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Global Manhunt Seeks Russian Businessman in Kidnapping Case

April 10, 2002|RICHARD FAUSSET and MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Federal investigators are searching for a Siberian businessman who allegedly orchestrated the laundering of ransom money paid by the family of one of five Los Angeles-area residents whose bodies were found in a Northern California lake.

Alexandr Afonin is charged with persuading Russian business associates in the United Arab Emirates to accept the $234,000 in ransom wired by the family of North Hollywood businessman Alex Umansky in December.

An FBI spokesman said Tuesday that authorities are looking for Afonin "wherever he may be, including Russia."

A spokesman for the Russian Interior Ministry, however, said that as of late last week, it had not been asked by U.S. officials to join in the hunt.

According to a federal affidavit, the ransom was transferred in chunks over the course of a month--from the San Fernando Valley to a New York bank, then to the United Arab Emirates and Latvia. Some was wired back to an account held by an upscale aquarium store on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, the affidavit says.

The two store owners--Iouri Mikhel and Jurijus Kadamovas--have been charged in two of the kidnappings. Also charged in the kidnapping plot are Petro Krylov of West Hollywood and Ainar Altmanis of Sherman Oaks. Two of Afonin's associates from the Emirates--Andrei Liapine and Andrei Agueev--have been charged in connection with the alleged ransom payment, court documents say.

All the defendants have roots in the former Soviet Union. They are being held in Los Angeles without bail. None has been accused of murder, but the U.S. attorney's office has not ruled out additional charges.

Altmanis directed the FBI last month to New Melones Lake near Sonora, where all five victims were found, according to documents. Altmanis is cooperating with prosecutors as part of an immunity deal, the documents say.

An arrest warrant has been issued for Afonin. He is a resident of Barnaul--an industrial city in Russia near the Kazakhstan border--and the former owner of an import-export business based in the emirate of Sharjah, according to the affidavit.

The company "specialized in shipping products in and out of the U.A.E.," and had once employed Liapine, who also hailed from Barnaul.

During business trips to the U.A.E., Afonin stayed at the extravagant Jumeirah Beach Hotel on Dubai's coast, the documents say.

Police officials in Afonin's hometown said they have an address for the fugitive and three firearm licenses in his name. He has no criminal record, including traffic violations, and was not listed as being sought by any law enforcement agency, they said.

Late last year, Liapine was in Dubai to start a business for his old boss, according to the affidavit. In early December, Afonin reportedly flew to the U.A.E. from Russia to ask Agueev--another former employee--if he would use his account to receive a $234,000 transfer from New York. Afonin allegedly said it was seed money for the new business.

Agueev agreed to accept the money, turn it over to Liapine and call Afonin at the Jumeirah hotel when the transaction was complete, the affidavit says.

Umansky vanished from the San Fernando Valley a few days later. His family sent $235,000 to a New York bank, following instructions faxed from Russia, the affidavit says. The money was forwarded to Agueev's business account between Dec. 22 and Jan. 7, according to the affidavit.

Agueev withdrew money in local currency and turned it over to Liapine, who sent it on to Latvia, the affidavit says.

A large amount went to a company called Glenstream Ventures in Riga, the Latvian capital. Glenstream later wired almost $40,000 to an account held by Designed Water World, the aquarium shop in the Valley owned by Mikhel and Kadamovas, both of Encino, the documents say.

Mikhel and Kadamovas are charged with kidnapping Umansky and businessman George Safiev, a Russian who had been living in Beverly Hills.

The bodies of Umansky, Safiev, West Hollywood accountant Rita Pekler and aspiring film producer Nick Kharabadze were pulled from the reservoir in March.

Last October, the body of Sherman Oaks real estate developer Meyer Muscatel was found floating in the lake, his hands bound and his head in a plastic bag.

*

Fausset reported from Los Angeles and Reynolds from Moscow.

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