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Kidnap Ring Suspect Is at Siberia Home

Russia: Alexandr Afonin, wanted by the FBI in a Los Angeles case, says he's not hiding.

July 09, 2002|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — A Russian businessman who is the target of a worldwide FBI manhunt--and a suspected member of a kidnapping ring responsible for the slaying of five Los Angeles County residents--is living openly and quietly in his hometown in Siberia.

"I am not hiding," Alexandr Afonin said in a telephone interview from his home in Barnaul, where he runs a hodgepodge of businesses, including a film shop and a bodyguard service. "I can be found right here in Barnaul.... So far no one has approached me from any law enforcement agency."

According to FBI affidavits, Afonin, 41, oversaw the transfer of $234,000 in ransom money, some of which went to bank accounts controlled by suspects in the slaying of the five victims, whose bodies were pulled from a Northern California reservoir in October and March. They are believed to be the victims of a brutal kidnapping ring that targeted wealthy businessmen in the Los Angeles area.

In a 45-minute interview, Afonin acknowledged arranging the money transfers but described his actions as a misguided effort to do a favor for an acquaintance. He also expressed remorse that two business associates who carried out the bank transfers on his behalf have spent six months in custody in Los Angeles on charges of conspiring in the case.

"They never committed any crime. They did what they did because I asked them to," Afonin said. "I didn't commit any crime, either. I just made a mistake, a terrible mistake. I trusted people I hardly knew and shouldn't have trusted."

Manhunt Still On

Afonin acknowledged that he has not sought contact with U.S. law enforcement officials to clear his name and those of his associates. He has simply kept his head down and has canceled trips outside Russia, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.

"If the U.S. authorities ask the Russian authorities to hand me over, I hope our authorities will be reasonable about it," he said. "In any case, I am not hiding, I am not running away."

In Los Angeles, FBI spokesman Matthew McLaughlin said Monday that Afonin was still the target of an international manhunt. A warrant for his arrest has been entered into the Interpol databank, McLaughlin said, adding that the FBI believes that Russian authorities have been cooperating in seeking his capture.

But Russian law enforcement officials said they were not seeking Afonin. "We have no information about this case here," said Sergei Shtin, spokesman for the Interior Ministry in Siberia's Altai Territory, of which Barnaul is the capital. "We have received no orders or instructions about it."

Two suspects in the case--Iouri Mikhel, 37, and Jurijus Kadamovas, 35--are accused of running the kidnapping ring and have been charged with conspiracy and hostage-taking resulting in death. Facing similar charges are alleged accomplices Petro Krylov, 29; Natalya Solovyeva, 26; and Aleksejus Markovskis, 32.

All five suspects are in custody in Los Angeles and face the death penalty if convicted.

The victims whose bodies were found in the reservoir have been identified as Beverly Hills businessman and would-be film producer George Safiev, his associate Nick Kharabadze, their bookkeeper Rita Pekler, North Hollywood businessman Alexander Umansky and real estate developer Meyer Muscatel. All except Muscatel were emigrants from the former Soviet Union.

In federal court in Los Angeles on Monday, charges of receiving ransom money were dropped against Afonin's associates, Andrei Liapine and Andrei Agueev, Russian nationals who had been living in the United Arab Emirates. The men have been named as material witnesses in the remaining criminal case, however, and will remain in custody until they give their depositions Aug. 1-2. The government may then move to deport the two men.

Agueev, 34, and Liapine, 41, were arrested by Emirates authorities in January and flown to the United States.

In a brief interview, a shackled Agueev said he wasn't necessarily angry with the way he was treated.

"I was at the beginning," he said. "But I've kind of gotten used to it."

The FBI believes that the men are the only witnesses who can authenticate bank records that show the path of ransom payments made by Umansky's family. It also believes that the pair will help link Afonin to defendants Mikhel and Kadamovas.

Agueev's attorney, Victor Sherman, said he was able to show that there was insufficient evidence to charge them with any crime. He said that neither Liapine or Agueev profited from the money transfers and neither knew where the money came from.

It Started With Dinner

According to Afonin, his involvement with the alleged kidnappers began at a dinner party in a Moscow restaurant last summer, when he made the acquaintance of a former model named Marina Abramkina, who also uses the surname Karagodina.

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