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Emigres’ murder case goes to jury

Times Staff Writer

He was a glasnost entrepreneur trying to forge a new future out of the ruins of post-Soviet Russia. Now, the Russian immigrant to the San Fernando Valley is trying to convince a federal jury that his resourceful style of communist-busting capitalism did not turn into a kidnap-for-ransom murder scheme that ended with five bodies in a Sierra lake.

The jury is expected to begin deliberating today whether Iouri Mikhel and co-defendant Jurijus Kadamovas were responsible for the deaths of the five victims, who were strangled with flexible ties or smothered with plastic bags, their heads bound with duct tape, their bodies tossed into a remote Northern California reservoir in the dead of night.

Mikhel, 42, and Kadamovas, 40, face possible death sentences for their alleged roles in what prosecutors say was a grisly conspiracy carried out partly in a posh Tudor home in a hillside neighborhood of Encino. The alleged plot links international money launderers and local muscle-for-hire, Russian organized crime and Valley real estate barons, a phony front man named “Raul” and a temptress dubbed “Natalya from Moscow.”

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For ill-gotten gains that included mink coats, a Mercedes-Benz and a pair of purebred Dobermans, prosecutors say, Mikhel and Kadamovas planned an elaborate set of crimes carried out against members of the Valley’s close-knit Russian emigre community.

After they were arrested, they allegedly hatched an equally elaborate plot to escape from the federal jail in downtown Los Angeles, going so far as to pull a hydraulic pump up to their cells on a string.

But defense attorneys argue that the federal probe has netted the wrong people. Slender, erudite Mikhel -- a “magician” and “moneyman,” according to his attorneys -- would not have dirtied his hands with a clumsy and brutal murder scheme, they argued.

As for Kadamovas, a squatter version of Vladimir Lenin, with a goatee, shiny pate and owlish wire-rim glasses, defense attorneys say the one-time vacuum cleaner salesman was only Mikhel’s lackey, handling his errands and paperwork in the hope that the latter would invest in his burgeoning fish tank business.

The two men’s defense attorneys, though sometimes at odds, agree on one point: The murders were committed by underlings who got out of hand, then cut deals with prosecutors to escape harsh punishment.

“We are about to enter a world that none of us can begin to fathom,” Mikhel’s defense attorney Richard Callahan told the jury, acknowledging the trial’s bizarre and tragic aspects. “If it were a movie, none of us would believe it.”

Prosecutors gave this account of the events that led to five homicides:

Mikhel met Kadamovas when the latter was working for a moving company. Over time, their friendship turned into a criminal partnership that pivoted on a plot in late 2001 to kidnap people for ransom.

They hired local muscle, including Ainar Altmanis, a Latvian fencer of stolen goods who told them he had no problem squeezing debtors for money.

Their first victim was Meyer Muscatel, a Valley real estate developer whom the pair targeted because of his financial success. Using cellphones obtained under false names, they lured Muscatel to Mikhel’s hillside Encino home by suggesting that they wanted to talk to him about a real estate deal.

Then they stopped at Home Depot and bought what prosecutors called a “kidnapping kit”: red duct tape, two kinds of gloves, plastic ties and gauzy boot covers, purchased with Mikhel’s credit card.

When Muscatel walked in the front door, the kidnappers jumped on him. They kept him in a room and tried to take money out of his bank accounts. But the plan was foiled when the bank demanded an in-person visit. So they tackled Muscatel on the floor of the garage, wrapping duct tape around his head and sitting on him. Then, according to the testimony of Altmanis, Mikhel twisted a bag around his head until he suffocated.

Afterward, the plotters gathered in the kitchen to scrutinize a map of the state. They spotted a remote Northern California reservoir, the New Melones Reservoir near Sonora, north of Yosemite.

A long drive, which prosecutors chronicled by means of traced cellphone calls, took them to a high narrow bridge across the remote reservoir. The body of Muscatel, whose blood was found on the bridge, was thrown in and later floated to the surface, to be discovered by a local boater.

Similar strategies were used with their next four victims: a financial consultant named Rita Pekler, whom they hoped to use to lure a wealthy client into their clutches. But it didn’t work. So they killed her, prosecutors said, and made another trip to the reservoir.

Next was Alexander Umansky, whose business was installing high-end equipment in cars. Tall and striking-looking with long blond hair, Umansky had what friends described as an ebullient, outgoing personality. He gladly met with Kadamovas to fix up a car. He too was kidnapped, prosecutors said, and over four agonizing days, his family tried to negotiate his release, turning over tens of thousands of dollars to the kidnappers.

The Umansky family contacted police. But the FBI was unable to locate Umansky before he too was killed. After he died, members of the conspiracy continued to call the family demanding money.

The kidnappers’ attention soon fixed on a Russian businessman named George Safiev, a Beverly Hills magnate who had paired with a would-be filmmaker named Nick Kharabadze, 29, to make a movie of a famous Russian story about an amphibious man.

Kadamovas’ girlfriend, Natalya Solovyeva, posed as a Russian mystery woman -- “Natalya from Moscow” -- to lure the young filmmaker to Kadamovas’ fish tank business near Woodman Avenue on Ventura Boulevard, supposedly for a Hollywood meeting.

The young man walked in to find himself surrounded by men with guns and was handcuffed to a chair. He was ordered to call Safiev and lure him to the business with the promise of Golden Globe party tickets.

The kidnappers drove Safiev and Kharabadze to the reservoir. A Sonora police officer pulled over one of the vans while one of the hostages was alive inside, but the officer didn’t notice and let the vehicle go on its way.

Only in early 2002 did federal agents unravel the conspiracy. Upon arrest, the henchmen turned informants. All still face state charges and possible life terms in federal prison, according to federal agents.

While they awaited trial, Mikhel and Kadamovas’ escape plan from jail was revealed. They had bribed a fellow inmate to help smuggle in equipment, prosecutors said, and Mikhel had begun a hole in the wall of his cell when they were caught.

On the stand, Mikhel, a wealthy international businessman who speaks several languages, took pains to demonstrate his mastery of global finance. With his thick helmet of silver hair parted on the side and a tan open-necked shirt, he looked the part of a globe-trotting European entrepreneur.

His testimony sometimes sounded like a lecture on the post-Soviet economy. He described a world in which, overnight, everything that had once been illegal was legal and the lines between lawful business and practical necessity were hopelessly blurred. He described his rise from a scrap-metal smuggler to a sophisticated trader of rare metals. “A professional criminal,” his lawyer called him.

But when it came time for the prosecution to cross-examine him, the professional clammed up. His testimony was stricken from the record because of his refusal to submit to questions. After that, he refused to even leave his cell to come to court.

The trial closed with his chair empty. “We are not asking you to like him,” his attorney, Callahan, told the jury at the trial’s close. But he argued that Mikhel was “too smart, too sophisticated” to knowingly leave the huge mountains of evidence prosecutors assembled in the case: phone records, bank records, even a receipt from Home Depot.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Robert Dugdale painted a different picture, showing gruesome pictures of the victims’ bodies, wrapped in plastic and duct tape and recovered from the lake.

The defendants, he told the jury, are guilty of “unmitigated greed and boundless viciousness.”

jill.leovy@latimes.com


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