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Emigres' murder case goes to jury

Organized crime and money laundering are linked to a kidnapping scheme that left five dead, prosecutors say.

January 16, 2007|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

He was a glasnost entrepreneur trying to forge a new future out of the ruins of post-Soviet Russia. Now, the Russian immigrant to the San Fernando Valley is trying to convince a federal jury that his resourceful style of communist-busting capitalism did not turn into a kidnap-for-ransom murder scheme that ended with five bodies in a Sierra lake.

The jury is expected to begin deliberating today whether Iouri Mikhel and co-defendant Jurijus Kadamovas were responsible for the deaths of the five victims, who were strangled with flexible ties or smothered with plastic bags, their heads bound with duct tape, their bodies tossed into a remote Northern California reservoir in the dead of night.

Mikhel, 42, and Kadamovas, 40, face possible death sentences for their alleged roles in what prosecutors say was a grisly conspiracy carried out partly in a posh Tudor home in a hillside neighborhood of Encino. The alleged plot links international money launderers and local muscle-for-hire, Russian organized crime and Valley real estate barons, a phony front man named "Raul" and a temptress dubbed "Natalya from Moscow."

For ill-gotten gains that included mink coats, a Mercedes-Benz and a pair of purebred Dobermans, prosecutors say, Mikhel and Kadamovas planned an elaborate set of crimes carried out against members of the Valley's close-knit Russian emigre community.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 27, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Emigres' murder trial: : An article in the Jan. 16 California section about the federal trial of two emigres from the former Soviet Union accused in a kidnapping and murder plot reported that all five victims were Russian emigres. Meyer Muscatel, the first victim, was a U.S. citizen born in the United States. Three other victims -- Rita Pekler, Alexander Umansky and Nick Kharabadze -- were naturalized U.S. citizens.

After they were arrested, they allegedly hatched an equally elaborate plot to escape from the federal jail in downtown Los Angeles, going so far as to pull a hydraulic pump up to their cells on a string.

But defense attorneys argue that the federal probe has netted the wrong people. Slender, erudite Mikhel -- a "magician" and "moneyman," according to his attorneys -- would not have dirtied his hands with a clumsy and brutal murder scheme, they argued.

As for Kadamovas, a squatter version of Vladimir Lenin, with a goatee, shiny pate and owlish wire-rim glasses, defense attorneys say the one-time vacuum cleaner salesman was only Mikhel's lackey, handling his errands and paperwork in the hope that the latter would invest in his burgeoning fish tank business.

The two men's defense attorneys, though sometimes at odds, agree on one point: The murders were committed by underlings who got out of hand, then cut deals with prosecutors to escape harsh punishment.

"We are about to enter a world that none of us can begin to fathom," Mikhel's defense attorney Richard Callahan told the jury, acknowledging the trial's bizarre and tragic aspects. "If it were a movie, none of us would believe it."

Prosecutors gave this account of the events that led to five homicides:

Mikhel met Kadamovas when the latter was working for a moving company. Over time, their friendship turned into a criminal partnership that pivoted on a plot in late 2001 to kidnap people for ransom.

They hired local muscle, including Ainar Altmanis, a Latvian fencer of stolen goods who told them he had no problem squeezing debtors for money.

Their first victim was Meyer Muscatel, a Valley real estate developer whom the pair targeted because of his financial success. Using cellphones obtained under false names, they lured Muscatel to Mikhel's hillside Encino home by suggesting that they wanted to talk to him about a real estate deal.

Then they stopped at Home Depot and bought what prosecutors called a "kidnapping kit": red duct tape, two kinds of gloves, plastic ties and gauzy boot covers, purchased with Mikhel's credit card.

When Muscatel walked in the front door, the kidnappers jumped on him. They kept him in a room and tried to take money out of his bank accounts. But the plan was foiled when the bank demanded an in-person visit. So they tackled Muscatel on the floor of the garage, wrapping duct tape around his head and sitting on him. Then, according to the testimony of Altmanis, Mikhel twisted a bag around his head until he suffocated.

Afterward, the plotters gathered in the kitchen to scrutinize a map of the state. They spotted a remote Northern California reservoir, the New Melones Reservoir near Sonora, north of Yosemite.

A long drive, which prosecutors chronicled by means of traced cellphone calls, took them to a high narrow bridge across the remote reservoir. The body of Muscatel, whose blood was found on the bridge, was thrown in and later floated to the surface, to be discovered by a local boater.

Similar strategies were used with their next four victims: a financial consultant named Rita Pekler, whom they hoped to use to lure a wealthy client into their clutches. But it didn't work. So they killed her, prosecutors said, and made another trip to the reservoir.

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