One of the five apparent kidnapping victims whose bodies were found in a Northern California lake was the target of a federal criminal investigation when she disappeared in December from the Los Angeles area, court documents show.
Rita Pekler and her attorney said in a deposition that she was under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service for alleged tax fraud. The deposition was taken in a related civil case six days before Pekler vanished.
The attorney, Stanley Friedman, confirmed on Tuesday that the IRS was investigating Pekler. But he said he did not believe the investigation had anything to do with her kidnapping and killing.
"I think it was just an unfortunate coincidence," Friedman said. He added that the investigation involved "improper [tax] deductions" taken by clients of Pekler's check-cashing business, Professional Business Development.
Officials for the IRS, FBI and U.S. attorney's office either declined to comment or did not return phone calls.
In March, the bodies of Pekler, Beverly Hills businessman George Safiev and Nick Kharabadze, an aspiring film producer from Woodland Hills, were found in New Melones Lake in Calaveras County, along with that of North Hollywood businessman Alexander Umansky. The body of Meyer Muscatel, a Sherman Oaks real estate developer, was found in the lake in October, his hands bound and his head in a plastic bag.
Six defendants, all with roots in Eastern Europe, have been charged in connection with two of the kidnappings. Federal authorities have said that more charges might be filed. A seventh suspect is being sought in Russia.
Pekler had been the bookkeeper for defendants Mike Orlov and Villi Weiss in the civil suit that was about to go to trial early this year, court documents show. She would have been one of the key witnesses called by plaintiff Allstate Insurance Co.
The case has been postponed because of the IRS investigation, which also has targeted Orlov and Weiss, said their attorney, Tracy Green.
Orlov and Weiss, who ran a medical management company, "had nothing to do with [Pekler's kidnapping and killing]," Green said. "There was no bad blood between my clients and her.... They're horrified about this, as is the rest of the Russian community.
"The FBI has not even interviewed my clients," Green added.
In her Nov. 30 deposition, Pekler repeatedly invoked her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
When asked whether she recognized the names of Orlov, Weiss or her bookkeeping and check-cashing businesses, she replied: "I take the 5th."