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Federal jury finds businessmen guilty in kidnapping, killing of five

January 18, 2007|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

A federal jury on Wednesday found two San Fernando Valley businessmen guilty of kidnapping and killing five people who were taken for ransom, strangled and dumped in a remote Northern California reservoir.

Iouri Mikhel, 42, and Jurijus Kadamovas, 40, face possible death sentences.

The downtown Los Angeles jury deliberated less than 10 hours Tuesday and Wednesday before reaching its verdict.

Mikhel and Kadamovas displayed no emotion as U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian Jr. read the jury's finding that both men were guilty of conspiracy to take hostages, conspiracy to escape and hostage taking resulting in death.

Two relatives of the victims burst into tears as the verdicts were read and promptly left the courtroom.

The penalty phase of their trial, in which their sentence will be determined, begins Jan. 24.

Mikhel and Kadamovas hatched their plot while operating an aquarium store on Ventura Boulevard.

In 2001 and 2002, they lured victims with offers of business deals, demanded money from their families, then strangled them.

After the killings, they loaded the bodies into their minivan and drove five hours north to the New Melones reservoir near Yosemite to dump them, prosecutors said.

Authorities traced an electronic ransom payment to Mikhel and Kadamovas.

After their arrest in February 2002, authorities said, Mikhel devised an elaborate escape plan for the two to tunnel out of their cells and break through a fence, where motorcycles would be waiting.

Defense attorneys argued that Mikhel and Kadamovas were not the killers.

They said underlings killed the hostages, then named the pair to lighten their sentences in deals with prosecutors.

The victims were Meyer Muscatel, 58, of Sherman Oaks; Nick Kharabadze, 29, of Woodland Hills; Alexander Umansky, 35, of Sherman Oaks; Rita Pekler, 39, of West Hollywood; and George Safiev, 37, of Beverly Hills.

Muscatel, a real estate developer, went to Mikhel's Encino home expecting to discuss a real estate deal.

He was beaten and bound, then killed when his abductors concluded he had little money, according to trial testimony.

Umansky was kidnapped when he met Kadamovas to sell him equipment for his car.

Pekler, a financial consultant, was targeted because her captors thought she could lead them to a wealthy client, prosecutors said.

Safiev and Kharabadze were lured to the aquarium store to talk about a film production deal.

Outside the courtroom on Wednesday, Umansky's father, Ruven, expressed satisfaction with the verdict.

"Today is my birthday, and it is the happiest birthday of my life," he said. Asked if he wanted death sentences for the killers, Umansky replied, "Oh, yes."

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