “Did they approach you?”
“About what?” Kravchenko replied.
“A movie,” E.B. wrote back. She told Kravchenko about Pines and Guendelman and said that they were making a documentary about Tair’s murder. She was taking part in the series, she said, and urged Kravchenko to do the same. “It’s important they hear what you have to say,” she texted Kravchenko. In fact, E.B. was helping the production team and had arranged for Pines and Guendelman to interview two of Tair’s classmates. Pines told me that they did not know at the time that E.B. worked at the psychiatric hospital where Kravchenko was being held, but two former patients there told Kravchenko that Pines had reached out to them after E.B. gave him their information.
That summer, E.B. arranged a meeting between Kravchenko and the filmmakers at a cafe in Haifa. Kravchenko was living in rehabilitation housing then, making less than a dollar an hour gluing stickers onto newspapers. She came to the meeting accompanied by a fellow patient she had started seeing romantically. The filmmakers “sit there with their gleaming shirts and their pampered beards and their watches,” she recalled. “I came dressed in a stained, ripped shirt. I was miserable.” She also had a knife in her bag — a fact that Pines and Guendelman discovered only later. Kravchenko told me that the knife wasn’t her idea. When she had told the man she was seeing about her meeting with the filmmakers, “He said that he would come with me, and he put a bread knife in my bag,” she said, adding, “It was stupid.” (Reached for comment, the man, who told me that he later served time in prison and had “problems of my own,” denied her account but refused to elaborate.) Pines and Guendelman asked to interview her on camera. Kravchenko demurred. “They were nice, polite, quiet,” Kravchenko told me. “But Ari said, ‘We think you might have done it.’” (Pines disputed this, saying that he and Guendelman had come to the meeting with an open mind.) The next day, they texted her and proposed a meeting without E.B. Again, she refused. “And that’s the last I’ve heard,” she said.
Outside the hospital, Kravchenko struggled, she told me. She told her psychiatrist that she was having homicidal thoughts and had prepared a knife and gloves to kill her neighbor. “She says that until now she has contained herself, but only barely,” the psychiatrist wrote in 2014. She was recommitted to the hospital.
By the time the series aired, a year and a half later, Kravchenko was faring better. She received a scholarship to attend the Tel-Hai Arts Institute in the Galilee and excelled, becoming the college’s top-ranked student. Gal Shahar, an instructor there, told me, “Her sketching and drawing abilities were incredible, and she also became a driving force” — helping other students with their presentations. “It was the best period of my life,” Kravchenko recalled.
But one night, Kravchenko received a call from a college friend. “Ola, be strong,” he said. “I just saw a series — it said that you’re a murderer.” Kravchenko hung up quickly and searched for the series on her television’s digital recorder. “I saw my picture, I saw Adir, I saw details about my rape,” she recounted. “They built a nightmare. A demon. Something from fairy tales. Is there anything worse than a child murderer?” Almost overnight, Kravchenko’s identity was revealed and widely circulated online. “The name O.K. is the latest demon to rock the country and the internet,” one commentator wrote in 2016. A group of men in Kiryat Shmona, where Kravchenko lived in student housing, stalked her apartment. Whenever she ventured out, they would curse and spit at her. Her initials became synonymous with unspeakable evil. “When my daughters hear the name O.K., they hide under the sofa,” Rinat Klein, the head of Channel 8, which first aired “Shadow of Truth,” told a radio interviewer in 2018. (“We had no intention of hurting anyone,” Klein told me recently. “We never imagined this would be the most-talked-about series in Israel.”)
Messages poured into Kravchenko’s Facebook account.
“I hope you die you whore!”
“You can’t even be compared to a human being, you filthy and despicable murderer!”
“If the police won’t do its job, I will.”
“I’ve never seen such mass hysteria in my life,” Zemer Sat, then the director of the Tel-Hai Arts Institute, told me. Possibly recognizing Kravchenko’s drawings in the series, students called for the school to expel her. Sat saw it as his job to protect Kravchenko. He held meetings with students and staff, pleading with them not to be manipulated by the series. “Here was this good and hardworking student, and the whole world and its sister were treating her as an existential threat,” he said.
The faculty stood by Kravchenko, and life on campus more or less resumed (though some female students were still afraid to go to the restroom alone). But the fallout from the series had unsettled her, and increasingly she retreated into her inner world. She took to carrying around a doll in a basket and treating it as her baby, Shahar, her instructor, recalled. During class, she would spread a blanket for the doll to play on or “say that her baby was crying.” All the while, Kravchenko produced her best work, Shahar noted with admiration. “At a time in which her schizophrenia was at its most pronounced, she blossomed.”
