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Russian in Lake Subject of Probe

Crime: Slain Southland businessman was being sought by authorities in his homeland.

July 20, 2002|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — At the time of his death, a Russian businessman whose body was pulled from a Northern California reservoir in the spring was being sought for questioning by Russian investigators in connection with an $8-million embezzlement case.

FBI investigators describe George Safiev as a victim of a kidnapping scheme run by former Soviet citizens. The plot allegedly involved snatching five Los Angeles-area residents, extorting money from their relatives and associates, then killing the kidnap victims and dumping their bodies in the reservoir.

Five suspects, all in custody in Los Angeles, are charged with kidnapping and could face the death penalty if convicted. A sixth suspect remains at large.

Other than Safiev's considerable wealth, the FBI has suggested no other motive for his abduction. But a Russian law enforcement source who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Times that Safiev's business dealings, including his possible involvement in the embezzlement case, also may have been a factor in his disappearance.

According to Russian documents obtained by The Times, Safiev was deposed by Russian investigators in February 2000 in his hometown, the Arctic mining city of Norilsk, in connection with the disappearance of about $8 million from city accounts.

A former deputy mayor of the city, Viktor Akatov, was charged with misappropriating the funds. They had been earmarked to buy food and medicine for schools for the winter of 1998 in the frigid city, which is 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

But after Akatov deposited the funds in Rossiysky Kapital, a Moscow bank headed at the time by Safiev, the money disappeared. Investigators believe that the funds were transferred to banks outside Russia.

Safiev was chairman of the board of Rossiysky Kapital from June until September 1998. The bank listed about $50 million in assets that July. In August, Russia suffered a financial collapse that bankrupted most of the country's banks, and in September, Safiev was replaced as board chairman.

Russian investigators say Safiev left the country shortly thereafter. He eventually set up a film production company in Beverly Hills.

Akatov is believed to have fled Russia about the same time. In January 2000, while Akatov was still at large, Russian investigators subpoenaed Safiev. The investigators in Moscow and Norilsk then received death threats by telephone, warning them to stay away from the case.

Safiev appeared for his deposition in February 2000. In unofficial remarks to investigators, he acknowledged that he had ordered the threats and apologized for the harassment, the Russian law enforcement source said.

"He didn't hide anything," the source said. "He made it clear that with his connections, he could fix anything."

At the time he was deposed, Safiev was officially considered a witness in the embezzlement case, not a suspect. According to the record of the deposition, investigators asked him about his relationship with Akatov, Akatov's credit record and property holdings, and how Safiev managed his money.

Safiev said he had no property of his own outside Russia but otherwise did not discuss his financial affairs.

More than a year later, Akatov was arrested in Slovenia on an Interpol warrant. He was extradited to Russia in February of this year, according to the documents. When he was subsequently questioned by Russian investigators, Akatov said he had deposited the funds in good faith in Rossiysky Kapital and that they had been stolen by Safiev.

Investigators then began searching for Safiev, hoping to question him again. That's when they learned that he had disappeared in January and turned up dead in the New Melones Reservoir near Sonora in March.

With no evidence to disprove Akatov's version of events, investigators freed him in June and closed their investigation.

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