REHOVOT, ISRAEL (AP) – When he was 20 years old, Harel Hershtik planned and executed a murder, a crime that a quarter of a century later is still widely remembered for its grisly details.
Today, he is the brains behind an Israeli health-tech startup, poised to make millions of dollars with the backing of prominent public figures and deep-pocket investors.
With his company set to go public, Hershtik’s past is coming under new scrutiny, raising questions about whether someone who took a person’s life deserves to rehabilitate his own to such an extent.
“When I was young, I would say that I was stupid and arrogant,” said Hershtik, 46. “You can be a genius and yet still be very stupid and the two don’t contradict each other.”
Today, Hershtik is the vice president of strategy and technology at Scentech Medical, a company he founded in 2018 while behind bars, which says its product can detect diseases through a breath test.
In a three-hour interview with the Associated Press (AP), he repeatedly expressed remorse for his crime.
Hershtik was convicted of murdering Yaakov Sela, a snake trapper he met when he was 14. The two had a bumpy relationship.
Sela was known for having numerous girlfriends at once, one being Hershtik’s mother.
Hershtik said he felt uneasy with how Sela treated the women, including his mother.
In 1996, Sela discovered that Hershtik had stolen ILS49,000 (about USD15,000 at the time) from him, and the two agreed that instead of involving the police, Hershtik would pay him back double that amount.
Court documents say Hershtik instead planned to murder Sela.
Pulled over during a drive to gather the money, an accomplice of Hershtik’s fired three shots at Sela, using Hershtik’s mother’s pistol.
He then handed Hershtik the gun, according to the documents, and Hershtik shot Sela in the head at close range.
The pair shoved Sela’s body into the trunk and buried it in a grove in the Golan Heights, according to the documents. Weeks later, hikers saw a hand poking up from the earth, and Sela’s body was found.
The crime gripped the nation.
In court documents, prosecutors say Hershtik lied repeatedly in his attempt to distance himself from the murder. Hershtik said he was compelled to lie so that he could protect the others involved in the scheme, which included his mother.
Hershtik was sentenced to life in prison for premeditated murder and obstructing justice.
He would serve 25 years, during which time Hershtik earned two doctorates, in math and chemistry, and got married three separate times.
He said he established 31 companies, selling six of them. But prison was also a fraught time for Hershtik. He said he spent 11 years in quarantine because of health issues.
He was punished twice for setting up Internet access to his cell, in one case building a modem out of two dismantled DVD players.
Last year, a parole board determined he had been rehabilitated and no longer posed a danger to society. As part of his early release and until 2026, he is under nightly house arrest from 11pm to 6am. He must wear a tracking device around his ankle at all times and is barred from leaving the country.
A free man, Hershtik sat recently with the AP in his office in the central city of Rehovot, Israel.
His start-up is waiting for approval to merge with a company called NextGen Biomed, which trades on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and would make Scentech public.
Hershtik said the company’s product is being finalised for detecting COVID-19 through a patient’s breath, and it is working to add other diseases such as certain cancers as well as depression. The product is meant to provide on-the-spot results in a non-invasive way.
The company received a patent for its technology in Israel and is preparing to apply for FDA approval.
Hershtik said the merger values the company at around USD250 million and that he has raised more than USD25 million in funding over through private Israeli investors.
A part of the investment is from Hershtik’s own money, although he won’t say how much. Prisoners in Israel aren’t barred from doing business, but Hershtik’s success is rare.
But Hershtik’s past is already haunting him. Hershtik was demoted from CTO to his current position, in part because he didn’t want his crime to scare away investors.
As Scentech seeks to take its product to market, investors will need to decide whether Hershtik’s rap sheet matters.
Senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management Ishak Saporta, said he believed investors would be drawn to the company’s potential for profit.
“What concerns me here is that he became a millionaire. He paid his debt to society in jail.
But he does have a commitment to the victim’s family,” Saporta asked.
Tovia Bat-Leah, who had a child with Sela, suggested he help fund her daughter’s education or create a reptile museum in Sela’s name.
“He served his time but he should also make some kind of reparation,” she said.