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5 Found in Lake Died in Similar Fashion

May 08, 2002|RICHARD FAUSSET and CAITLIN LIU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Four Los Angeles-area people whose bodies were pulled from a Northern California reservoir in March died of asphyxiation, and at least one of them was strangled with a cord or rope, officials with the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department said Tuesday.

A fifth person, whose body was found in the reservoir in October, also suffocated, apparently because of tape used to gag him, according to a medical examiner from Calaveras County.

Authorities believe at least two of the victims were kidnapped. The disappearances are all under investigation by the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department.

According to death certificate information released Tuesday by the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department, three of the Los Angeles-area victims--Rita Pekler, 39; Alexander Umansky, 35; and George Safiev, 37--were either suffocated or drowned when their weighted bodies were thrown into New Melones Reservoir, a popular boating spot in the Central Sierras.

Filmmaker Nick Kharabadze, 29, of Woodland Hills, whose body also was found in the lake, was strangled with a cord or rope, said Lt. John Steely, a Tuolumne sheriff's spokesman.

The body of the fifth victim, Sherman Oaks businessman Meyer Muscatel, 58, was found bound and gagged in the same lake in October. Muscatel probably could not breathe because of tape used to gag him, according to a report prepared by a medical examiner in nearby Calaveras County.

A medical examiner found a stab wound on Muscatel's arm, and much of his body was crushed, possibly by a large vehicle, sometime after he had been gagged.

The autopsy report estimates that Muscatel was killed a day or two after he was reported missing Oct. 12. The other victims disappeared in December and January, but their estimated time of death has not been released by officials.

An FBI investigation into the disappearances began in December when agents were alerted that Umansky was missing.

Six men have been indicted on federal kidnapping charges and prosecutors say they are planning to bring additional charges. Agents are searching for a seventh suspect--a Siberian businessman named Alexandr Aphonia, believed to have laundered ransom money paid by Umansky's family.

The suspects being held without bail in Los Angeles also have roots in the former Soviet Union. Encino residents Iouri Mikhel, 37, and Jurijus Kadamovas, 35, are charged with participating in the abductions of Umansky and Safiev. Ainar Altmanis, 42, of Sherman Oaks and Petro Krylov, 29, of West Hollywood have been charged with aiding and abetting in the kidnapping of Umansky.

The suspects face a possible death penalty if convicted. Their trial is scheduled to begin July 2.

Two additional defendants--Andrei Agueev, 34, and Andrei Liapine, 41--face charges of receiving Umansky's ransom money. Their federal trial is to begin July 16.

All the defendants have pleaded not guilty.

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