Israeli army ordered to reexamine first African American soldier death

05/31/2017 05:58 pm ET

The fatal shooting of Dimona’s Toveet Radcliffe on Palmachim air force base in February 2015 is the first case of its kind to be reinvestigated by an IDF judge in more than three decades.

Two years after the young soldier’s life was ended by a bullet to the head inside an Israeli air force base, the President of the IDF’s Military Court of Appeals has ordered an official investigation into the death of Toveet Radcliffe, the first African American to die while serving in Israel’s armed forces. The decision by IDF Major General Doron Feiles to appoint a judge to reinvestigate the circumstances of Radcliffe’s death is said to be the first ruling of its kind in over thirty years.

Still from trailer for “Case Under Investigation: Did the soldier Toveet commit suicide?”
Reshet
Still from trailer for “Case Under Investigation: Did the soldier Toveet commit suicide?”

The decision to open up a new probe comes two years after Radcliffe’s death, and one year after the IDF completed its initial investigation, which determined that Radcliffe had taken her own life. Evidence collected by this reporter, confirmed by top crime experts, and presented at court by counsel for the Radcliffe family convinced Major General Feiles that further inquiry was necessary to ascertain the true cause of death.

On the night of 21 February 2015, 20-year-old Toveet Radcliffe died from a gunshot wound to her head while she was guarding a Patriot missile battery at the Palmachim Air Force, near Rishon Lezion. Almost a whole year later, in January 2016, the IDF closed its investigation into Radcliffe’s death, ruling that no other person had a hand in her demise.

Tonight, 1 June 2017, Reshet will broadcast at prime time a one-hour investigation into Toveet’s death, exposing mainstream Israeli audiences to the incident for the first time. In the first episode of their new documentary series on unsolved murder mysteries, “Case Under Investigation,” producers Limor Pinchasov and Eyal Blachson make a convincing case that Toveet Radcliffe was in fact killed, and that her killer has hitherto escaped justice.

Toveet’s brother and mother enter Camp Rabin, the Israeli army’s central headquarters in Tel Aviv, where an inquiry into Tove
David Sheen
Toveet’s brother and mother enter Camp Rabin, the Israeli army’s central headquarters in Tel Aviv, where an inquiry into Toveet’s case was held • 20 January 2017

An inconclusive and prejudiced investigation

In his 17 March 2017 decision, Major General Feiles cited two major reasons for ordering the reinvestigation into Radcliffe’s death: one, that the army had not conclusively proved that Radcliffe had in fact taken her own life; and two, that it did not sufficiently explore any other possible scenario.

Dismissing the judge’s direct appeals, the army’s criminal investigation division refused to weigh any other options besides suicide. In his decision, Feiles wrote: “It was left to the plaintiffs to point out that various issues which could have shed light on the circumstances of the deceased’s passing were not fully investigated. Despite this, the military advocate general’s representative clarified that it had no intention of ordering the completion of the investigation into these matters.”

Feiles notes that army investigators failed to interview witnesses, failed to examine evidence, and failed to locate suspects. A entire platoon of soldiers visiting Palmachim on the same weekend that Toveet was killed was never questioned, although they had been based near the crime scene. The base’s entry-exit logs and security camera footage were never requisitioned, although they could have revealed the involvement of other suspects. And a soldier who had repeatedly crank-called Radcliffe and wished death upon her was never sought out, although Toveet’s mother Khydijah begged army investigators to track him down.

Members of the African Hebrew Israelite community attend an Israeli army court hearing into the death of Toveet Radcliffe • 2
David Sheen
Members of the African Hebrew Israelite community attend an Israeli army court hearing into the death of Toveet Radcliffe • 25 April 2017

Toveet couldn’t have killed herself as the army claims

While all of the shortcomings of the army investigation have unnerved Toveet’s family and friends, not all of them necessarily suggest a conspiracy to cover up the possibility of foul play; some of them can also be attributed to casual negligence.

