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Poisoned Pair Back In L.a. From Russia

Doctor and daughter were sickened by thallium, a toxic metal.

March 08, 2007|Megan Garvey and Charles Proctor | Times Staff Writers

A physician and her adult daughter returned to Los Angeles Wednesday after being poisoned during a trip to Moscow, the latest in a string of Russian poisoning cases that have sparked international intrigue.

Marina Kovalevsky, a 49-year-old internist well known in L.A.'s Russian community, and her daughter Yana, 26, were sickened 12 days ago by thallium, an odorless, colorless, toxic chemical element initially suspected in the death of a former Russian spy in London last year.

The women, both U.S. citizens who have lived here more than 15 years, arrived Wednesday afternoon at Los Angeles International Airport from Moscow to a throng of waiting TV cameras and reporters. Looking pale and being pushed in wheelchairs to waiting ambulances by attendants, the women had little to say.

"Have some decency; have some respect," said Yana Kovalevsky, her breathing labored and her hand raised to shield her face from the lights of television news cameras.

Her uncle, Leon Peck, a Beverly Hills oral surgeon who flew to Moscow last week to help his sister and niece on the trip home, told waiting reporters they did not want to talk. "You can see their condition," he said.

The Kovalevskys were taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Hospital spokeswoman Simi Singer said late Wednesday that they were evaluated by physicians in the emergency department and were admitted. She added, "Both women are alert and in stable condition.

Their plight has roiled the large local community of expatriates from Russia and other former Soviet republics, many of whom say it is hard to imagine any motive for an attack on the popular doctor or her daughter.

"Everybody is upset. Everybody is talking about it," said West Hollywood resident Irina Mermel, 69, who has known the family more than a decade.

At the same time, some familiar with Russian crime said it was hard to think that the poisoning was accidental.

Russian intelligence officials told the Moscow media that they believed the pair might have been poisoned in an attempt to cover up the theft of their jewelry, though family members who have been in contact with the women said neither had mentioned anything about that.

The Kovalevskys traveled to Moscow in mid-February to attend the wedding of a friend's niece, said their cousin Olga Tabarovskaya, but were hospitalized Feb. 24 after reporting pain and numbness.

Tabarovskaya said she and other relatives at first believed the women were suffering from food poisoning and were shocked when tests indicated thallium. The mother and daughter had been staying at a five-star hotel near Red Square and planned to be home in time for a full day of work Feb. 26.

"I think it's an accident, because I can't imagine anything else. It's really bizarre," said Tabarovskaya, a chiropractor who works out of the same West Hollywood office as her cousin.

Tabarovskaya, who has spoken to the women several times since their poisoning, said they had been improving medically in recent days. Their symptoms included nausea, diarrhea, muscle weakness and paralysis. Family members said they were treated in Moscow with dialysis and a poison antidote called Prussian Blue to counteract the thallium.

The role of poison in Russia's hard-edged political and business scenes came to prominence last year when Alexander Litvinenko, a former spy for that nation, fell fatally ill in London. A vocal critic of Russian leaders, he died three weeks after being hospitalized with what doctors first suspected was thallium poisoning. Later tests indicated that he had received a lethal dose of polonium-210.

Thallium is a toxic metal used as a catalyst in certain metal alloys, optical lenses, jewelry and semiconductors, as well as dyes and pigments. Compounds containing the metal have been used as rat poison and insecticide, which is one of the most common sources of human thallium poisoning. Saddam Hussein used thallium against his enemies.

"It's one of the more toxic metals, which can cause gastrointestinal irritation, paralysis, loss of vision, heart and liver problems, as well psychic disturbances," said USC associate professor Joseph R. Landolph, an expert in toxicology. But he said it also "has been used cosmetically as a depilatory, to remove hair."

Those who know Kovalevsky, who practices internal and family medicine, said they find it impossible to believe she or her daughter could have been a political target. Though many Russians speak out on various subjects, Kovalevsky did not, said Victoria Wexley, who sits on the board of the Russian American Medical Assn. with Kovalevsky.

"It does sound like and look like she was poisoned," she said. "Whether it was intentional because of her involvement in politics -- I doubt that."

Still, for some who left the former Soviet bloc behind, the Kovalevskys' misfortune was a reminder of lingering problems.

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