JERUSALEM — Israel is among the most security-conscious nations on Earth. F-16 warplanes scream overhead. Antimissile systems become national heroes. The spy agency Mossad enjoys near legendary status.
So if, in the words of English writer Samuel Johnson, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, what better way to cover up one's misdeeds than by posing as a secret agent?
Israel has been captivated by a certain Shimon Cooper, 51, a taxi driver who is accused of using such a ruse to kill his first and third wives, and vanish for days with his lover, using "secret missions" and "overseas assassinations" as a cover.
His second wife, meanwhile, suggested in court documents that she believed she narrowly avoided the same fate.
The case "appears to more closely resemble a movie script than a murder indictment," the Jerusalem Post newspaper said.
According to an indictment filed last week, Cooper was a con man who killed his third wife, Jenny Mor Haim, in August 2009 after injecting her with drugs that police believe were provided by his lover, an anesthesiologist.
Cooper had told Mor Haim that his "top secret" work with Israeli security services required him to disappear for several days at a time, according to the indictment.
But his alleged accomplice, Dr. Maria Zakotsky, told reporters last month that Cooper used the same ploy on her, claiming to be a former prisoner of war and 25-year senior intelligence veteran who needed undetectable drugs to carry out an "assassination for the Mossad" at an undisclosed location outside Israel.
"I believed him, and he took advantage of me," she said, adding that she hadn't known that he'd ever been married.
Zakotsky said she gave Cooper drugs that reportedly left no trace and a syringe from the hospital where she worked. Then she helped him determine lethal dosages.
"I told him everything I know," she said. "I felt like I was serving the country."
Cooper was arrested in October on suspicion of killing Mor Haim and his first wife, Orit Coopershmid, who died in 1994. He was indicted only in Mor Haim's death, however, given the lack of forensic evidence in the Coopershmid case.
Court documents say the circumstances were similar, however, including prescription medication found on Coopershmid's deathbed and his informing her family that she was "depressed."
"He lied to everyone he came in contact with," the prosecution told the court.
Zakotsky also was arrested last month on suspicion of knowingly assisting Cooper in Mor Haim's death. She was released on bail and remains under house arrest.
Because Mossad has had notable successes and celebrated status — an Egyptian newspaper once referred to the agency's director as a "superman" — it's an ideal smoke screen for disreputable types.
"Many psychopaths, all sorts of criminals, use the name of Mossad," said Simha Landau, professor of criminology at Hebrew University. "Israel's under constant threat; Mossad plays an important role. So it's no surprise they use this to cover their crimes."
In April, a 29-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of passing as a Mossad agent and swindling a woman out of $790,000.
"These kinds of stories pop up," said Gad Shimron, an author and ex-Mossad agent, who urged potential victims to be skeptical of anyone claiming to be a Mossad operative.
According to the indictment and police reports on Cooper, Zakotsky moved in with him immediately after the traditional seven-day Jewish mourning period that followed the death of Mor Haim, and she lived with him for the final three years of their six-year relationship.
Cooper's lawyer, Moshe Meroz, said his client had denied ever receiving drugs from Zakotsky. Without corroborating evidence such as forensics, the prosecution will have difficulty proving its case, Meroz said.
"My client claims he was not involved in his wife's death, that he loved her, took care of her and had no reason to murder her," Meroz said.
A brief investigation of Mor Haim's death at the time was dropped after several prescription packets were found near her body. The indictment against Cooper posits that the pills were placed there to cover up a murder by suggesting suicide.
In the lead-up to Mor Haim's death, according to the indictment, Cooper persuaded her to make him her beneficiary in her will. He also persuaded her parents to put their house in her name — they reportedly did not know he had been named as her beneficiary — so possession would flow to him, the indictment said. And he allegedly told the parents that she was suffering from depression, possibly as a way to stave off questions after her death.
According to the indictment, Cooper's second wife, who is identified only as "S" to safeguard her privacy, grew suspicious and divorced him after learning that he was spending their money, had told her family she was depressed and had persuaded her parents to change their will in his favor.