Refugees, Befriended as ‘Heroes,’ Face Murder Charges
In a midnight quest for freedom, Peter Sakarias and Tauno Waidla deserted the Soviet army and crossed the Iron Curtain in 1986, eluding capture, they said, by hiding in a ditch and then dashing across the West German border.
The youth and daring of the two Estonian refugees, both 19, made them heroes in the hearts and minds of countrymen in the United States. Estonian-Americans from New York to Los Angeles welcomed them with open homes and wallets.
But Sakarias and Waidla found problems here that far outweighed any they encountered in Estonia. Those who knew them say they lived almost solely on the generosity of fellow emigres. Unable to adapt to American ways, they exhausted their welcomes and continually moved on.
‘Thought They Were Heroes’
Their requests for money turned into demands. They extorted and stole, fellow refugees said. And finally, according to authorities, they killed.
Today, Sakarias and Waidla are in Los Angeles County Jail charged with the July 12 murder of Viivi Piirisild, 52, an Estonian refugee who had once given Waidla a room in her North Hollywood home.
“We thought they were heroes,” said Alfred Skonberg, an Estonian who a year ago had put up Sakarias and Waidla in a New York City apartment. “They turned out to be bad. Mrs. Piirisild is dead, and those boys seem doomed. It is a very sad story.”
Members of the Estonian-American community, united by their fervent opposition to Soviet rule of their homeland, are bonded by nagging questions: Who are these young men, and what went wrong? Were they already criminals before they came here? And why could they not adjust to their lives in a new land?
“Because they were Estonian we presumed they were good guys,” said Jaak Treiman, a Los Angeles attorney who is the West Coast consul of Estonia.
“Now we question everything,” said Arnold Muursepp, another emigre. “There are some of us who wonder if they weren’t sent here by the Russians.”
Sakarias and Waidla were drafted into the Soviet army from Estonia when they were 18 years old. They met while stationed as military truck drivers in Leipzig, East Germany, according to the account they gave to fellow immigrants and the Free Estonian Word, a New York-based newspaper.
Estonia, in northern Europe on the Baltic Sea, has been Soviet-controlled since World War II. Local refugees said Estonian youths drafted into the Soviet army are routinely stationed outside their homeland because many harbor a longstanding hatred of communist rule.
Soon after meeting, Sakarias and Waidla hatched a daring plan to defect, according to their account.
Later, Waidla told the Estonian newspaper: “It is impossible to live with Russians. You can’t stand it.”
On Dec. 5, 1986, they stole civilian clothes belonging to Soviet officers and crept away from their camp in Leipzig. They said they covered the 125 miles to West Germany in three days, traveling mostly on foot and at night. At the double-fenced border, they climbed the first barrier and then hid in a ditch while Soviet soldiers, alerted by an alarm, made an unsuccessful search for them with spotlights.
When it was safe, they said, they climbed the next fence into West Germany and eventually made their way to Munich, where they requested political asylum in the United States.
Granted Refugee Status
Refugees who request political asylum are screened by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department. The process includes a background check for criminal activity, but INS spokesman Duke Austin said investigators often must rely on the refugees’ homeland for information. “You don’t always get cooperation,” he noted.
It is unclear whether the Soviets provided information on Sakarias and Waidla. A spokesman for the Soviet consulate in San Francisco declined comment, and the INS refused to disclose what, if anything, it found during the screening process.
Sakarias and Waidla were granted INS refugee status and arrived in New York on Jan. 14, 1987. Some Estonians who welcomed them to the United States now question the deserters’ escape story.
“Maybe they were troublemakers, and the Russians just let them go,” Skonberg said. “Maybe the Russians knew we would accept them.”
Skonberg said he and other Estonians in New York were contacted by a refugee assistance organization in early 1987, and he offered the two deserters the free use of a furnished apartment. Others who met them gave them clothes and money. Paul Saar, editor of the Free Estonian Word, interviewed them and offered Sakarias a job as an office helper.
But within three months, problems began to surface. Though the new refugees picked up English quickly, Waidla was unable to find a job, and Sakarias was fired from the newspaper when money was stolen from the cash drawer, Saar said.
“We took them as heroes, but then it turned out they just wanted money,” Saar said. “People were very helpful, giving them thousands of dollars. We thought, ‘Young boys, why not help them?’ They were nice and clean-cut, and people trusted them. But they were too restless and always wanted more.”
Three months after Skonberg welcomed them into his apartment, he visited and found furnishings were destroyed, the apartment was a mess and some tools and other belongings were missing. He asked Sakarias and Waidla to leave.
“It was very disappointing,” Skonberg said.
In late 1987, Sakarias and Waidla flew to Los Angeles.
“There was somewhat of a cloud over them,” Treiman said. “But the presumption was that what happened there (in New York) was done with and forgotten.”
Fellow immigrants helped Sakarias and Waidla get settled in an apartment in Reseda and again they were offered money and other help. One immigrant said he arranged for the two to work as helpers at a North Hollywood garage, but they quit after a week.
“I didn’t think they would have any difficulties,” the man said. “Peter was street-wise, and Tauno was quiet, an introvert. It seemed like they had every chance of adapting to life in the West, but they couldn’t get along.”
“They came from a system where there was the guarantee” that a home and other living requirements would be provided by the government, said a woman who knew them. “They found it hard to adapt to the freedom here, where you had to work hard for those things.”
Several weeks after they arrived in Los Angeles, Sakarias and Waidla split up. Sakarias left the area and traveled to Atlanta, where an Estonian offered him a temporary home, and back to New York.
Waidla moved into the North Hollywood home of Avo and Viivi Piirisild. The couple were well-known in the Estonian-American community through their work with Estonian-language newspapers and radio programs. Waidla lived with them for several months, helping build a small guest house on their property that Viivi Piirisild described as a “defector house” for refugees such as Waidla who made it to the United States.
Refuse Demands for Money
But according to authorities, Waidla moved out in May after the Piirisilds refused his demands for money or a car. At the same time, Sakarias returned to Los Angeles after quitting a short-lived job as a security guard in New York. Other emigres said the two traveled the country, often calling former benefactors from places such as Phoenix and Key West, Fla., to request money for hotels and plane tickets.
Authorities said the two refugees were back in Los Angeles by the Fourth of July weekend. Police said the two visited the Piirisilds and Waidla threatened to report the couple to the city Building and Safety Department for constructing an illegal addition to their home unless they gave him $3,000 or a car.
Police said the Piirisilds refused, and a week later Sakarias and Waidla broke into the Piirisilds’ North Hollywood home while Avo was away on a business trip and Viivi was at a dental appointment. Authorities said the two men were waiting inside when the woman got home. She was beaten to death with the blunt end of an ax, police said, and jewelry and other items were stolen from the house.
Though suspected almost from the start, Sakarias and Waidla were able to elude arrest until two weeks ago, when they were captured while crossing the U.S. border into New York after apparently visiting friends in Canada, police said. In Los Angeles, they have pleaded not guilty to charges that include murder, robbery and burglary.
Meantime, Estonian-Americans on both coasts remain baffled by what led Sakarias and Waidla on a path from heroism to dishonor.
“They were able to cross that uncrossable border in Germany,” said a man who knew them. “Why weren’t they able to make it in the United States?”