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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Emigre Murder Case Goes to Jury

LOS ANGELES -- He was a glasnost entrepreneur trying to forge a new future out of the ruins of post-Soviet Russia. Now, the Russian immigrant to California's San Fernando Valley is trying to convince a U.S. 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 lake.

The jury is expected to begin deliberating Tuesday 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.

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 close-knit Russian emigre community in the Valley, just east of Los Angeles.

But defense attorneys argue that the federal probe has netted the wrong people. The murders, they say, were committed by underlings, who 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.

Prosecutors gave this account:

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 San Fernando Valley real estate developer whom the pair targeted because of his financial success. Using cell phones 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 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.

Later, the plotters gathered in the kitchen to scrutinize a map. They spotted a northern California reservoir, the New Melones Reservoir near Sonora.

A long drive, which prosecutors chronicled by means of traced cell phone calls, took them to a bridge across the reservoir. The body of Muscatel was thrown in but floated to the surface.

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 was killed. After he died, members of the conspiracy continued to demand cash from the family.

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 an amphibious man.

Kadamovas' girlfriend, Natalya Solovyeva, posed as a Russian mystery woman -- "Natalya from Moscow" -- to lure the filmmaker to Kadamovas' fish tank business on Ventura Boulevard, supposedly to talk movies.

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 police officer stopped one van while one of the hostages was alive inside; the officer did not notice and let the vehicle go on.

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 prison, federal agents said.

On the stand, Mikhel, a wealthy businessman who speaks several languages, took pains to show his mastery of finance. With his helmet of silver hair and a tan, open-necked shirt, he looked the part of a globe-trotting entrepreneur. His testimony sometimes sounded like a lecture on post-Soviet economics. But when it came to the cross-examination, the professional clammed up. His testimony was stricken from the record because of his refusal to submit to questions.

The trial closed with his chair empty.