COLUMN ONE : 'I Was Like a Crazed Wolf ' : Andrei Chikatilo looks like a harmless schoolteacher. But 53 murders make him the most horrible serial killer Russia--perhaps the world--has ever seen.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even now, as he stands in the caged-in dock with his head shaven and his hideous crimes confessed, there is something innocuous about Andrei Chikatilo, something of the harmless, bespectacled schoolteacher.

If he struck up a conversation with you in a suburban station, then invited you home for a quick snack before the next bus--and if you were young and bored and naive. . . . Who knows? You might go.

But you would never get there. Luring them into the woods on similar pretexts, Chikatilo tortured, slaughtered and mutilated 21 boys, 14 girls and 18 young women in an odyssey of murder and unspeakable sadism that Russian officials believe makes him the most horrifyingly successful serial killer the country--perhaps the world--has ever seen.

"I was like a crazed wolf," Chikatilo, 56, told the Rostov court in his statement last week. There was no remorse in his voice; if anything, he sounded proud that he "just turned into a beast, into a wild animal."

For 12 years, beginning in 1978, the former Communist Party member and attentive father of two children stalked his victims in bus and train stations, on the streets and in cafes. He targeted lost souls, including drifters and the mentally retarded. But his prey also included excellent students from good families, kind and trusting young women and helpless little girls left unattended for just an hour or two.

Chikatilo used his self-described "magnetism" to persuade them to follow him down dark forest paths. There, according to his testimony, he would be seized by trembling excitement and would ambush them, crushing them with his 200-pound frame. He then tied their hands, raped them and slashed them dozens of times with his foot-long knife. He often gouged out his victims' eyes, cut out and chewed on their sexual organs and stuffed their bodies with dirt.

The string of grisly murders, known as the "Forest Strip" killings, terrorized the Rostov region and triggered a massive manhunt that involved blood-testing nearly 200,000 drivers and hauling in tens of thousands of former mental patients, homosexuals and ex-convicts.

The Chikatilo case has shocked a Russia still unaccustomed to such real-life horror stories in its media. It also has prompted worries that a new crop of psychopathic killers may be rising, spurred by the moral vacuum left when the strict Communist code of behavior collapsed. "Life is not seen to be worth so much anymore," said Alexander Bukhanovsky, a psychiatrist who has worked extensively on the Chikatilo case.

Chikatilo twice was detained and questioned by police: in 1978, after his first murder, and in 1984, when a wily detective observed him roaming a bus station chatting up young women. Upon his second arrest, police found rope, wire and a long knife in his briefcase.

But authorities released him, saying that blood tests did not match those of the murderer.

Another man, a known sex offender, was not so lucky. He was convicted and shot for the first murder Chikatilo committed.

Some Russian reporters speculate that police did not solve the crimes for so long because of an internal cover-up to conceal that wrongful death. Charges of violations in the investigation have been brought against detectives, although none has been punished so far.

But Amurkhan Yandiev, a senior investigator who worked on the case from 1985 on, said that "the law enforcement bodies were at fault mainly in that they relied too much on the biological facts. What did we learn? That you have to check everyone."

Although Russian police contend that the blood and fluid samples simply did not match, Edward Blake, a top American forensic expert, theorizes that police technicians just got sloppy when handling and testing the samples.

Even given the laboratory discrepancies, it remains astonishing, almost incomprehensible, that Chikatilo remained at large for so long.

He fit perfectly the portrait that police and psychiatrists eventually drew up: He was middle-aged, tall and strong, neatly dressed, wore glasses, carried a briefcase containing a knife, was a known sexual pervert, suffered from impotence and frequented train and bus stations.

Chikatilo had twice lost teaching positions for molesting children; in his later job traveling around the country obtaining supplies for a local factory, he was on constant business trips. He lived near the main killing spots and even committed three murders near the very same train station.

