BRATKOVICHI, Ukraine — More than 40 gruesome killings in the last several months--now blamed on a single killer--began with the slaughter of Yaroslav Halushko's family in this tidy village 30 miles from the Polish border.
"The family was helping my daughter Marika's family move into their own home," Halushko, 53, recalled of the December night he brought the traditional icon to bless the brand-new house.
"It was the last time I saw my daughters," he said sadly. Late that night, a killer shot Marika, her husband and her 19-year-old twin sisters with a 12-gauge shotgun. The new house, in an isolated field on Bratkovichi's edge, was torched.
Marika's three young children were staying at their grandparents' house near the village center. But a luckless pedestrian, perhaps a witness, was also shot before the killer disappeared.
In one night, Bratkovichi lost more family members than in all of World War II.
Police this week apprehended a 37-year-old suspect they call "O," but the serial killings of quiet villagers and the enduring mystery as to their motives have shattered the pastoral tranquillity in rural regions throughout Ukraine.
The initial mass killing turned this hamlet into an armed camp. Police mounted round-the-clock patrols, and street lights, darkened during Ukraine's annual winter energy shortage, burned all night. Bratkovichi's first public phones were installed at the schoolhouse.
Local residents initially blamed Halushko's tragedy on his son-in-law's relative wealth. Anyone able to pay $60,000 for a new brick and stucco house on the lawless post-Soviet road to free markets seems an unsurprising target to many neighbors.
"But we're poor, so we felt safe," said Maria Kosyk, who, like most in Bratkovichi, works on a nearby collective farm and earns $30 a month.
The night after the patrols ended, however, a family of seven was massacred with the same kind of shotgun across the street from Bratkovichi's church. Their house was also set afire.
"They were as poor as we are, and that's when we got scared," Kosyk said.
With 12 killings in a matter of weeks, Bratkovichi, its population of 1,500 so tiny it doesn't even appear on maps, found itself the per-capita murder capital of Ukraine.
Hundreds of Interior Ministry troops, national guardsman and special forces with armored personnel carriers and sundry firepower were deployed in the village's defense. Houses were barricaded with extra locks and window grates. People stopped going out at night. Roadblocks of soldiers wearing flak jackets and toting automatic rifles prevented strangers from entering.
But by then, the slaughter had spread east from Bratkovichi and began moving back and forth between the Zhitomir, Kiev and Zaporozhia regions. More than 20 others were killed by the same method. Whole families were the targets.
"The broad geographical spread of the slayings complicated our investigations," said Deputy Interior Minister Leonid Borodich in Kiev after announcing the arrest of a suspect on Tuesday.
But after the March 22 slayings of a family of four 30 miles from Bratkovichi, police detected a pattern, suggesting he was riding the railroads.
Borodich said the investigation led to the former forestry student under arrest, who has confessed not only to killing 42 people over the last few months, but to as many as 50 slayings since 1989. If true, that would make "O" the worst serial killer ever in Ukraine, and perhaps the world. Andrei Chikatilo, the "Rostov Ripper" who claimed more than 50 victims in southern Russia over 17 years, has been called modern history's worst serial killer.
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Route of Death
Authorities believe the Ukraine serial killer traveled by rail during his killing rampage. Slayings in each town indicated in parentheses.