One evening in early February, an alleged member of a lethal Russian kidnapping ring used a simple L-shaped tool to loosen a window on the fifth-floor of the federal detention center in downtown Los Angeles.
Ten minutes after receiving a signal -- a cigarette glowing in the night -- from his accomplice on the ground below, Russian national Iouri Mikhel reportedly lowered a rope through the outside window and hauled up a pillowcase packed with marijuana and two cellular telephones.
Later that month, authorities say, Mikhel used the cell phones to coordinate a second haul. Lowering the rope again to his reputed accomplice, Michael Tynan, they say, he pulled up a bagful of tools and a video camera.
Mikhel reportedly planned to use the tools to break out of the Metropolitan Detention Center, and the camera to record his escape -- with the tape going to federal prison officials as a final kiss-off.
The alleged jailbreak scheme -- as detailed in an FBI affidavit -- was broken up March 7 when guards searched his cell and reportedly found glass cutters, bolt cutters, pliers, wrenches, box cutters and hacksaw blades, as well as a "large hole" behind a mirror that, while unfinished, led toward a stairwell off limits to inmates.
The incident has raised questions about the security at the 10-story, 1,000-inmate federal lockup that fronts the busy downtown intersection of North Alameda and Aliso streets.
It has also worried the families of those killed in a brutal 2001-02 kidnapping spree allegedly involving Mikhel. According to prosecutors, Mikhel and at least four accomplices conspired to abduct and kill five Southern California businesspeople, throwing their bodies into a Northern California reservoir.
According to the affidavit, Mikhel, 38, told the FBI that he wanted to escape "to take care of 'unfinished business' he had with some people whom he needed to find."
The document also says that in February, he was able to transfer nearly $20,000 to the bank account of Sabrina Cher Tynan -- Michael Tynan's sister-in-law -- apparently as payment for her alleged help with the failed breakout attempt.
"That means they still have money and still have connections outside the walls," said one victim's relative, who expressed concern about the safety of potential witnesses.
Since the discovery of his alleged escape plan, Mikhel has been moved to solitary confinement in the San Bernardino County Jail, where his contact with the outside world is almost entirely cut off, said lead defense lawyer Richard Callahan.
But at least one suspect in the case -- Siberian businessman Alexandr Afonin -- has not been arrested because he is believed to be in Russia, which has no extradition treaty with the United States. FBI Special Agent Matthew McLaughlin said the federal investigation into the killings continues.
Meanwhile, U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials said this week that they could not discuss specific security issues at the center. On Thursday, Associate Warden Brian Hoyt said the jail is constantly upgrading its security.
"We have adjusted our security procedures," he said. "The lesson's learned."
The alleged escape attempt deepens the portrait of Mikhel, a mysterious figure who, before his arrest, was living the good life in the San Fernando Valley. He dressed well, drove nice cars and lived with his family at a chateau-style mansion in the hills of Encino. He also ran a high-end custom aquarium company on Ventura Boulevard with another suspect, Jurijus Kadamovas.
But some details in court documents show a brutal side of Mikhel: In one instance, he is described as helping suffocate a victim by placing a bag over the man's head and holding his nose.
Most victims of the kidnapping ring had roots in the former Soviet Union. Some were killed even after families or business associates paid ransom to save them, prosecutors said.
Although FBI agents have said the kidnapping scheme may have links to Russian organized crime, many details of the case remain undisclosed, and prosecutors remain tight-lipped as they prepare for a complicated trial set to begin next August.
Mikhel and the four other suspects have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and hostage-taking resulting in death. Three suspects -- Mikhel, Kadamovas, 36, and Petro Krylov, 31 -- face possible execution, but federal prosecutors have not yet decided whether to pursue death sentences. Last month, they declined to seek the death penalty for suspects Natalya Solovyeva, 27, and Aleksejus Markovskis, 32.
Calling the reported escape attempt just an allegation, Callahan said it had no bearing on his client's guilt or innocence in the kidnapping case.
"When everyone hears the evidence, it'll be proven that he's not guilty of these crimes," the attorney said.