A Russian emigre who died in a Malibu automobile accident that is being investigated as a possible homicide was identified Sunday by law enforcement authorities as a government witness in the espionage trial of former FBI agent Richard W. Miller.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's homicide detectives were trying to determine why the body of Ludmila Kontratjeva, 38, was found in the back seat of her car, which veered off Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu early Saturday. A sheriff's spokesman, Deputy Pete Fosselman, said the roof of the compact car, a Volkswagen Dasher, was crushed as the car plunged 25 feet down an embankment and rolled over in the surf.
"Assuming that she was the driver, we don't know how she got back there," Fosselman said. "That's why it was turned over to homicide."
Sheriff's deputies and California Highway Patrol troopers, arriving at the crash scene in response to a report from a passing fisherman, initially investigated the crash as a highway accident. And Fosselman said that the position of Kontratjeva's body was the only evidence that might indicate foul play.
"It could as easily be an accident," he said.
Government sources familiar with Kontratjeva's role in the Miller trial dismissed the possibility that the death of the Santa Monica woman could have any connection to the case.
"She wasn't a major figure in this case at all," said one high-ranking official in the intelligence community. "If somebody wanted to send some kind of message to the Russian emigre community, they would have looked for somebody who was more important."
Fosselman said FBI agents confirmed to sheriff's investigators Sunday that Kontratjeva had testified in the Miller trial. Although the bureau was consulted, he said, the investigation will continue to be conducted by the sheriff's department until it is determined conclusively whether Kontratjeva's death was accidental or a homicide. An autopsy is expected this week.
FBI spokesman Fred Reagan, citing a gag order imposed in the Miller case, declined to comment on Kontratjeva's death.
A prosecution witness, Kontratjeva was one of eight Soviet emigres who testified during the Miller trial. She was introduced during the proceedings as a friend of Svetlana Ogorodnikova, who was accused with her husband, Nikolai, of persuading Miller to pass information to the Russian government. The couple pleaded guilty to espionage charges in a separate trial, but Miller's 10-week trial ended with a hung jury. A second trial is scheduled for February 13.
During his first trial, Kontratjeva testified that Ogorodnikova and Miller were her guests at a dinner party she held at her Santa Monica apartment. Kontratjeva, whose testimony was used by the government to buttress their claims that Miller and Svetlana Ogorodnikova carried on a clandestine relationship, said that Ogorodnikova introduced the FBI agent as a "business associate."
Parties Were Held
Kontratjeva frequently held parties for Russian friends at her Santa Monica apartment in the 1900 block of Cloverfield Avenue, said Nancy Hall, manager of the complex. "Whenever there was a holiday, Russian or American, she would have parties," Hall said. "They were always up there playing Russian songs on the piano and singing."
Alexander Polovets, an acquaintance of Kontratjeva's and publisher of Almanac Panorama, a Los Angeles-based Russian-language newspaper, said she emigrated from Moscow nearly six years ago. Polovets said she was divorced, but added that her former husband and a 12-year-old son lived in Southern California and have been notified of her death.
Polovets said he was not surprised when he heard that Kontratjeva testified during the Miller trial. "I don't think she and Svetlana were close friends," he said. "But they had some friends in the same circles, I think. They went to the same parties."
Suspicious of System
During the trials of Miller and the Ogorodnikovs, both prosecutors and defense lawyers complained about difficulties in persuading the emigre witnesses to testify candidly, saying that the Russians were suspicious about the American government and legal system because of past experiences with authorities in the Soviet Union.
And with the Miller retrial almost a month away, one witness said Sunday that whatever the outcome of the sheriff's investigation, Kontratjeva's death could have an intimidating effect on some of the Russian emigrants who testified in the first trial.
"It raises concern," said Michael (Mischa) Markarian, owner of Mischa's restaurant, a popular Hollywood meeting place for Russian emigres. "They will be a little more on guard now."