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Poisoned pair ask who targeted them and why

`Either someone wanted us dead or somebody messed up' in Russia.

July 22, 2007|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

Yana Kovalevsky made a colorful entrance. Not long out of the hospital, she hobbled into her neighborhood Starbucks for an interview on a purple-and-pink-striped cane. A blond-and-brown-streaked wig roosted on her head.

Under the wig, her scalp was a patchy landscape. A traumatic shedding had left the locks that once cascaded to her elbows struggling to regrow.

She needed the cane because a nerve-pinging disorder that somehow combined pain and numbness had turned her legs to rubber.

Last February, during a visit to their native Russia, Kovalevsky, a 27-year-old North Hollywood social worker, and her physician mother became critically ill from the effects of thallium. Their ordeal made worldwide headlines because thallium is a rare poison usually associated with political assassins and murderous inheritance seekers, not with the likes of Yana and Dr. Marina Kovalevsky.

It remains unknown how they came to ingest the tiny but potentially lethal amounts of the heavy metal. Among the other unanswered questions is who targeted them and why -- if the poisoning was intentional, as mother, daughter and their doctors now believe.

The doctors express confidence about the long-term prognosis for the Kovalevskys' physical health, although there are no guarantees. What does seem certain is that Yana, who got the worse of the poisoning, will have to remind herself not to look over her shoulder, as she tries to put her life back together.

"Either someone wanted us dead or somebody messed up," said Yana, who five months ago was a UC Irvine graduate looking forward to law school.

"There is some person out there who is mad because he missed his chance."

Russian exodus

A decade and a half before they were poisoned, the Kovalevskys had been an unheralded part of another international story -- the emigration of Soviet Jews. They had followed Marina's brother Dr. Leon Peck, a fellow physician, to the United States. Peck had been a refusenik for 10 years before he received a visa to leave Russia in 1988. The Kovalevskys got out in 1991, settling in Los Angeles and then moving to Louisiana, where Marina, 50, completed a medical residency. They returned to California, where Marina established a family practice out of a West Hollywood storefront.

She is now back at work and has declined to be interviewed, pleading for privacy. Yana said her mother's reticence hardened after FBI agents investigating the poisoning queried her about the Russian American medical community, which has been a focus of insurance fraud inquiries.

An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.

"I don't have any faith in them," Yana said of the FBI agents. A family friend and attorney, Frank Capwell, echoed her comments: "The agents were talking to them about things that were tangentially related to the poisoning, and I mean tangentially at best. Yana's mother is completely innocent of any wrongdoing."

The Kovalevskys had gone to Moscow to attend a 50th birthday celebration for a close friend of Marina.

After the birthday party, they sampled the city's museums, art shows and theaters. They were enjoying a stage musical when Yana got sick. "Stomach cramps," she recalled. "I missed the end of the play."

Their initial diagnosis was food poisoning, but in truth the thallium was beginning to take its toll.

In the past, thallium had been used in rat poison, until its toxicity to humans prompted most countries to ban it. One gram is enough to kill a person, and lesser amounts can damage the heart, brain, spinal cord and lungs, as well as just about every other part of the body.

Saddam Hussein used thallium to eliminate his opponents. And the metal was first suspected in last year's fatal poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in England. It turned out that he died from exposure to a radioactive isotope, polonium 210.

Yana felt well enough the next day to tour an art gallery and go to dinner. But then the cramping intensified, and the Kovalevskys called it a night. "My mom tried to put me to bed," Yana said. "I had to go to the bathroom and I fell. I just started crying. I said, 'I'm sorry, but I think we have to go to the hospital.' "

They took a taxi to an American clinic the hotel recommended.

"By the time we got to the hospital, my mom couldn't walk," Yana said. "They had to bring stretchers for us.... I was thinking, 'What is wrong with me? Why can't my mom help me?' "

Friend to the rescue

The hospital quickly placed the women on dialysis, but it would be several days before they identified thallium as the source of their agony. Yana had never heard of it and said her mother "didn't really believe" the diagnosis at first.

But they became terrified all the same, especially since the doctors said they had no antidote in stock and did not know where they might find any.

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