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COLUMN ONE : 'I Was Like a Crazed Wolf ' : Andrei Chikatilo looks like a harmless schoolteacher. But 53 murders make him the most horrible serial killer Russia--perhaps the world--has ever seen.

April 28, 1992|CAREY GOLDBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROSTOV-ON-THE-DON, Russia — Even now, as he stands in the caged-in dock with his head shaven and his hideous crimes confessed, there is something innocuous about Andrei Chikatilo, something of the harmless, bespectacled schoolteacher.

If he struck up a conversation with you in a suburban station, then invited you home for a quick snack before the next bus--and if you were young and bored and naive. . . . Who knows? You might go.

But you would never get there. Luring them into the woods on similar pretexts, Chikatilo tortured, slaughtered and mutilated 21 boys, 14 girls and 18 young women in an odyssey of murder and unspeakable sadism that Russian officials believe makes him the most horrifyingly successful serial killer the country--perhaps the world--has ever seen.

"I was like a crazed wolf," Chikatilo, 56, told the Rostov court in his statement last week. There was no remorse in his voice; if anything, he sounded proud that he "just turned into a beast, into a wild animal."

For 12 years, beginning in 1978, the former Communist Party member and attentive father of two children stalked his victims in bus and train stations, on the streets and in cafes. He targeted lost souls, including drifters and the mentally retarded. But his prey also included excellent students from good families, kind and trusting young women and helpless little girls left unattended for just an hour or two.

Chikatilo used his self-described "magnetism" to persuade them to follow him down dark forest paths. There, according to his testimony, he would be seized by trembling excitement and would ambush them, crushing them with his 200-pound frame. He then tied their hands, raped them and slashed them dozens of times with his foot-long knife. He often gouged out his victims' eyes, cut out and chewed on their sexual organs and stuffed their bodies with dirt.

The string of grisly murders, known as the "Forest Strip" killings, terrorized the Rostov region and triggered a massive manhunt that involved blood-testing nearly 200,000 drivers and hauling in tens of thousands of former mental patients, homosexuals and ex-convicts.

The Chikatilo case has shocked a Russia still unaccustomed to such real-life horror stories in its media. It also has prompted worries that a new crop of psychopathic killers may be rising, spurred by the moral vacuum left when the strict Communist code of behavior collapsed. "Life is not seen to be worth so much anymore," said Alexander Bukhanovsky, a psychiatrist who has worked extensively on the Chikatilo case.

Chikatilo twice was detained and questioned by police: in 1978, after his first murder, and in 1984, when a wily detective observed him roaming a bus station chatting up young women. Upon his second arrest, police found rope, wire and a long knife in his briefcase.

But authorities released him, saying that blood tests did not match those of the murderer.

Another man, a known sex offender, was not so lucky. He was convicted and shot for the first murder Chikatilo committed.

Some Russian reporters speculate that police did not solve the crimes for so long because of an internal cover-up to conceal that wrongful death. Charges of violations in the investigation have been brought against detectives, although none has been punished so far.

But Amurkhan Yandiev, a senior investigator who worked on the case from 1985 on, said that "the law enforcement bodies were at fault mainly in that they relied too much on the biological facts. What did we learn? That you have to check everyone."

Although Russian police contend that the blood and fluid samples simply did not match, Edward Blake, a top American forensic expert, theorizes that police technicians just got sloppy when handling and testing the samples.

Even given the laboratory discrepancies, it remains astonishing, almost incomprehensible, that Chikatilo remained at large for so long.

He fit perfectly the portrait that police and psychiatrists eventually drew up: He was middle-aged, tall and strong, neatly dressed, wore glasses, carried a briefcase containing a knife, was a known sexual pervert, suffered from impotence and frequented train and bus stations.

Chikatilo had twice lost teaching positions for molesting children; in his later job traveling around the country obtaining supplies for a local factory, he was on constant business trips. He lived near the main killing spots and even committed three murders near the very same train station.

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