But she continued to suffer from frequent psychotic episodes and had another brief spell at a psychiatric hospital. In 2017, Kravchenko texted a friend that she had taken 28 pills of the anti-anxiety medication oxazepam, then lost consciousness. Her friend called Kravchenko’s mother, who rushed to her bedside. After Kravchenko’s recovery, she bought a one-way ticket to Odessa and stayed with her grandmother. Pines predicted in a television interview that she wouldn’t be returning to Israel.
Shortly before she left Israel, a man named Ido Haar reached out to Kravchenko. “I watched ‘Shadow of Truth,’ and I felt ill,” Haar told me. A filmmaker living in Tel Aviv, he had spent several years working at a psychiatric institution outside Jerusalem and has seen people closest to him struggle with mental illness. He and Kravchenko arranged to meet. “She was suspicious, closed off, frightened,” he said. Still, he stayed in touch and later came to visit her in Odessa. After several months, when her mental health improved, she returned to Israel. She had kept in touch with Haar and agreed to be filmed.
Last year, Haar’s film, called “Heavy Shadow,” was aired. Its emphasis was personal, its tone muted. There were no cliffhangers or dramatic plot twists, no teasing voice-overs. In quiet, mostly domestic settings in both Odessa and Katzrin, Kravchenko gave a nuanced portrait of life with mental illness. “I feel like I’m a rip in reality,” she is heard saying. “Through that rip pass gods, demons, creatures. One of them was a wolf named Tahav. People said that she was insanity, that she was scary. But she’s not. She was the only one who helped and protected me.”
Haar believes that the collective reckoning over treatment of marginalized groups in popular culture has yet to apply to those with mental-health issues. “I am perhaps overly sensitive to the formulation of the ‘crazy violent person,’” he said. He blamed the lure of global streaming platforms for making some documentary filmmakers choose “snufflike sensationalism” over precision. “Everyone wants Netflix, and some are willing to do anything for it, even at the expense of someone’s life,” he said. “If there’s a thirst for blood, it comes not from the mentally ill but from creators who exploit it.”
Many Israelis who had become convinced by “Shadow of Truth” that Kravchenko was Tair’s killer reconsidered after “Heavy Shadow” came out. Kravchenko recalls the film’s release, on Israel’s Channel 11, as akin to a cosmological event. “From one hour to the next, the world turned on its axis,” she said. She watched it with Haar and several friends at his home. They had sushi and pizza. When she left that night, one of Haar’s neighbors recognized her on the stairwell. This used to portend trouble. Instead, the woman “gave me a hug that has stayed with me since,” Kravchenko said.
After 10 months of twice-weekly hearings, the retrial of Roman Zdorov is winding down. Over the next two months, each side will make its closing arguments. Yarom Halevy, Zdorov’s attorney, has made Kravchenko into the linchpin of his defense. He is a ruthless litigator, considered one of the top criminal-defense lawyers in Israel. In 2018, a hair found on Tair’s body was shown to be a match for Habany’s mitochondrial DNA (which is matrilineal), setting off a frenzy of speculation online and in the press. Halevy pounced, arguing that this corroborated the claim that Kravchenko wore Habany’s clothes when she murdered Tair. Two days later, Israel’s National Forensic Institute clarified that the findings were important but inconclusive. According to the institute’s report, the hair could belong to “up to tens of thousands of people.” But this didn’t stop Halevy from repeatedly going on radio and TV to call Kravchenko a “serial killer.”
When I spoke to Halevy in his Tel Aviv office recently, I asked him whether, as a defense attorney, he thought that Kravchenko deserved a presumption of innocence, much as his client did. “No,” Halevy said, because the prosecutors’ office are “frauds” who would never mount a case against her. His voice rose: “I wish one day she would commit murder, and everything will come out!”
In January, Halevy summoned Kravchenko to the Nazareth courtroom for cross-examination in a closed hearing. In response, one of Kravchenko’s attorneys, Daniel Haklai, asked for an advocate for sexual-assault victims to be present in court with her.
“Sexual-assault victims,” Halevy sneered.
“Yes,” Haklai replied.
“Then I want to have a representative from the S.&M. community on behalf of” Habany, Halevy said.
One of the judges warned Halevy not to mock the situation.
“I will mock,” he later told him.
Kravchenko arrived at her court hearing wearing a black overcoat and shaking. She took up her position behind the witness box. A swarm of photographers descended on her. Zdorov, who is currently under house arrest pending his verdict, sat near the door and looked on placidly. Kravchenko’s mother waited outside the courtroom. “My baby is being hurt, and I can’t do anything about it,” she said through tears.
