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Charges to Be Dropped for 2 in Abductions

Crime: Men accused in scheme that led to five deaths will instead testify against other suspects.

June 25, 2002|RICHARD FAUSSET | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal prosecutors said Monday that they will drop charges against two Russian citizens accused of laundering ransom money in an alleged kidnapping plot that authorities believe led to the deaths of five Southern California residents.

Andrei Liapine and Andrei Agueev, who were placed in custody in Los Angeles after their arrests in Dubai in January, will instead be deposed as material witnesses in the case against five other California-based suspects, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.

Defense lawyers said they convinced prosecutors that there was insufficient evidence against the two men. But Mrozek said prosecutors chose to dismiss the case because they were concerned that Liapine and Agueev, as suspects, would invoke their 5th Amendment rights and refuse to share information crucial to the case.

Mrozek said U.S. District Judge Nora Manella is expected to order the two men to give statements under oath. The charges would be dropped after that, he said.

The dropped charges will not hurt the government's broader mission of seeking justice for the killings of five Los Angeles-area residents who were discovered in October and March in Northern California's New Melones Reservoir, authorities said.

Liapine and Agueev were arrested by local authorities in the United Arab Emirates, then held in Abu Dhabi, Guam, and eventually the United States. Their lawyers say the two businessmen had no idea they were mixed up in anything illegal in December and January, when they began receiving and distributing ransom money wired to Agueev's Middle Eastern accounts by the family of victim Alexander Umansky.

Agueev's lawyer, Victor Sherman, said he and Liapine's attorney, Edward Robinson, were able to convince prosecutors that their clients never took any of the $234,000 in wire transfers that Umansky's relatives sent in response to instructions from the kidnappers.

"We convinced them that, in fact, they were innocent parties doing a favor for a friend," Sherman said.

The friend Sherman referred to was Russian businessman Alexandr Afonin, the subject of a worldwide manhunt who has been charged with persuading Liapine, 41, and Agueev, 34, to accept the ransom money.

Prosecutors say some of the money ended up in the business account of a Ventura Boulevard aquarium company, Designed Water World. The two men listed on that company's account, Iouri Mikhel, 37, and Jurijus Kadamovas, 35, are in custody, charged with conspiracy and hostage-taking resulting in death.

Also in custody and facing similar charges are Petro Krylov, 29; Aleksejus Markovskis, 32; and Natalya Solovyeva, 26.

All five suspects face a possible death penalty. They have pleaded not guilty.

Earlier this month, after agreeing to cooperate with investigators, another suspect, Ainar Altmanis, 42, pleaded guilty to having a role in the kidnappings.

The suspects, who all have roots in the former Soviet Union, allegedly targeted wealthy residents in Southern California, most of whom were also of Eastern European descent. Developer Meyer Muscatel, 58, disappeared in October, followed by West Hollywood bookkeeper Rita Pekler, 39; Umansky, 35; Beverly Hills businessman George Safiev, 37; and aspiring filmmaker Nick Kharabadze, 29.

All were killed and dumped in the remote lake. Some were killed even after families and business associates paid the ransom, prosecutors said.

Agueev and Liapine will remain in custody until authorities take their depositions, Mrozek said, adding that a conference on their release date has been scheduled for July 8.

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