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2 Men Go on Trial in Abduction Killings

The pair allegedly sought ransoms for five businesspeople, then dumped their bodies.

September 07, 2006|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

From their aquarium store on Ventura Boulevard, two Eastern Europeans hatched a murderous kidnapping-for-ransom conspiracy, ultimately strangling five victims and dumping their bodies in a deep-gorge reservoir near Yosemite, prosecutors said Wednesday.

In a two-hour statement opening the men's federal trial in downtown Los Angeles, prosecutors told jurors that Iouri Mikhel, a Russian immigrant, and Jurijus Kadamovas, a Lithuanian, carried out their abductions and murders in the same methodical way they might have set up a fish tank -- and then laundered the ransom proceeds through bank accounts from Dubai to Jamaica.

The U.S. attorney's office is seeking the death penalty against both defendants, who have pleaded not guilty to five counts of "hostage taking resulting in death" and two counts of conspiracy. The charges stem from an alleged scheme in 2001 and 2002 to abduct wealthy businesspeople in Los Angeles, mostly Russians, and extort money from them and their families with false promises of their safe return, prosecutors said.

The victims were Meyer Muscatel, a Los Angeles real-estate developer; Rita Pekler, a financial consultant; Alexander Umansky, the owner of a high-end auto electronics store; and George Safiev and Nick Kharabadze, two partners in a fledgling film production company.

The defendants were not two-bit criminals, prosecutors contended. Mikhel, 41, lived in a Tudor-style estate in the hills above Encino. The two men, they said, used the ransom money to buy a $79,000 Mercedes SUV, mink coats for their girlfriends and two pure-bred Dobermans.

Kadamovas, 39, told an accomplice that he expected to ultimately make $50 million. Before they were arrested in February 2002, the pair allegedly trolled the ski slopes of Aspen and a Florida boat show seeking new wealthy Russians to target.

"This was business as usual," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Susan J. Dewitt. "This is how they afforded their lavish lifestyle."

The defendants recorded their victims' voices so they could play them for the families from which they tried to extort money, even after the victims were dead, Dewitt said.

And after they were arrested, authorities say, they staged an elaborate attempt to tunnel out of their cells at the federal detention center. That plot was thwarted only because another inmate reported them, prosecutors said. Guards found an arsenal of tools and a large hole behind a mirror in Mikhel's cell.

Mikhel's attorney, Richard M. Callahan, conceded that his client was a "con man" who brought business "methods he learned in Russia, both legal and illegal," with him to the U.S. But he was not a murderer, Callahan said.

"He became a master of international banking ... usually disguising money through a series of shell companies and off-shore bank accounts," Callahan said.

But prosecutors contended that they would offer an inside view of the violent ransom plots through the testimony of a cooperating witness: Ainar Altmanis, who pleaded guilty to taking part in the scheme. Through him, prosecutors indicated in court papers, they will lay out a step-by-step account of the alleged crimes in novelistic detail -- from the preparations at a Home Depot, to the grisly deaths, to the ghostly images of bodies lying in the silt 300 feet below the surface of the New Melones Reservoir.

The victims did not go easy, Dewitt said: The defendants tried to suffocate one person, Umansky, who was 35, with a bag over his head. When that failed, they wrapped a rope around his neck -- Mikhel and Altmanis each pulled an end. When Umansky stopped moving, Altmanis was nervous because "noise was still coming from the body."

"Mikhel said it was just air coming from his lungs," Dewitt said. He allegedly stepped on Umansky's chest and told Altmanis matter-of-factly: "These sounds are common."

The defense plans to attack Altmanis' credibility, alleging that he committed the murders and is trying to get a lesser sentence by helping prosecutors make a case against the two defendants on trial.

Callahan said Altmanis was envious of Mikhel's lifestyle and tried to get himself involved in some of the business deals. He also had free rein to Mikhel's "estate," Callahan said, and thus probably left behind the physical evidence discovered during searches, including stun guns, drugs allegedly used to sedate victims and a $4-million ransom.

Mikhel sat through the first day of the trial shackled to the floor, blinking slowly, as if he were fighting sleep. Thin, with an angular face and close-cropped silver hair, he wore a loose gray T-shirt and jail pants.

Behind him, his co-defendant, Kadamovas, was a study in contrast: pudgy, crown-bald and bookish, with thick glasses, a brown sweater and blue shirt buttoned to the neck.

His attorney, Sonia E. Chahin, urged jurors to distinguish between the two, depicting Kadamovas as a humdrum aquarium enthusiast, not an international money launderer.

"He has always had an interest in fish, and always had innovative designs," she said.

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