The lax security at the scene of the incident – which allowed the crime scene to be contaminated before the arrival of a professional police forensics team – could be blamed on the general inexperience of army investigators. The IDF’s initial announcement that Toveet was a male soldier buried in Beersheba – when her body had not yet been interned near her family home in Dimona – can similarly be chalked up to bureaucratic bungling.

But other accumulated failings of the army investigation seem to suggest something even more disconcerting: that evidence found at the crime scene may in fact have been “staging”, as Radcliffe family lawyer Yafit Weisbuch claimed in court on 3 January 2017.

Reshet hired top forensic expert Avner Rosengarten and top weapons expert Yosef “Kuti” Yekutiel to examine the case evidence and test the theory presented as fact by army investigators: that Radcliffe held her own M-16 rifle up to her head and shot herself in top of her forehead, through her black winter hat, also recovered from the scene.

In the program, Yekutiel is filmed holding a rifle identical to the one that Toveet was issued, attempting to aim it at his own forehead, as Toveet must have aimed it at hers, if she is to have killed herself in the way that the army claims. Yekutiel quickly comes to the same conclusion as I did when I ran the same experiment with a cardboard cutout of an M-16 over a year ago: that it would have been physically impossible for Toveet to have shot herself at that angle.

“There was someone else here,” Yekutiel is heard declaring with confidence. “It is obvious that there was someone else here.”

Toveet’s sister holds a mock-up of the same rifle issued to Toveet, demonstrating that Toveet could not have reached the rifl
David Sheen
Toveet’s sister holds a mock-up of the same rifle issued to Toveet, demonstrating that Toveet could not have reached the rifle trigger or have killed herself in the way that the Israeli army claims that she did

Evidence suggests the crime scene was “staged”

In the film, forensic expert Rosengarten notes that the army’s account of what transpired once the bullet that killed Toveet left her body also contradicts the physical facts of the case. If Toveet had shot herself in the manner claimed by the army, then samples of her plasma and pieces of her flesh would have splattered onto the door she was found sitting directly in front of, the same door that the army claims contained the bullet that killed Toveet. In fact, none of Toveet’s flesh or blood was found on the door.

Rosengarten analyzed this bullet removed from the door, and found that it contained trace elements of cloth fibers, which would be consistent for a bullet that bore through clothes before piercing human flesh. But upon closer inspection under a microscope, Rosengarten noticed that the fibers recovered from the bullet were in fact made from cotton – while the weave of Toveet’s hat was 100% acrylic – so they could not possibly have come from the same article of clothing.

“I’ve seen many bullets in my lifetime. And many bullets that passed through cloths. I do not recall any evidence in which we did not find fibers from the specific cloth on the bullet. We always found it,” says Rosengarten.

But beyond what was and wasn’t found on the inside or outside of the door, the very door itself tells a story that contradicts the military’s simplistic suicide narrative.

Combing through the army’s evidence, I noticed that video footage shot by army investigators right after Toveet’s death clearly shows that the door directly behind her was of a white color. However, I also noticed that still photographs taken of the door by expert analysts two months after the fact show that by that point, the door was a deep blue color. At some point after 22 February 2015, and before 30 April 2015, the Israeli army chose to paint over the door.

The door of the booth where Toveet was found dead was covered in a layer of paint before it underwent analysis
Israel Defense Forces
The door of the booth where Toveet was found dead was covered in a layer of paint before it underwent analysis

The painting of the door not only suggests that critical case evidence was tampered with during an ongoing investigation; it also suggests that army reports may have been doctored in order to arrive at pre-ordained conclusions. The original army investigation into Toveet’s death claimed that lead and copper residue were in fact found on said door. But if any particulates had been present, they would already have been painted over by the time the door arrived at the laboratory for testing.

The absence of blood splatters, the impossible presence of chemical residue, and the wrong fibers on the bullet, all seem to imply that evidence may have been altered, and the scene of the crime modified after the fact. “It’s obvious that the entire web of claims here are claims that are not backed up, without really being checked,” says Rosengarten. “She did not shoot herself.”

