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A Man of Ingenious Escape Ideas

Alleged killer created elaborate plans, U.S. says, raising questions about federal lockup security. Defense calls his notes `musings.'

October 05, 2006|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

Iouri Mikhel's first plot to escape federal custody unraveled when an inmate housed beneath him in the downtown Metropolitan Detention Center noticed bits of gravel in an overflowing toilet.

The Russian emigre -- whose trial for allegedly murdering five Los Angeles residents and dumping their bodies in a remote reservoir began last month -- soon found himself in solitary confinement, under security measures designed for terrorists.

But the feds would not break his will. As dead-set as they were to bring him to trial, Mikhel was equally determined to get out -- and prosecutors feared he might have the brains and money to pull it off.

In this battle of wills, described in recent court filings, Mikhel began noting details of his new confines at the Central Detention Center in San Bernardino that only the most meticulous mind could formulate into a feasible road map for escape.

The court records say he plotted his various ways of escaping for nearly three years, creating detailed plans that surprised even veteran jailers when they discovered them at the Los Angeles center in March 2003 and in San Bernardino in January 2004.

Mikhel allegedly continued to "test institutional security" despite the setbacks. To scope out jail hospital security, he sliced a vein in his leg and overdosed on medication that he had hoarded in his cell, according to an affidavit from San Bernardino County Sheriff's Lt. Jack Trotter.

The revelations raise questions about security for federal detainees in the Southland.

In San Bernardino, Mikhel was put under what U.S. officials describe as their tightest restrictions. But he managed to correctly note enough basic security weaknesses that deputies thought the escape plan could have worked, court documents say.

The motion detector on top of the recreation yard fences is not set to a sensitive mode because of the high winds. The parking lot is empty in the early morning except when the garbage truck comes between 6 a.m. and 6:15 a.m. Friday is an overtime shift for the guards, and there is usually only one in the towers. The arch of the padlock at the gate is 3/8 inch of strengthened steel. The outside of the center is not patrolled.

Those observations culminated in a virtual primer for would-be escapees.

The step-by-step plan was uncovered when a guard found a letter wrapped in a Russian newspaper hidden in a trash can. In tiny, fastidious penmanship, Mikhel charted out the escape and offered $1 million to "Jason" to help him carry it out. Mikhel noted that the job could be contracted out to someone else.

"I have no vanity complex," the letter says. "But in this particular case it would be very nice to outsmart the feds this time!"

Mikhel's attorneys call the letter "Iouri's musings," not an escape attempt. They concede that he is trying to avoid the trial -- by trying to kill himself, most recently attempting to hang himself last month -- but they scoff at the allegation that slitting an artery or the overdose was part of an escape plan.

"He was unconscious for two days, so I don't know how good his [reconnaissance] could have been," said his attorney, Dale Rubin.

But officials at the detention center -- operated by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and contracted to hold federal inmates waiting for court hearings or assignments to a prison -- took the letter seriously.

Now guards are watching Mikhel so closely that they don't trust him with a standard "inmate plastic spoon."

"Unit deputies will inspect the spoon's condition after each meal to ensure that it is only being used for its intended purpose," Lt. Trotter wrote in a memo earlier this year.

Mikhel, 41, is charged along with four co-defendants in a murderous kidnapping-for-ransom scheme in 2001 and 2002. He is accused of strangling five hostages and then dumping them into a reservoir near Yosemite. His attorneys have strongly denied the charges, saying Mikhel was involved in money laundering but did not kill anyone.

Though it is not a part of the trial, the Justice Department alleges in documents that Mikhel has extensive ties to Russian organized crime and murdered a man in Turkey and a woman in Cyprus. (The trial is delayed until Tuesday as Mikhel's attorney, Richard M. Callahan, recovers from a skull fracture he suffered falling down a set of stairs.)

Details of the escape attempts, including Mikhel's raw notes, were laid out in court filings by prosecutors fighting a defense motion to ease the restrictions of his confinement.

The notes reveal a clever, methodical mind obsessively looking for ways to outwit his high-security confinement the way he might foil a tax system.

In one letter before his first escape attempt, Mikhel asked an ex-girlfriend to buy four "perfectly identical" English-Russian dictionaries so he could communicate in codes, documents show. One dictionary would go to Mikhel, and the other three would go to the people he needed to communicate with, including his co-defendants, Jurijus Kadamovas and Petro Krylov.

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