Accused Killer an Elusive Enigma

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just who is Nikolay Soltys and where has he gone?

Suspected in the horrific murders of half a dozen family members in the suburbs of the California capital, the 27-year-old immigrant remains a cipher.

To relatives who never saw the massacre coming, he is a savage enigma. To investigators fighting to catch him, he remains an elusive shadow.

As the nationwide hunt for the Ukrainian-shoemaker-turned-fugitive stretches toward a second week, detectives are struggling to solve a puzzle missing far too many pieces.

Language barriers, cultural baggage and welling fear in the immigrant neighborhoods that checkerboard Sacramento County have slowed the search for clues. In this community of 70,000 refugees from the fallen Soviet empire, residents have been besieged by police and the media.

Misinformation is rampant. Doors have been locked, kids pulled off the streets.

"Now everyone is inside," said Roman Romaso, executive director of the Slavic Community Center. "Everyone is afraid."

An array of basic questions thus remains unanswered. Questions about Soltys' motives, his state of mind and his movements since the awful hours Monday when he allegedly stabbed his pregnant wife, butchered four other relatives and lured his 3-year-old son into a cardboard box with toys and then slashed his throat.

What happened to the Nikolay who sometimes gave candy to nieces and nephews? Was this a man dogged by demons, who tipped over the edge?

Soltys sightings have been reported all over the nation, from the long concourses of Los Angeles International Airport to the highways of Tennessee. Calls have poured into hotlines at the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, sometimes topping 50 an hour.

So far, these have led nowhere. The most credible sighting remains a Wednesday report from a Sacramento motorist after a fender bender with a Ford Explorer matching the vehicle Soltys was believed to be driving.

The motorist said the green sport utility vehicle, with a young woman in her 20s behind the wheel, sped off carrying a man resembling Soltys.

Was it he? Is the woman an accomplice? A hostage?

"He is a mystery," said Sheriff's Sgt. James Lewis. "We're learning more as we go, but a lot is secondhand and innuendo and personal belief. There are very few confirmable facts about this guy. We've got a lot more questions than answers."

Added Capt. John McGuinness, a Sheriff's Department spokesman: "It's going to take, I think, some luck and real cooperation from the community [to catch him]. The biggest concern looming out there for me is victim No. 7."

Friends and relatives of the victims will gather today at a memorial service expected to draw a large crowd. Security will be extremely tight.

Meanwhile, the FBI, which added Soltys to its most wanted list, has called in its experts in criminal profiling at the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in Quantico, Va. By trying to figure out what makes Soltys tick, they hope to help investigators find him.

Independent criminologists say Soltys in some ways isn't following the usual pattern in an family massacre. Most such killers don't lead police on a long chase. Typically, the tragedy ends with the assailant, who is almost always male, committing suicide. Authorities acknowledge that Soltys may yet turn up dead.

But he fits the profile in several key ways: Those who know Soltys call him quiet, aloof, a chronic loser. He also reportedly has suffered bouts of mental instability and committed domestic violence.

Detectives are even investigating whether Monday's killer might have been on some mind-altering narcotic, though no such evidence has been unearthed.

Even before he arrived in the U.S., Soltys' life in a village in Ukraine's Ternopol region was marked by domestic violence. Such abuse ended his first marriage, authorities say. And his second marriage, to Lyubov, was apparently plagued by similar problems.

Lyubov's parents told a Ukrainian newspaper last week that Soltys had long seemed a threat. In 1998, they said, he went after Lyubov and their then-infant son, Sergey, with an ax.

The parents and police rushed in before blood was shed, according to the news report. But detectives say the episode apparently was not cataloged by Ukrainian police.

Soltys came to the U.S. three years ago under a program for refugees from the former Soviet Union. He joined his elderly parents in upstate New York while his wife stayed behind in Ukraine.

"He clearly fell through the cracks," said Walter Mueller of the Northern California Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that favors better checks of immigrants.

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials said they are satisfied with their screening process.

"We do attempt to prevent those who have demonstrated criminal behavior in the past," said Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesman. "Human nature can be hard to predict."

In America, Soltys' father died. Soltys and his mother remained in New York for a time, then moved to Sacramento about a year ago.

The state capital has long been a beacon for Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, particularly evangelical Christians. For decades, a Soviet expatriate in Sacramento broadcast shortwave Christian radio programs back to his homeland. Sacramento was one of the few American city names known to Baptists and Pentecostals in the atheistic Soviet Union.

Arriving in the California capital, Soltys joined an elderly aunt and uncle--Galina Kukharskaya and Petr Kukharskiy, both killed in the Monday rampage--in their modest duplex in a suburb, Rancho Cordova. More than a dozen strong, the extended family occupied several homes on Mills Station Road. They included two of Soltys' cousins, who lost two of their children in the attack: Tatyana Kukharskaya and Dimitriy Kukharskiy, both 9.

After the killings, disbelieving friends and family described Soltys as shy, a loner, a man who seemed nice enough. Subsequent interviews by detectives revealed a far darker side.

Though the characterizations sometimes conflict, authorities say they now believe that Soltys was at best a small-time conniver, a man who bilked or bullied elderly Ukrainians out of cash through a variety of scams.

