SPECIAL REPORT * Mikail Markhasev’s life was full of bad choices. A close look at Ennis Cosby’s slayer reveals . . . : A Slide From Honor Student to Killer
Mikail Markhasev, who immigrated here from Ukraine with his mother nine years ago, was on the college track in school.
After graduation, he probably could have chosen any top-notch university. Instead, he chose to drop out and loiter in an alley, drinking beer with a group of petty thugs.
His young life has been full of bad choices, many of which reveal puzzling personality contradictions. Friends and educators say they can’t understand the decisions he made, but those decisions help explain why he turned to crime and is now known across the country as a racist street thug who killed Ennis Cosby, the only son of entertainer Bill.
Markhasev’s mother, a dressmaker, still has a thick Ukrainian accent. Her son lost his quickly and earned a seat in honors English classes, yet he affects a Spanish accent.
He could have been a leader, but he chose to follow.
He wanted to fit in, friends say, and he chose the friendship of gang members; yet, even among them, he stood out.
“It’s really a shame that this young man, who seemed to really enjoy school, got on the wrong side,” said Principal Robert Kladifko of Reseda High School, where Markhasev enrolled in the 10th grade.
Sitting at his desk last week, Kladifko reviewed Markhasev’s records since elementary school, including a year at Hollywood’s John Burroughs Middle School, where he was in classes for gifted children.
“You have to be highly motivated for that program,” Kladifko said.
When he finished looking at the records, the principal closed the file. A school picture of a cherubic-looking little boy was attached.
“That’s him there,” he said. “Here’s a young man who could have really made a contribution to society and to his family.”
Instead, on Jan. 16, 1997, Markhasev, 19, murdered Cosby, another promising young man, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cosby, 27, was a doctoral student on winter break from Columbia University Teachers College, where he was studying to help children with special learning problems.
On that particular day in the early morning, Cosby had pulled off the San Diego Freeway onto Skirball Center Drive to change a flat tire.
Markhasev was there, too, reportedly planning to rob a drug connection at a nearby house. But he couldn’t reach the drug connection, so the man putting a fresh tire on a Mercedes-Benz convertible became his victim.
Many details of Markhasev’s life are sketchy. His mother, Victoria, declined to be interviewed. But his story emerges from school records and interviews with friends and schoolmates.
Markhasev’s problems go back to his early years. He was only 8 when his mother and father divorced.
Nevertheless, he seemed to flourish.
In 1989, he and his mother left the Ukrainian city of Lvov, an industrial and cultural center of 800,000, and settled in Los Angeles, where he attended Gardner Street Elementary School in Hollywood.
He made all A’s and Bs there and had perfect attendance.
“Good progress in English,” a teacher’s note said when he was in fifth grade, adding, “Here’s a young man who came here as a limited English speaker. Excellent math skills.”
In sixth grade, he demonstrated “excellent progress.” He was tested for the gifted program, was accepted and transferred to Burroughs for seventh grade.
No Hint of Trouble
Nothing in his teachers’ notes indicated he was headed for trouble. About the worst they could say was that young Markhasev talked out of turn.
The next year, he and his mother moved to Los Alamitos, a middle-class city of 12,000 on the western edge of Orange County. It’s a quiet community with a crime rate well below the county average and a school district that is among the best in the state.
Markhasev continued to do well, although there was a minor warning about some absences, Kladifko said.
But the youth kept making good grades. In ninth grade, he was at Los Alamitos High School. It seemed to be the perfect place for Markhasev.
Of its students, 80% regularly complete college entrance exams, and more than half its graduates attend four-year colleges. The school’s dropout rate is less than 1%.
Markhasev got off to a good start. He took Spanish and honors English and played wide receiver on the freshman football team.
His teachers liked him.
“He’s a pleasure to teach,” said one note. “He’s conscientious, a diligent worker.”
Students also liked him, and he picked up the nickname “Skippy.”
Robert Subia, 20, who had auto shop with Markhasev, said he was shocked at his classmate’s turn. “This is really weird. I would talk to him and stuff, and he never seemed like a troublemaker. He was a nice, everyday kind of dude.”
In honors English, Erika Artukovic, 19, knew Markhasev as smart, popular, quiet, maybe a bit flirtatious. “He never seemed like he had an attitude, like some guys who are so worried about being cool.”
But others saw a different side.
“He just thought he was a little white boy who wanted to be a cholo. He was a wannabe, he wanted to be a gang member,” one former classmate said.
Markhasev began associating with a Latino gang and took on a new moniker, “PWee.” It was a street name that he would one day write on cell walls and jailhouse letters and that eventually played a key role in his conviction, which will send him to prison for the rest of his life.
Teachers saw some changes too. They continued complaining about excessive talking. But more serious notations started appearing, indicating such problems as missing assignments and failure to show up for a detention session. He got into a couple of fights, classmates said, and twice was suspended, once for tagging school property with graffiti and once for drug possession.
Kathleen Bias, a 38-year-old mother of two, saw Markhasev in his gang life while he and his friends hung out in an alley in front of her home. Among those friends were Eli Zakaria and Sara Ann Peters, two Orange County residents who were with Markhasev the night Cosby died.
“He got hooked up with the wrong people and showed poor judgment in his choice of friends,” Bias said. “Those were people who made him think he was one of them. They were nice to him.”
The alley was their main haunt, Bias said.
During the day, they would often sit in the small park that backed onto the alley, alternating among the patch of grass, two swing sets and a few benches. On a paved border that enclosed the park, Bias said, it used to read “Mike loves Maggie,” who was Markhasev’s then-16-year-old girlfriend.
At night, the group huddled in a few secluded spots that shielded them from police, who would drive up and down the main streets, shining their lights onto the paved strip of garages and trash cans.
One of those spots is right outside Bias’ bedroom window, which meant that she often saw the boys as she came and went about her business, sometimes acquiescing to their requests for cigarettes, sometimes shushing them as they carried on into the night. Bias, who believes Markhasev was framed for Cosby’s murder and testified in his defense during the trial, said Markhasev was different from the other boys. He was quieter, she said, and more polite.
“He didn’t have that hard-core aura about him,” Bias said. “He seemed to be a follower, not a leader.”
He once helped her change a tire, she said. Another time, Markhasev had a friend ask Bias if he could use her bathroom because he was too shy to ask for himself, she said.
Move to Encino
On another occasion, she asked for his name and he gave it to her over the protests of his friends, who tried to insist that he only tell her his gang moniker.
“I thought that was cool of him to do in front of his friends,” Bias said.
In 1995, in an apparent attempt to get him out of that environment, his mother moved to Encino, but he continued to frequent Los Alamitos.
In the San Fernando Valley, he enrolled at Reseda High School in the 10th grade, but he wasn’t there long, Kladifko said. He dropped out to serve a six-month stint in Los Pinos Juvenile Detention Center for an offense authorities decline to reveal. He never returned.
Kladifko said he didn’t know Markhasev when he was there. But when reporters started calling him about his former student last year, he started looking into his records and discovered the story of his decline.
He concedes that Markhasev made his own choices, that other students encounter worse hardships and adjustment problems without resorting to murder and other crime. But Kladifko finds little solace in that thought.
“Somehow, we failed him,” he said. “He was doing extremely well in school. I really feel bad. He did what he did because something permanent in his life was lacking.”
“We--meaning society, the schools, parents--do the best we can during the time we have them. There comes a time when you have to open up your hands and let them fly away and just hope that they don’t dive-bomb and crash.”
Times staff writer Esther Schrader and correspondent John Canalis contributed to this report.