On the day of Zdorov’s cross-examination two months later, I met Ari Pines and Yotam Guendelman at their production studio, in a modest building in an industrial part of Tel Aviv. The filmmakers kept checking their phones for updates. Both wore beards and the exact same blue button-down shirt. Guendelman, who is 36, is fast-talking and laid back; Pines, 34, is slight and intense and projects a nervous energy. They sounded eager to draw attention back to Zdorov and away from Kravchenko, who, it was announced last year, is suing them for libel over statements they made in interviews.
“As far as we’re concerned, the series still ended with a question mark,” Guendelman said. When I asked why, if that were the case, two-thirds of the country believed that Kravchenko was Tair’s killer, tensions between them soon became palpable. While Pines seemed to relish going over supposed inconsistencies in Kravchenko’s statements to the police, Guendelman sounded uneasy. “I don’t think we should be focusing on this,” he told Pines. Then he turned to me: “We’re in a complicated situation right now as creators because we were attacked for something and are trying to defend it.” He went on: “What’s our border as creators? The creators of ‘Euphoria’ didn’t expect teenagers to smoke crack in the bathroom. You don’t always know. And sometimes the impacts can be good and sometimes bad, and you don’t know which way it would go.” Kravchenko’s being treated as a “murderer — that’s the last thing we wanted.”
Pines grew restless. “Does that mean that we can’t publish what we know? Does it mean that we can’t do investigative reporting because people might expose the identity of people you are trying to mask, and give them a field trial?”
“There’s no answer,” Guendelman said philosophically. “We tried to get an interview with O.K. for a really long time.”
“We also met her,” Pines said. “A meeting in which —”
“Don’t, it’s not relevant —” Guendelman said.
“A meeting in which she later said she came with a knife.”
“That’s not relevant,” Guendelman said.
“It is,” Pines countered.
They admitted that they wanted to move on from this case. But every day seemed to bring fresh headlines. In July, another hair from the crime scene was shown to match Habany’s mitochondrial DNA — this time using technology that narrowed the pool of potential matches to somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people, Shai Carmi, a population geneticist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told me. The judge described the finding as “not a tiebreaker.” Still, several media outlets in Israel reported on the evidence as though it directly implicated not Habany but Kravchenko.
Ilana Rada’s theory of who killed her daughter has changed over time. After “Shadow of Truth” came out, she didn’t know whom to believe. But when I interviewed her in February, after Kravchenko’s testimony, Ilana said that Kravchenko was a victim and called Halevy’s attacks on her “irresponsible, immoral.” This summer, though, after news broke of the possible DNA match between the hair and Habany, Ilana called on the state prosecutor to have him and Kravchenko arrested. Asked if she thought that one of them committed the murder, she said yes, then surprised many: “A.H.” — in other words, Habany. (Habany has denied any involvement in the murder and has never been named a suspect. Cellular data indicated that he was at work on the day of the murder, some 12 miles from the crime scene.)
In all this time, Ilana seems to have rarely considered the possibility that the killer was Zdorov. Yet, as Zdorov’s testimony kept shifting in court — when he was caught in a recent lie, the presiding judge asked him, “Why should we believe you?” — it was difficult not to wonder whether she might be unknowingly fighting to exonerate her daughter’s killer. “Every day that I don’t talk about Tair or her murder, I sink,” Ilana told me.
Pines and Guendelman are currently at work on a new episode of “Shadow of Truth.” It will focus on Zdorov’s retrial and is expected to air after his verdict is handed down this fall. Legal observers who watch the trial closely say that an exoneration appears likely based on reasonable doubt — marking an extraordinary turn. If so, “Shadow of Truth” will have crossed over from the screen to reality. For Kravchenko, however, it already has.
In “Heavy Shadow,” she recalled a visit with family friends last year, during which she chatted with the friends’ 7-year-old daughter. “I told her that she had a pretty crown and that she was lucky,” Kravchenko said. The girl offered to show Kravchenko her crown collection and led her to her room, but soon the girl’s older sister came to check on them. Kravchenko sensed her suspicion and left. “My heart was in my stomach,” Kravchenko said. “I understand that children need protection, of course. But from me?”
This spring, Kravchenko finished writing and illustrating a children’s book. It tells the story of a girl from a strange planet who, in order to cure an ailing queen, gives away what little she has: her tears, her light, her song. As it was originally written, the girl never returns home at the end. But when I saw Kravchenko in June, she was debating whether to change it. She placed a sofa cushion on her lap and hugged it. “It’s a hard choice between a happy ending and a real one,” she said.
Ruth Margalit is a writer living in Tel Aviv. Her articles have appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, among other publications. She last wrote for the magazine about the parenting expert Harvey Karp. Mike McQuade is an American graphic artist living in Virginia known for his collage work. His work has been recognized by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, American Illustration, Communication Arts and the Art Directors Club of New York.
Source: Television - nytimes.com