Victims’ Families Sentenced to Silence
Day after day, the aging Ukrainian couple has stepped into a federal courtroom in downtown Los Angeles to endure a severe test of wills: listening to the details of their son Alexander’s killing while containing their emotions.
They sit stoically in the front, Elisabeth Umansky with her jaw set and hands clasped, her husband Ruven with his head back, peering through his bifocals. When a key witness tells of pulling a rope tight around Alexander’s neck and of a plastic bag being sucked into his nostrils, Elisabeth lets out a deep sigh, closes her eyes and folds forward. Ruven squeezes her shoulder.
But they stay put, taking in every detail as if to recover lost moments with their son.
The couple and five other relatives of the victims had to fight to win the right to attend the trial of the two men accused of kidnapping and murdering their son and four other Los Angeles business people.
Iouri Mikhel and Jurijus Kadamovas are accused of luring the five victims to their upscale San Fernando Valley homes in 2001 and 2002, holding them for ransom, killing them and dumping their bodies in a reservoir in the Sierra foothills. Prosecutors say the conspiracy was, in part, directed by organized crime figures in Russia. The defendants face the death penalty.
Before the trial began Sept. 6, U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian banned the victims’ relatives from court, both because they might be called as witnesses later and because the presence of tearful and emotional relatives could prejudice the jury against the defendant.
The Umanskys and other relatives begged Tevrizian to reconsider. “We have been patient and cooperative, and the possibility of not attending this trial brings us inexplicable pain,” they wrote in a letter. “Please allow us to ease a bit of suffering and have questions looming over us answered.”
Prosecutors appealed the ruling and won, arguing that a 2004 congressional act gave victims and family members explicit rights to attend trials.
The issue is particularly relevant because last week, the U.S. Supreme Court took up a case that also involves courtroom expressions by a victim’s relatives. The case stems from a 1995 murder conviction in San Jose, which was overturned by an appeals court because three relatives of the victim wore buttons with small photos of him in court.
In the Los Angeles case, Tevrizian has admonished family members to remain composed.
That became a particularly wrenching test in recent days as Ainar Altmanis took the stand and laid out a step-by-step account of the abductions and deaths. His testimony is expected to continue today.
Altmanis is the U.S. attorney’s key witness in the trial, having admitted to taking part in the murder conspiracy. He entered into a plea agreement in 2002 to avoid the death sentence in exchange for life in prison. The defense is expected to attack his credibility and attempt to pin the murders on him alone.
As he spoke last week, the victims’ families took in every word they could endure. They convulsed and squinted hard to hold back the tears. When it was too much to bear, they left the room and shuffled back in later. And they watched the man accused of masterminding all of this, Mikhel, 41, gaze around, sometimes at them, with arched eyebrows and an unreadable expression.
The Umanskys sat stone-faced through most of the testimony. Their son Alexander, 35, owned a car electronics business and, according to prosecutors, was lured to Kadamovas’ home in Sherman Oaks in December 2001 with the prospect of installing high-end electronic equipment in Mikhel’s Range Rover.
Holding a pistol with a silencer and a stun gun, they seized him the moment he came through the door, handcuffed him and tied his legs to a chair with flex ties, Altmanis testified. Eventually he was told to contact his family to get a ransom of $234,000. Over four days, Ruven and Elisabeth and their other son, Michael, collected money from relatives and managed to transfer it to an account in the United Arab Emirates. Then the calls just stopped.
They called the FBI, which eventually traced the money to the defendants, prosecutors alleged. But the Umanskys did not learn of Alexander’s fate until his body was dredged from the frigid depths of the New Melones Reservoir three months later.
Now in court, they heard Altmanis’ account of what happened: How terrified and pale Alexander was, and how he was killed even as the defendants promised to keep him alive to get the last payments.
“There was this voice of Mikhel so sharp and so fast like a thundercloud, telling Umansky to open his mouth,” Altmanis said.
The Umanskys’ faces tightened in agony, and Ruven put his arm around his wife. Mikhel’s jaw muscles flexed as he stared at his onetime friend. Altmanis continued: Mikhel shoved plastic bags in his mouth and pulled another bag tight over his head, as Kadamovas held his nostrils shut. When that didn’t work, he said, Mikhel and Altmanis wrapped a rope around his neck and pulled with all their might.
Even after all that, it looked as though Alexander was still breathing, Altmanis testified.
“Mikhel said, ‘No, it happens sometimes. He still has air in his body.’ So he kicked him and the air went out and the motion stopped.”
Nancy Muscatel’s husband met a similar fate in October 2001. Meyer Muscatel, a Sherman Oaks real estate developer, didn’t come home from work one night, and for five months his wife had no idea what happened. Now, she said, she needed to hear the details of his final days.
“It’s like needing to go through it with him,” she said. “And be there in a way ... so he wouldn’t be alone.”
According to prosecutors, he had been lured into captivity by the prospect of a real estate deal and spent two days tied to a chair at Mikhel’s Encino home.
Altmanis said he often guarded Muscatel and at one point made himself a ham sandwich and offered one to his captive.
“He smelled it and asked what it was,” Altmanis testified. “He said he didn’t eat it because he ate only kosher.”
In the second row, Nancy Muscatel’s eyes welled up -- with mingled pride and longing, she would say later -- and she squeezed them closed.
Altmanis testified that Mikhel realized Muscatel didn’t have much money, and they couldn’t get to the money he did have. He was of no use anymore.
When Altmanis went back to the house the next morning, he testified, the defendants were strangling Muscatel.
As he described the killing, Nancy Muscatel began to shake. Her two adult daughters bent over and wept in silence.
“Mikhel was pressing with knees on Muscatel’s shoulders,” Altmanis continued. “The bag was over Muscatel’s head. He was clogging the ends of the bag so the air would not get inside.”
Nancy Muscatel stood quietly, walked out of the courtroom and returned several minutes later to hear of her husband’s body being thrown off the Parrotts Ferry Bridge.
But at the end of the day, Nancy Muscatel clung to the image of her husband refusing to eat the ham sandwich. “He wasn’t going to give in,” she said. “He wasn’t going to compromise his values. That was Meyer.”