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Accused Killer an Elusive Enigma

Slayings: Trying to find Nikolay Soltys is daunting. Amid conflicting portraits, motive is still a mystery.

August 26, 2001|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Just who is Nikolay Soltys and where has he gone?

Suspected in the horrific murders of half a dozen family members in the suburbs of the California capital, the 27-year-old immigrant remains a cipher.

To relatives who never saw the massacre coming, he is a savage enigma. To investigators fighting to catch him, he remains an elusive shadow.

As the nationwide hunt for the Ukrainian-shoemaker-turned-fugitive stretches toward a second week, detectives are struggling to solve a puzzle missing far too many pieces.

Language barriers, cultural baggage and welling fear in the immigrant neighborhoods that checkerboard Sacramento County have slowed the search for clues. In this community of 70,000 refugees from the fallen Soviet empire, residents have been besieged by police and the media.

Misinformation is rampant. Doors have been locked, kids pulled off the streets.

"Now everyone is inside," said Roman Romaso, executive director of the Slavic Community Center. "Everyone is afraid."

An array of basic questions thus remains unanswered. Questions about Soltys' motives, his state of mind and his movements since the awful hours Monday when he allegedly stabbed his pregnant wife, butchered four other relatives and lured his 3-year-old son into a cardboard box with toys and then slashed his throat.

What happened to the Nikolay who sometimes gave candy to nieces and nephews? Was this a man dogged by demons, who tipped over the edge?

Soltys sightings have been reported all over the nation, from the long concourses of Los Angeles International Airport to the highways of Tennessee. Calls have poured into hotlines at the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, sometimes topping 50 an hour.

So far, these have led nowhere. The most credible sighting remains a Wednesday report from a Sacramento motorist after a fender bender with a Ford Explorer matching the vehicle Soltys was believed to be driving.

The motorist said the green sport utility vehicle, with a young woman in her 20s behind the wheel, sped off carrying a man resembling Soltys.

Was it he? Is the woman an accomplice? A hostage?

"He is a mystery," said Sheriff's Sgt. James Lewis. "We're learning more as we go, but a lot is secondhand and innuendo and personal belief. There are very few confirmable facts about this guy. We've got a lot more questions than answers."

Added Capt. John McGuinness, a Sheriff's Department spokesman: "It's going to take, I think, some luck and real cooperation from the community [to catch him]. The biggest concern looming out there for me is victim No. 7."

Friends and relatives of the victims will gather today at a memorial service expected to draw a large crowd. Security will be extremely tight.

Meanwhile, the FBI, which added Soltys to its most wanted list, has called in its experts in criminal profiling at the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in Quantico, Va. By trying to figure out what makes Soltys tick, they hope to help investigators find him.

Independent criminologists say Soltys in some ways isn't following the usual pattern in an family massacre. Most such killers don't lead police on a long chase. Typically, the tragedy ends with the assailant, who is almost always male, committing suicide. Authorities acknowledge that Soltys may yet turn up dead.

But he fits the profile in several key ways: Those who know Soltys call him quiet, aloof, a chronic loser. He also reportedly has suffered bouts of mental instability and committed domestic violence.

Detectives are even investigating whether Monday's killer might have been on some mind-altering narcotic, though no such evidence has been unearthed.

Even before he arrived in the U.S., Soltys' life in a village in Ukraine's Ternopol region was marked by domestic violence. Such abuse ended his first marriage, authorities say. And his second marriage, to Lyubov, was apparently plagued by similar problems.

Lyubov's parents told a Ukrainian newspaper last week that Soltys had long seemed a threat. In 1998, they said, he went after Lyubov and their then-infant son, Sergey, with an ax.

The parents and police rushed in before blood was shed, according to the news report. But detectives say the episode apparently was not cataloged by Ukrainian police.

Soltys came to the U.S. three years ago under a program for refugees from the former Soviet Union. He joined his elderly parents in upstate New York while his wife stayed behind in Ukraine.

"He clearly fell through the cracks," said Walter Mueller of the Northern California Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that favors better checks of immigrants.

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials said they are satisfied with their screening process.

"We do attempt to prevent those who have demonstrated criminal behavior in the past," said Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesman. "Human nature can be hard to predict."

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