Though unemployed and under pressure from his family to get a job, Soltys occasionally would peel off $20 bills and give them to Dimitriy and Tatyana.

Earlier this year, Soltys' wife came to America with their son, despite her parents' pleas that she stay in the old country. Soltys moved with Lyubov and Sergey into a sun-faded blue duplex at the mouth of a shallow cul-de-sac in North Highlands, another Sacramento County neighborhood. Family members say Lyubov, 22 and three months pregnant, told them all was fine with the marriage.

Still, a neighbor said Soltys was noticeably distant amid the tightknit Russian-speaking community in North Highlands, where people seem to have transferred some of the communal aspects of a Soviet apartment block to the low-slung suburbs.

"You talk to other Russians, they're very friendly, very open," said the neighbor, Lyudmila Ostashenko. "But him?" She nodded toward the duplex, its front doors still sheathed in plastic wrap and police tape. "It was like there was a wall."

Shaking her head in horrified disbelief, she concluded, "He must have had demons in him."

Her husband, Gennadiy, noted that neighbors thought it odd that Soltys didn't allow Lyubov to attend weekly prayer meetings held by women in the neighborhood.

"They had a very silent life," Gennadiy Ostashenko said in halting English. "Nothing go out of their house. . . . Like many Ukrainian women, she covered problems."

Investigators have repeatedly said they feel hamstrung by the fear in this immigrant community, where residents have a cultural mistrust of law enforcement that lingers from Soviet days.

Criticisms of Immigrant Community Resented

Romaso takes exception to such suggestions, saying Sacramento's Slavic community has done everything it can to help. He believes the investigators have only piled more ridicule on immigrants already feeling beat up by the tragedy and the explosive media coverage.

"This kind of makes me angry," he said.

David Ponomar, 32, is using every means at his disposal to get word out about the case. He oversees a compact multimedia command center for the Russian-speaking community that includes a newspaper called Diaspora, a radio talk show, a cable television show, a Web site--www.rusac.com--and a Russian-language video rental shop, all housed in a few small and cluttered rooms.

His latest effort is a videotape of Soltys' mother, Varvara. Her head covered in the traditional Russian shawl, she pleads with her son to turn himself in.

Ponomar said his brother and sister-in-law attended English classes with Soltys and came away with a sketchy but mild impression of him.

"My brother and his wife say he is a normal guy, absolutely," Ponomar said. "They can't say anything bad about him, only that he was a very closed person."

He noted that Soltys had been a shoemaker in Ukraine, where Ponomar was raised. Leather is extremely hard to legally purchase there, he said. "You must buy it illegally or steal it."

So shoemaking can be lucrative, he said, and shoemakers often have ties to the criminal underworld.

Investigators have no proof Soltys had links to criminal gangs, but they are looking into the possibility.

Criminologists suspect that Soltys is less career criminal than emotionally troubled loser, a man who lashed out at family members he saw as the source of his problems. A note in his handwriting on a family photo, found in a car he is believed to have abandoned Monday, suggested that the victims and their survivors had offended him.

His life hasn't been one of much success. In Ukraine, he was rejected by the military. In the U.S. he never seemed to land a job. He was taking language classes and talked of attending college, but Soltys was recently rejected for membership at a local church by leaders who found him suspicious.

Lyubov Soltys, meanwhile, planned to start a new job the day of the slayings. Mike Rustigan, a San Francisco State University criminology professor, said such a seemingly small shift in lifestyle could have triggered a seismic change in Soltys' view of the world.

If such a man "is not secure and doing well," Rustigan said, a traditional wife's move toward any kind of independence could be "extremely difficult for them."

Meanwhile, anxiety has spread to the far-flung enclaves of Russian and Ukrainian expatriates around the U.S., particularly those where Soltys has relatives.

In Charlotte, N.C., some of Soltys' kin have received police protection.

"We don't know him," said Nadia Soltys, a distant relative who lives with her husband in the Northwest. "But we are afraid of him."

*

Times staff writer Mitchell Landsberg contributed to this story.

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The Rampage and the Search

Authorities are still searching for Nikolay Soltys, 27, who they believe killed six family members.

* Aug. 20: Soltys, a Ukrainian immigrant with a reported history of violence and mental instability, allegedly stabs his pregnant wife to death in North Highlands, a suburb of Sacramento.

Police say he then drives to nearby Rancho Cordova, kills an elderly aunt and uncle and two young cousins.

He allegedly goes next to his mother's house and picks up his 3-year-old son. About 10:30 p.m., Soltys' car is found abandoned in Sacramento County.

* Aug. 21: Soltys' son, Sergey, is found dead in a cardboard box in a rural area outside Sacramento. Directions to the site come from a message scrawled on the back of a Soltys family photo found in the suspect's car, authorities say. FBI joins the case.

* Aug. 22: Investigators say the first hints of a motive appear in writings on the back of a second picture found in the suspect's car, suggesting that the victims or their survivors had wronged Soltys. Soltys is now driving a green and silver Ford Explorer, authorities believe. * Aug. 23: Soltys is added to the FBI's most wanted list.

Researched by TRACY THOMAS / Los Angeles Times

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