The police sank into the depths of frustration during the investigation, unable to fathom why all their tricks--the hidden cameras in train stations, the policewomen dressed as drifters, the hundreds of officers pretending to be railroad workers and mushroom pickers--failed to produce results. Their efforts led to the apprehension of dozens of other murderers and more than 200 rapists, but never the one they sought. For years, they were sidetracked by the belief that a gang of mentally ill young men was responsible. But the murders continued, even after the alleged gang members were all jailed.

"Nobody connected to this case has anything to boast about," Yandiev said succinctly.

Finally, Chikatilo was caught simply enough. A policeman patrolling a train station saw him emerging from the nearby woods and cleaning his boots in a puddle. He noticed that his finger was bandaged and his ear scratched. He asked Chikatilo for identification.

When, days later, another body was found near the station, the policeman remembered the man's peculiar name, and a witness testified to having seen Chikatilo trying to force a boy off the train with him. All the pieces started to fit together.

Chikatilo was arrested in November, 1990.

The chief of the investigation, Victor Burakov, deserves credit for his ultimate success. But if there is a hero in the Forest Strip case--if there can be a hero--it is probably Lt. Col. Alexander Zanasovsky, the detective who spotted and arrested Chikatilo in 1984.

A by-the-book policeman, he decided after 15 known sex murders had been committed to stick to his old principle: "The killer always goes back to where he has had success before." So he began to stake out the suburban bus station where the murderer often found his prey, watching passersby until his eyes hurt.

And one night, he noticed something suspicious--a respectable-looking older man who kept starting friendly conversations with young girls. When Zanasovsky confronted him, the man said he was bored, and as a former teacher he chatted with young people by habit. It was a bit strange, but with nothing more to go on, Zanasovsky let him go.

"When I felt it in my guts," he said, "was when I saw him the second time, weeks later, doing the same thing. And I thought, 'You won't get away from me.' "

When Zanasovsky arrested him, the detective recalled, "Drops of sweat the size of raindrops appeared on his forehead. I had never seen that before."

But eventually, with no concrete evidence to hold him, Chikatilo was released.

"Am I mad?" Zanasovsky asked. "When it finally came out that it was him, I was very mad indeed. How can you not be mad when so many more women and children died?"

When he was arrested for the third time in 1990, Chikatilo did not confess immediately. But after nine days of interrogation he began to break down, admitting that he resented the sexual activity that he said he saw among the drifters; it reminded him of his own impotence. "And I began to wonder whether these low-class elements have the right to exist," Chikatilo told investigators.

When he began to talk, he spilled it all. Chikatilo had been accused of 36 murders, but he confessed to 55 and later led the police to the remaining bodies.

Two of the cases against him were dropped for lack of evidence, but his string of 53 murder charges appears to be a modern-day record, outpacing even America's most prolific killers: Donald Harvey, sentenced to life imprisonment on Aug. 18, 1987, for 37 murders in Ohio and Kentucky, and the "Green River Killer," who is believed to have claimed 45 young women's lives in Washington and Oregon. Chikatilo's toll outpaces that of Jeffrey L. Dahmer of Milwaukee, who has confessed to killing and dismembering 17 people since 1978.

Chikatilo now faces either a prison term of up to 15 years or the death sentence, which, in Russia, means a gunshot to the head.

The bereaved parents sitting through his trial, however, have some ideas of their own about a fitting punishment.

"Why bother trying him?" asked Paulina Ishutina, whose 20-year-old daughter was killed by Chikatilo. "If they gave him to me, I'd tear him apart. I'd gouge out his eyes and cut him up. I'd do everything to him that he did to my daughter.

"My daughter had 46 knife wounds, her womb was cut out," Ishutina continued, her tired, tragic eyes filling with tears. "Why did he do that? What did he need with it? I can't understand it. It all just won't fit into my head. Every day we talk through it all, and it still doesn't make sense. How can you torment someone like that?"

