CITRUS HEIGHTS, Calif. — After a 10-day, coast-to-coast manhunt, authorities found accused killer Nikolay Soltys on Thursday hiding right in his mother's backyard, capturing him moments after his relatives fled the breakfast table in terror to call for help.
Barefoot, disheveled and carrying a potato peeler and a map, Soltys was arrested without incident by undercover officers who had kept his family under surveillance since the bloody killings of his wife, son and four other relatives.
Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas said the unshaven Soltys may have been hiding for several days in a wooded ravine behind his mother's home in this capital suburb. He may have sneaked over a fence into her yard Wednesday night, carrying a sleeping bag and a backpack containing a knife believed to have been used in the murders.
Calling the Ukrainian immigrant a vicious criminal, Blanas said it appeared he had traveled on foot while at large. It remained unclear whether he had been aided by others.
"This is a day for celebration," Richard Baker, FBI special agent in charge in Sacramento, said at a news conference. "However, as we celebrate the capture of this individual, let's not forget the victims."
Relatives of the dead in Sacramento County's close-knit Ukrainian community expressed relief that the fugitive, who acquaintances say has a history of mental instability and domestic violence, was behind bars. But they said the capture did little to relieve their sorrow.
Soltys' cousin, Sergey Kukharskiy, whose parents, son and niece were slain, stood across town at the site of their murders and said: "We are Christians, so we will forgive him.
"Still," he added in a voice thick with emotion, "the memory [of our loved ones' deaths] will be in our minds forever."
Soltys, 27, a former shoemaker, could be arraigned as early as today on six counts of murder. Detectives who interviewed him for hours Thursday described him as tired and cooperative but would not reveal what he said.
Head bowed, Soltys was paraded by deputies out the front door of the sheriff's headquarters about 6 p.m. and walked to an unmarked vehicle to be taken to the County Jail. TV camera crews shouted questions at Soltys, who was outfitted in an orange jumpsuit and a blue bulletproof vest, hands shackled behind his back. The suspect said nothing.
Soltys, who came to the United States from a Ukrainian village three years ago, became a fugitive Aug. 20, the day of a fatal rampage that began among the drab duplexes of the Sacramento suburbs. He is suspected of slashing his pregnant wife to death, then driving across town and slaying an aunt, uncle and two young cousins.
Detectives say Soltys appeared at his mother's Citrus Heights house, where he whisked away his 3-year-old son. Soltys' car was discovered late that evening abandoned beside a home improvement store. His son's blood-splattered body was discovered in a rural area the next day inside a cardboard box, slumped over a few toys, his throat slashed.
Within days, Soltys was placed on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, and 14 of his surviving relatives were put in protective custody at a downtown Sacramento motel.
On Tuesday, they left those lodgings, eager to return to their jobs and place their children back in school. But teams of undercover officers continued to keep watch over their homes. Among those was the home of Soltys' mother, Varvara, who was joined by Soltys' brother, Stepan; his wife, Zoya; and their three children, Oleg, Bogdan and Yuliya.
The dramatic climax of the case came at the house Thursday morning, when the family gathered in the kitchen about 7 for breakfast. As the meal concluded, Stepan Soltys looked out a sliding glass door and saw his haggard brother in the backyard, said Citrus Heights Police Officer Bill Samuelson.
The two siblings made eye contact, and then "Nikolay made a motion of putting his finger to his mouth, like: 'Shhh, be quiet,' " Samuelson said.
Though the family had been outfitted with a "panic alarm," a heart-shaped device the size of a pager that alerts the sheriff's communication center, it is unclear whether the family tried to use it. James Lewis, a sheriff's spokesman, said the system was "working when we installed it."
Stepan Soltys rushed his family into their car and raced off, unaware of the undercover officers just outside, and frantically attempted to dial 911 on a cellular phone.
Pulling up in front of a store a few blocks away, the terrified relatives were aided by manager Jennifer Murphy, who said Stepan Soltys was so shaky and upset that he was mistakenly dialing 119.
Murphy punched in 911, and listened as first Stepan, then his daughter struggled in limited English to tell their story. Eventually, a Russian-speaking sheriff's deputy intervened and got the picture--the fugitive was just down the road.