MOSCOW — The Russian underworld calls him "Sportsman" for his physical strength and stamina. Police identify him as "High-Tech" because of his allegedly ingenious ways of stealing luxury cars.
Now Igor Lovygin has captivated Russia for daring behavior this week apparently motivated by the accidental death of one of his young daughters, who drowned during a family vacation in Dubai.
Lovygin, 36, the reputed leader of the country's most brazen car theft gang and a murder suspect wanted by authorities, accompanied his daughter's coffin to Russia, was arrested at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, and then escaped from officers Wednesday night after being transferred to St. Petersburg.
Lovygin remained at large Friday, with authorities offering little explanation about how he got away. They have said that three officers were moving him from one vehicle to another en route to a detention center when a sport utility vehicle carrying several men pulled up and whisked him away.
"He escaped in transit," Igor Odushko, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry North-West Directorate, told the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily. "We are trying to establish his whereabouts now."
The incident left Russians again suspicious of police corruption, which is seen as rampant based on a history of cases involving protection rackets, prostitution, drug trafficking and gambling. Some speculated that help from authorities was the only way someone like Lovygin, whose criminal record includes four prison terms, could have remained at large and then disappeared again without a shot being fired.
Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer and ex-deputy chief of the lower house of parliament's security committee, said the escape illustrated the sorry state of the Russian police.
"I have no doubt that corruption was a key factor in the escape," Gudkov said in an interview. "Our policemen excel at taking bribes, at protecting businesses on the side, at brutally dispersing a peaceful opposition rally, but they are incapable of protecting citizens from crime."
Police consider Lovygin, a resident of St. Petersburg, one of Russia's criminal elite. His alleged specialty, car theft, ranks as one of the leading crimes in a country where professional criminals have long divided illegal business enterprises.
The racket authorities say is run by Lovygin, a former car alarm engineer, purportedly employs the best of those skilled at extreme driving. The gang is equipped with $50,000 alarm scanners, uses fast and powerful BMW-X6 vehicles and protects its alarm breakers and drivers with boxers armed with guns, according to the Fontanka.ru news agency.
A police source described Lovygin as an intelligent but daring thief "with good manners," Fontanka.ru reported.
But in a special report, Vesti FM radio said Lovygin was an impudent and daring gangster who once broke a window and jumped out of a police station's upper floor in an escape attempt.
Lovygin is reportedly a suspect in two killings. In 2001, a German businessman who allegedly was romantically involved with Lovygin's first wife disappeared. A few years later, a fitness instructor from the St. Petersburg region who Lovygin reportedly believed was seeing his second wife also disappeared.
Alexander Gurov, former chief of the Russian Interior Ministry's organized crime department, said the Lovygin case looked like a movie that had not yet reached its climax.
"I have so many questions now, including how the gangsters knew where he was taken and why the police didn't use the firearms they had, " Gurov said. "You shouldn't treat and escort a gangland lord like a bum!"
Gurov said police should look for Lovygin to try to attend his daughter's funeral, which is expected to be held this weekend.
"If he dared to come back to Russia with her coffin, he must be there to pay her the last rites," Gurov said. "To continue a movie analogy, I would expect him to come to the funeral and turn himself in, saying that he escaped only to be able to throw a handful of dust into his daughter's grave like a good father, which he thinks he is by his standards."