In the early days of Chikatilo's trial, that question appeared to obsess Judge Leonid Akubzhanov as well. Using the powers he holds under the Russian court system to interrogate the defendant himself, Akubzhanov asked over and over for simple explanations of horrific acts, trying to determine what drove Chikatilo to kill, how a person could be so utterly without conscience.

"Didn't you imagine what excruciating pain it caused your victims when you bit off their tongues?" Akubzhanov asked him. "I've seen hundreds of corpses, but I've never seen any like this. We want to understand your psychology. Were you thinking, 'I can make anyone I want a victim,' or what? For one minute of pleasure, you demanded the life of a child. Didn't you think about that?"

Chikatilo could not answer directly, mumbling only, "I can't explain."

But in nearly two hours of a rambling monologue allowed him after the charges were read, Chikatilo painted himself as a long-suffering, persecuted man driven over the edge by his hard childhood, the mockery his impotence brought on, problems at work and home and his endless business trips.

Raised in Ukraine, Chikatilo asserted that his elder brother had been eaten by neighbors during the famine of the early 1930s. His father, a returned prisoner of war, had been repressed as an enemy of the people. In the army, fellow soldiers laughed at Chikatilo's uncertain sexual identity.

In later life, he felt himself a failure. "I dreamed of a big political career," he said, "and ended up with this nothing life, in stations and on trains."

Only when he took to the woods with his knife could he feel a success, comparing himself to the partisans of World War II and to a "forest wolf."

"When I used my knife, it brought psychological relief," was the best explanation he could offer. He also referred to his "perverted sexuality."

"I know I have to be destroyed," he said. "I understand. I was a mistake of nature."

Although it would seem that only a lunatic could do what Chikatilo did, Russian psychiatrists have pronounced him abnormal but basically sane, leaving him almost no chance of winning a trip to a mental hospital instead of the death sentence.

"He understands that what he did was bad, that he killed people," Bukhanovsky said. "But that doesn't mean he's sorry. The judge appealed to his conscience, but he's only sorry for himself."

Chikatilo is classified as a schizoid psychopath, schizoid because in his rich inner life, "he imagined himself in lofty roles, like a partisan, but in real life he called himself an idiot, a good-for-nothing," Bukhanovsky said.

The psychiatrist added that there must also be a biological basis for Chikatilo's mania; although it is not understood, it appears to "predispose" some people to commit such heinous crimes. Chikatilo had not meant to kill the 9-year-old girl who was his first victim, but when the act brought him sexual pleasure, the process known as "imprinting" occurred, and he developed the taste for killing, Bukhanovsky said.

Aside from the mysteries of Chikatilo's own psyche, other aspects of the case remain ultimately baffling. It is hard to imagine, for example, how Chikatilo could have managed to tie the hands of struggling women in their 20s and 16-year-old boys.

And although many of his victims were mentally retarded or drifters, it remains astounding that so many young people were willing to march off into the woods with a stranger. Some of the boys he tempted with promises of chewing gum or the chance to watch pornographic videos or horror films; to girls and women he promised food or said that he knew a shortcut to another station.

"I'd just say to all of them, 'Let's go, let's have something to eat' or whatever," Chikatilo recalled. "They were everywhere, at every step. I didn't have to search for them."

But once they were in the woods, he said, "I would start to shake. It was like a fever."

There is also the question of Chikatilo's wife. Yandiev recalled telling her: "It can't be you didn't know. He would come home dirty as an animal, bloody. You must have known."

But, he said, the wife categorically denies even a hint of suspicion, and Chikatilo testified that he would tell her that the factory where he worked had been forcing him to load filthy crates.

Chikatilo, a university graduate, was apparently a decent father and grandfather. Now, his wife and children have had to change their names and move away.

The wife "thought he was helpless," Yandiev said, and Chikatilo was apparently even slightly afraid of her, cowering when she yelled at him.

"He didn't even sleep with his wife," Yandiev said. "How could she have thought he could do something like this?"

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