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U.S. Seeks Death Penalty in Killing of 5

Federal prosecutors cite evidence linking three defendants accused of slaying kidnapping victims to violent crimes outside California.

August 04, 2004|David Rosenzweig | Times Staff Writer

Federal prosecutors said Tuesday that they will seek the death penalty against three men who allegedly kidnapped five Los Angeles-area residents for ransom, killed them and dumped their bodies in a reservoir near Yosemite National Park.

In documents explaining their decision, prosecutors said they had uncovered new evidence showing that defendants Iouri Mikhel and Jurijus Kadamovas were involved in similar killings in Turkey and Cyprus, and were joined by co-defendant Petro Krylov in the kidnapping for ransom of an Idaho man.

Two other defendants in the case, Aleksejus Markovskis and Natalya Solovyeva, will not face the death penalty but could receive life prison terms if convicted.

Federal investigators believe the ring had links to Russian organized crime. Most of the victims were businesspeople with roots in the former Soviet Union.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 06, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Federal kidnapping prosecution -- An article in Wednesday's California section about federal prosecutors' decision to seek the death penalty for three Los Angeles-area men accused of kidnapping for ransom and murder said the last death penalty case tried in federal court in Los Angeles was in 1991. It was in 2001.

Dale Michael Rubin, a death penalty lawyer who represents Mikhel, said he was not surprised by the announcement.

"But this is the first time I've ever heard of these other allegations," Rubin said of his client's suspected involvement in crimes outside the state. He said he has sent a letter to the U.S. attorney's office asking for details about the other kidnappings.

"With all these new elements in the case, I think it's safe to figure this case is not going to go to trial for at least another year, if not later," Rubin said.

The five defendants -- a sixth pleaded guilty previously -- have been in custody since their arrest early in 2002 by the FBI and Los Angeles police detectives.

The victims' weighted bodies were recovered from the bottom of New Melones Lake, a popular recreation spot in the central Sierra Nevada. They were Meyer Muscatel, 58, of Sherman Oaks; Nick Kharabadze, 29, of Woodland Hills; Alexander Umansky, 35, of Sherman Oaks; Rita Peklar, 39, of West Hollywood; and George Safiev, 37, of Beverly Hills. An autopsy found they had been asphyxiated or strangled before their bodies were dumped in the reservoir.

According to a new indictment unsealed Tuesday, the victims were killed in order to silence them.

The ransom demands, which totaled as much as $5 million in one instance, were sent to family members and business associates in faxes from Russia. They asked for money to be transferred to bank accounts in Dubai. There, authorities said, three Russians were involved in routing the proceeds to other accounts in Latvia and the United States. About $1.2 million in ransom was eventually paid.

In addition to the new evidence of other hostage-taking, prosecutors on Tuesday cited numerous other factors to justify the decision to see the death penalty. They included assertions that the case involved multiple killings that required substantial planning and premeditation.

Mikhel, 39, Krylov, 32, and Kadamovas, 37, were accused of demonstrating a lack of remorse by their comments and actions after their arrest.

The government described them as a dangerous threat, noting that they had tried to escape from the federal Metropolitan Detention Center, a high-rise jail in downtown Los Angeles, in March of this year. The plot was foiled. In addition, the prosecution said, the defendants displayed wanton indifference to the emotional suffering of their victims when they were being held captive.

Before the federal government decides to seek the death penalty, defense lawyers are invited to present mitigating evidence to the local U.S. attorney's office and then to a panel at the Justice Department in Washington. The final decision must be approved by the attorney general.

When the case is tried, the jury will first consider whether the defendants are guilty of charges that include hostage-taking resulting in death; conspiracy to take hostages; money laundering; and attempted escape from custody. If they are found guilty of the charges, a trial will follow to decide whether to impose the death penalty.

Death penalty cases are rare in federal criminal courts, although over the past two decades Congress has expanded the range of crimes punishable by death.

The last death penalty case tried in Los Angeles federal court was in 1991. Mariano "Chuy" Martinez, a Mexican Mafia leader, was convicted of murder, racketeering and drug trafficking. In the death penalty phase, the jury was split 7 to 5 in favor of death. The law requires a unanimous decision to impose the death penalty, so Martinez was automatically sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.

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