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Feds Outline Kidnapping Charges

Crime: Prosecutors reveal some details of brutal killings of five area residents whose bodies were found in a reservoir. Two additional suspects are named.

June 07, 2002|CAITLIN LIU and RICHARD FAUSSET | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As far as killers go, they were particularly brutal: When a plastic bag didn't asphyxiate one victim, an abductor found a bigger bag for his head. And as far as kidnappers go, they were rip-off artists, demanding ransom even after their victims were dead.

Federal prosecutors made these accusations Thursday in the case of an international abduction scheme they said led to the deaths of five Southland residents whose bodies were dragged from New Melones Reservoir in Northern California.

Seven men--all with roots in the former Soviet Union--have been charged in connection with the kidnappings, and on Thursday the U.S. attorney's office named two other suspects.

One, Aleksejus Markovskis, allegedly helped detain victims in a posh Sherman Oaks home. The other, Natalya Solovyeva, posed as an old girlfriend to lure one victim, according to prosecutors and court documents. Both are being held by immigration authorities.

Meanwhile, a federal judge Thursday accepted the guilty plea of one defendant, Ainar Altmanis, 42, of Sherman Oaks, who led authorities to the bodies. In exchange for his plea to conspiracy and kidnapping charges, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty.

Other defendants in the kidnap-for-ransom case include Petro Krylov, 29, of West Hollywood, and Encino residents Iouri Mikhel, 37, and Jurijus Kadamovas, 35. They face the death penalty if convicted because the abductions resulted in death. Andrei Agueev, 34, and Andrei Liapine, 41, face lesser charges of receiving ransom money. The two men, who were living in the United Arab Emirates when arrested, face a maximum 10 years in prison. All have pleaded not guilty. Russian businessman Alexandr Afonin is still at large.

The new court papers filed Thursday prior to Altmanis' plea gave the most detailed glimpse yet of a crude blueprint: Kidnap well-off businesspeople. Demand money. Then kill them.

The case outlined by prosecutors began taking shape last fall, when Altmanis agreed to help Mikhel and Kadamovas kidnap Meyer Muscatel, a successful Sherman Oaks developer who was last seen Oct. 11, when he told his wife he was going out for a meeting.

According to court papers, the three men lured Muscatel to Mikhel's home, a manor on a hilly Encino street. Muscatel, 58, fought with his abductors but was pistol-whipped and tied up.

The next day, records say, the abductors forced Muscatel to try to transfer money out of his bank account.

According to Altmanis' plea agreement, he stopped by the house late, and saw Muscatel alive near Kadamovas' van.

Though a bag had been tied around his head, he was still convulsing.

According to the document, Altmanis watched as Mikhel placed a bigger bag over Muscatel's head and held his nose. Mikhel and Kadamovas then loaded Muscatel's body into the van and drove away.

They later said they dumped the body in a lake in the Sierra Nevada, according to the documents.

In the summer of 2001, Kadamovas began keeping tabs on another potential victim, George Safiev, 37, a Russian banking magnate who had moved to Beverly Hills, and his associate, aspiring film producer Nick Kharabadze, 29, of Woodland Hills.

The new documents filed by prosecutors give the following story: Over several months, Kadamovas and Mikhel began gathering information about the two and planned to abduct Safiev for ransom. Krylov kept a map marked with an "X" to show where Kharabadze lived, as well as a list of the cars driven by his family.

The kidnappers first tried to lure Safiev by abducting his bookkeeper, Rita Pekler, 39, and demanding she arrange a meeting in December. When that failed, they killed Pekler.

Then the kidnappers turned their attention to North Hollywood businessman Alexander Umansky, 35, whose high income from his electronics business had been brought to their attention by Krylov, a former employee of Umansky's.

Mikhel posed as a potential customer and brought Umansky to Kadamovas' Sherman Oaks house. There, Umansky found Altmanis and Kadamovas pointing guns at him.

Mikhel and Kadamovas tied Umansky to a chair and forced him to call his brother for ransom money, to be wired to a bank account in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

After his family sent $89,598, Mikhel, Kadamovas and Altmanis suffocated Umansky.

After Umansky's body was dumped in the same Northern California lake as Muscatel and Pekler, Mikhel arranged for an unknown suspect to contact Umansky's family to demand more money.

It was eventually wired back to the United States to the bank account of Designed Water World, an upscale aquarium business in Encino run by Mikhel and Kadamovas.

Mikhel and Kadamovas then turned their attention back to Safiev, according to prosecutors and court documents. Prosecutors also allege that on Jan. 18 of this year, Natalya Solovyeva--who was Kadamovas' girlfriend--lured Kharabadze to Designed Water World, where several of the suspects forced him to call Safiev to ask him to come.

Safiev arrived alone.

Over the next few days, the kidnappers forced Safiev to call a business associate in London to transfer $969,000 from his Singapore account to a Miami account.

On Jan. 25, both Safiev and Kharabadze were killed.

Six days later, one or more of the alleged kidnappers called Safiev's business associate to demand $4 million more in ransom.

Although Muscatel's body was pulled from the Northern California lake Oct. 18, six days after he was reported missing to Los Angeles police, his body was not identified until March, when authorities went looking for the others in the deep, frigid waters of the Gold Country lake.

That month, they found the bodies of Pekler, Safiev, Kharabadze and Umansky.

*

Times staff writer Andrea Perera contributed to this report.

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