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Relative flew antidote to Moscow

Times Staff Writers

It was about a week after their arrival in Moscow that Marina Kovalevsky and her daughter Yana began feeling sick.

First, stomachache and diarrhea. Then headaches followed by shortness of breath. Within a day, they were in excruciating pain, particularly in their legs, said Leon Peck, Marina Kovalevsky’s brother, Thursday.

The women went to a hospital. Worried doctors immediately sent them to a special institute for the treatment of poisonings. There, doctors gave them hemodialysis and took blood and urine samples. But their conditions did not improve.

Test results confirmed that the women were suffering from thallium poisoning. Doctors told Peck that they were not sure that they would survive.

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The hospital had no Prussian Blue, one of the few known antidotes to thallium poisoning.

So Peck, a Beverly Hills oral surgeon, decided to go to Russia himself. He purchased about $2,000 worth of Prussian Blue, a drug derived from a blue dye used by artists and manufacturers, from a Santa Ana pharmacy and flew to Moscow, where he administered the drug to the Kovalevskys.

The day before, Marina, a 49-year-old internist who is prominent in the Russian community in Los Angeles, had called him on her cellphone, sounding distraught.

“She was crying. She was saying, ‘Please take us home, please take us home,’ ” Peck said.

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After he administered the Prussian Blue, which absorbs thallium from the body, their health seemed to immediately improve. By Wednesday, they were well enough to return to Los Angeles. They now are in the critical care unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

But the family was left with one question: Why were they poisoned? The women are not politically active and have no business ties to Russia, Peck said.

“There was no reason in the world to poison Marina and Yana,” Peck said. “They were not involved in anything at all.”

Marina and Yana, 26, went to the 50th birthday party of friends soon after arriving in Moscow on Feb. 15. They planned to stay for a wedding later in the month. Peck said the women spent the week before their illness sightseeing, visiting museums, attending the theater and visiting friends.

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The two women spent most of their time apart, although they returned every night to the Marriott hotel near Red Square. Three days before they got sick, they had breakfast at a hotel restaurant, Peck said. Health experts said it takes between 12 and 48 hours for symptoms of thallium poisoning to appear.

Moscow police have told the Russian media that detectives believe that the poisoning might be tied to the theft of jewelry from the women.

But Peck disputed that statement. “Nothing was stolen,” he said. “It’s just an excuse to cover it up.”

Peck arranged to fly the three of them back to Los Angeles. But he could not get their passports because the authorities had sealed the hotel room out of fear that the poison would spread.

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Meanwhile, police and at least one man who said he was from Russia’s intelligence service showed up to interrogate Marina and her daughter about how they had been poisoned. Their hospital room was guarded by armed police officers, Peck said.

Peck frantically contacted the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, representatives from the Los Angeles office of Rep. Howard Berman and family friends for assistance.

When the Russian investigators learned that Peck planned to fly the Kovalevskys out of the country Wednesday, they allowed them to leave the hospital and unsealed their hotel room.

Peck said the doctors at the Moscow institute tried to convince him that the poisoning had happened in Los Angeles.

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The plight of the women was the latest in a string of poisonings to rock Russia.

Thallium is a toxic metal used as a catalyst in certain metal alloys, optical lenses, jewelry and semiconductors, as well as in dyes and pigments. Compounds that contain the metal have been used as rat poison and insecticide, which is one of the most common sources of human thallium poisoning. The late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used thallium against his enemies.

Alexander Litvinenko, a former spy for Russia and a vocal critic of that nation’s leaders, fell ill in London last year and died three weeks after being hospitalized with what doctors first suspected was thallium poisoning. Later tests showed he had received a lethal dose of polonium-210.

FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said Thursday that the agency was “in the initial stages” of a criminal investigation into the Kovalevskys’ case in conjunction with Moscow police and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

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Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, Los Angeles County’s public health director, said the FBI had asked his agency to assist in the investigation. Fielding said his agency had experience in investigating radiological and chemical exposures, but he would not comment further.

Peck said that both women were happy to be back home, but that they were still very weak, becoming exhausted after speaking for only five minutes. They hope that the hospital will get toxicological testing results as early as today.

Meanwhile, still a little sleep-deprived and anxious, Peck has returned to work in Beverly Hills.

“So far,” he said, “it’s a happy ending.”

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charles.proctor@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II and Paul Pringle contributed to this report.

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