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Tel Aviv shooter had GPS tracker while on lam, but cops didn’t know

Investigators only discover existence of smart watch stolen by terrorist after second time questioning murdered cab driver’s family

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Security forces search for the gunman who shot two people dead and injured several others at a pub in central Tel Aviv, January 1, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Security forces search for the gunman who shot two people dead and injured several others at a pub in central Tel Aviv, January 1, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It took Israeli investigators two days to discover that New Year’s Day terrorist Nashat Milhem was wearing a watch with a GPS tracker when he fled from Tel Aviv after gunning down three Israelis, according to a Tuesday report.

Milhem snatched the smart watch off the wrist of taxi driver Amin Shaaban, his third victim, before boarding a bus in the direction of his town in Wadi Ara. The watch was able to connect to the cabbie’s cellphones left in the car.

On January 1, Milhem opened fire at a Tel Aviv pub, killing two people. He then killed Shaaban and stole his cab, but was forced to take two buses to leave the city when the cab broke down, according to a Shin Bet account.

Investigators questioned Shaaban’s family members soon after finding his body in an attempt to discover whether he had been an accomplice to Milhem and had been killed during an argument between the two.

“They only asked us about the taxi, the owners, when Amin left the house and who we knew. They didn’t share information,” one of Shaaban’s brothers told Haaretz.

File: Mourners carry the coffin of 42-year-old taxi driver Amin Shaaban during his funeral procession in the city of Lod on January 3, 2016. Shaaban's body was found a short while after a shooting rampage at a central Tel Aviv pub on New Year's Day. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
File: Mourners carry the coffin of 42-year-old taxi driver Amin Shaaban during his funeral procession in the city of Lod on January 3, 2016. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

Police had found two cellphones in the cab, but didn’t ask further questions about Shaaban’s belongings, the paper reported.

Two days later, after investigators were convinced that Shaaban had not been an accomplice, they went back to the family and told them what they had found in the cab. On hearing about the cellphones, relatives immediately described the watch.

Security forces were then able to pick up signals from the phone and obtain the first indication that Milhem had fled to northern Israel.

This apparently formed the basis for an announcement by Israel Police chief Roni Alsheich — five days after the murders — that Milhem was no longer believed to be in Tel Aviv.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that while the police provided forensics and other assistance, the questioning of suspects and witnesses was done by the Shin Bet domestic security agency.

The Shin bet did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A still image of Tel Aviv gunman Nashat Milhem drinking beer taken from a series of undated videos released January 27, 2016 by the Shin Bet security service. (screen capture)
A still image of Tel Aviv gunman Nashat Milhem drinking beer taken from a series of undated videos released January 27, 2016 by the Shin Bet security service. (screen capture)

The revelation regarding the smart watch, first reported by daily Haaretz, joins a number of other apparent missteps by security forces in the case, which left Tel Aviv paralyzed for several days while police hunted the killer, despite the fact that he had left the city hours after the attack.

Last week, Israel Radio reported that two young women spotted Milhem in a bloodstained sweatshirt boarding a bus in northern Tel Aviv, but they were ignored repeatedly when they tried to alert authorities.

Milhem was apprehended and killed in a shootout with police in his hometown of Arara in Israel’s north a week after the attack.

During the manhunt, many parents kept their children home from school for fear of a fresh attack by Milhem, as police carried out raids in several neighborhoods around the city.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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