Anger in the African Hebrew Israelite community

Toveet is the first fallen IDF soldier to come from the African Hebrew Israelite community, a group of Yahweh-worshipping African Americans who began migrating to Israel in 1969. Toveet’s violent death has galvanized the tight-knit community, for whom Israeli citizenship is not granted at birth, but rather predicated upon first serving in the military.

The consensus view amongst those who grew up with Toveet and those who knew her best is that she loved her life and would never have willingly chosen to abruptly end it. Suspicion that Toveet was actually murdered, and that the army has been protecting Toveet’s true killer, is widespread in the African Hebrew Israelite community.

Soldiers from the African Hebrew Israelite community turn their backs to protest the Israeli army’s handling of Toveet’s case
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Soldiers from the African Hebrew Israelite community turn their backs to protest the Israeli army’s handling of Toveet’s case

The Hebrews are known for churning out some of the country’s most talented soul musicians, and community outrage over Toveet’s death has produced at least three songs that explicitly discount the army’s official story, and assert that Toveet life’s was snatched away from her.

In March 2016, Ben Blackwell released a video of himself rapping “On This Path”, in which he narrates: “A Hebrew girl serving in the IDF / Rumor has it suicide was the cause of her death / They say she shot herself in the dome [head] / But we all know her commander is the reason she didn’t come home”.

A few weeks later, Hebrew rappers Trackillaz published “Justice”, in which they urge Hebrew youth currently serving in the Israeli army to protest Toveet’s death by going AWOL: “Until we getting answers about Toveet… / I’m calling out all of my Hebrews… in the IDF army / Pack your shit up quick and leave”. The song even includes an indictment of the sitting prime minister: “Bibi Netanyahu to justice”.

Later in May, Hebrew musicians Nevrockiyah & Ohvadiyah remixed a slideshow authored by this reporter which lays out much of the case evidence, into “Butterfly”, an R & B ballad with the following chorus: “They say it’s suicide / Just a bunch of lies / Open your eyes wide / Butterfly roam the skies / Listen to your people cry / Justice for Toveet / Justice won’t be denied”.

The case also evoked anger amongst Hebrew Israelite groups in the United States. On Yom HaZikaron 2016 – Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers – extended community members protested Toveet’s death outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. Demonstrators carried a symbolic coffin and held aloft signs bearing a blown-up photograph of Toveet and the slogan: “Hebrew Lives Matter”.

Protest outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. • 11 May 2016
YouTube
Protest outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. • 11 May 2016

Army lawyers still arguing Toveet committed suicide

The decision to reopen the army investigation into her death is a necessary step forward in the effort to learn what actually happened to Toveet Radcliffe, why she really died, and who was responsible for it. But the protocols of Israeli military law dictate that those answers will not be soon in coming.

Major Meir Vigisar will hold court over the coming months at the Bar Lev army base in Kiryat Malachi to hear new testimony in the case. But like the first army investigation into Toveet’s death, this second investigation will not be an unbiased attempt to piece together the evidence and discern cause and effect. On 25 April 2017, army lawyers continued to argue before the new judge that Toveet could have killed herself, despite all evidence to the contrary.

With the military dragging its heels, and with the Radcliffe family of modest means unable to privately fund their own investigation, Reshet’s documentary “Case Under Investigation” has shone a much-needed spotlight on Toveet’s tragic death. More than two years on, with the trail continuing to grow colder, Toveet’s family and friends hope that any attention generated by the program will put pressure on the army to start searching for Toveet’s true killer, at long last.

Toveet Radcliffe z”l
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Toveet Radcliffe z”l

ISRAELI ARMY RESPONSE:

The Israel Defense Forces shares in the grief of the family of Toveet Radcliffe z”l and will continue to accompany them. The deceased’s parents requested that a judge be appointed to investigate the causes of death. The president of the military court of appeals agreed to the request, and appointed a judge to examine the claims. The process is ongoing at this time, overseen by the honorable judge Lieutenant Colonel Vigisar.

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