Victims of Russian mob said to be from Los Angeles

By Paul Wilborn,The Associated Press
Thursday March 21, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Five people whose bodies were pulled from a reservoir near Sacramento were Los Angeles area residents who were abducted, blackmailed and killed by Russian mobsters, the U.S. attorney said Thursday. 

The victims included two filmmakers, an accountant, an electronics executive and a home builder. More than $5.5 million in ransom was demanded of relatives, U.S. Attorney spokesman Thom Mrozek said. 

Mat Shatz, the stepfather of one victim, called the alleged kidnappers “bad people who come to this country, who are impatient and want to have money.” 

Six men of Russian descent were in custody, all without bond, charged in indictments with hostage-taking or receiving ransom money. Four are scheduled to go to trial April 30, two have already pleaded innocent and are scheduled to go on trial April 9. 

One victim, Meyer Muscatel, a wealthy San Fernando Valley homebuilder, was identified earlier. His body was found floating in 200-foot-deep New Melones Lake on Oct. 18, his hands bound and a plastic bag over his head. 

On Sunday, divers found Alexander Umansky, 35, of Sherman Oaks, and Georgy Safiev, 37, of Beverly Hills, said FBI spokesman Nick Rossi. 

On Monday, the body of Nick Kharabadze, 29, of Woodland Hills was found and accountant Rita Pekler, 39, of Encino, was recovered Tuesday, he said. 

Muscatel was suffocated, but the FBI has not provided a cause of death for the other four. 

Umansky and Pekler vanished in December, the other two in January, authorities and relatives said. 

Iouri Mikhel and Jurijus Kadamovas threatened to kill their victims if ransom demands were not met, while Petro Krylov and Ainar Altmanis allegedly “aided and abetted” the plot, the indictment charges. 

Andrei Agueev and Andrei Liapine were arrested last month and accused helping to transfer $240,000 in ransom paid to the kidnappers for Umansky’s release. 

Agueev’s defense lawyer, Victor Sherman, alleges the U.S. government “kidnapped” the Dubai businessman from his home. Liapine is a Russian citizen who lived in the United Arab Emirates. 

Agueev was helping a friend who wanted to open a business bank account, Sherman said Thursday. “He is totally innocent and the government has no evidence to indicate that any funds sent to his bank account came from any kidnapping.” 

Krylov worked for Umansky for 18 months at Hard Wired Auto Accessories before being fired in 2001, Mrozek said. 

Federal authorities have “very little evidence linking (Krylov) to these events,” Krylov’s attorney, George Buehler, said. 

The day he disappeared, Umansky told employees he was going to meet a client to demonstrate electronic equipment. That was Dec. 13. 

Umansky’s father found three copies of a ransom note faxed to his son’s business demanding $234,628. Umansky’s brother, who lives in San Francisco, received a copy of the fax the same day. 

All the faxes were sent from Russia, Mrozek said. 

Umansky’s family wired $90,000 to a bank in New York on Dec. 17. Umansky called his brother that day asking if the money had been sent. 

For two weeks, the kidnappers threatened to kill Umansky if the rest of the ransom wasn’t paid, Mrozek said. On Dec. 27, the family wired $146,000 that was later traced to an account in the Middle East. 

Authorities say the account was controlled by Argueev and Liapine. 

Some of the ransom money was wired to a Bank of America account in Studio City, Mrozek said, noting Mikhel and Kadamovas were signatories on that account. 

Three victims — Safiev, Kharabadze and Pekler — knew each other. Safiev and Kharabadze co-owned the Matador Media film production company, while Pekler did accounting work for the company. 

Safiev disappeared on Jan. 20. He called his company on Jan. 24 and answered “yes” when asked if he had been kidnapped, Mrozek said. 

According to the indictment, Mikhel and Kadamovas abducted Safiev in an effort to force a business associate to pay $5 million in ransom. 

At their home in Los Angeles, Kharabadze’s family said he was a University of Southern California graduate who moved from former Soviet Republic of Georgia when he was 17. 

He shared a house with his stepfather, Shatz, and his mother, Russian actress Rusiko Kiknadze. 

Kiknadze fell to the floor sobbing Thursday. 

“Do these murderers have mothers?” she said in Russian, as family members tried to console her. 

Shatz said the family never received any ransom demands from kidnappers. 

According to his family, Kharabadze worked as a sound editor on a number of films, including “Air Force One,” in which the U.S. president’s plane is hijacked by Russian dissidents. 

Pekler, the mother of a young son, owned an accounting company with a number of small business clients including Matador Media, employee Nelli Faktrovich said. 

Faktrovich last saw her boss on Dec. 5 as Pekler left for a lunch appointment with a client. 

Russian criminals often work in family groups or clans. Extortion, financial scams and other frauds are common. They are not connected in a chain-of-command organization like American crime syndicates. 

The criminal networks are often broken down along ethnic or religious lines, said Dr. Louise Shelley, an international crime expert at American University in Washington, D.C. 


Eds: AP Writer Christina Almeida contributed to this report.