The New Melones Lake, a reservoir near the city of Modesto, is in a quiet, rural area in central California. The reservoir resembles a river more than a lake as it winds its way among the hills of Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.
The reservoir is a popular fishing area, but in the middle of March its catch of the day wasn't fish: It was four decomposed bodies of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were kidnapped from the Los Angeles area.
The grim discovery sent waves of shock and disbelief through the Los Angeles Russian-speaking community. It was as if a violent script of a Hollywood movie was suddenly real. A kidnapping plot involving millions of dollars, exotic countries sheltering criminals and serving as transfer points for the ransoms, players within the movie industry, and, finally, four -- maybe five -- brutal murders that made no sense. As more information becomes available and wild rumors embellish what is known, the immigrants are concerned with yet another issue: labels.
"The media will start talking about the Russian Mafia again," said a prominent physician. "In Russia we were not Russians, we were Jews. Here, to the media, to the Americans, we are all the same, we are all 'Russians.' People don't realize that so many of the Russian-speaking immigrants are not Jewish, that there are so many non-Jews -- Christians, Muslims, whatever -- who have come here. And now we will all be tarred with the same brush -- we will all be Russian mafia."
Helen Levin, the director of the West Hollywood Russian Community Center agreed. "Of the four victims that were found last week, two were Jewish, two were not. Of those arrested, just one appears to be Jewish -- the others are Lithuanian, Ukrainian and non-Jewish Russian. But it doesn't matter -- they will say that it was the 'Russians' and we will all be suspect."
The story began over a year ago when two individuals came to Los Angeles from Moscow. They wanted to produce a motion picture about Murat, a legendary rebel who fought the Russians when the czar conquered the Caucasus Mountains region. The visitors claimed to have $50 million for the budget.
They met with several of the better-known Hollywood producers, directors and actors, but when it became obvious that the pair had a lot less than $50 million -- just $15 million is the figure spoken of now -- the project was abandoned. One of the Russians returned home, the other decided that he liked California and wanted to stay here. His name was Georgy Safiev.
One of the people Safiev approached for help was Rita Pekler, an accountant who helped Safiev get a permanent residence permit, establish a business and buy an expensive home in Beverly Hills.
Meanwhile, Safiev kept trying to penetrate the movie industry. He too was seen as a Russian by the Americans he met, but he was neither Russian nor Jewish. His background was Lesghin -- one of the many ethnicities in the Caucasus Mountains -- and he became friendly with another family whose roots were in the Caucasus -- the famous Georgian movie star, the beautiful Rusiko Kiknadze (a relative of Georgia's President Eduard Shevarnadze) and her 29-year-old son, Nick Kharabadze. Kiknadze's husband, a specialist in motion picture technology both in Russia and in the United States, Matvey (Mat) Shatz was the only Jew in this group.
Nick was a very talented, charismatic USC graduate and an aspiring movie producer. He apparently persuaded Safiev to bankroll a movie he wanted to produce. He shared the news with his good friend Alex Umansky, another young man with hopes of a career in the film industry, and the two of them told anyone who would listen about Nick's windfall. The story of Safiev's wealth -- money he had brought with him from Russia -- and Nick's fortune, apparently excited the four men who are currently being charged in the New Melones murders. Ainar Altmanas (the only one with a Jewish surname), Jurijus Kadamovas (a Lithuanian), Petro Krylov (a Ukrainian) and Yuri Mikhel (unknown background) are charged with kidnapping Georgy Safiev on Jan. 20, Umansky on Dec. 13, and Pekler and Kharabadze in early December.
Pekler was still alive after Dec. 5 when she called Safiev and asked to see him right away -- Safiev was about to get on a plane and couldn't see her. Kharabadze also made a phone call after disappearing. He called his home to say that he was OK, in Las Vegas and not to worry. A little later he apparently withdrew a large sum of money from his bank account. A surveillance tape shows him being accompanied by a man who was watching him very closely.
The kidnappers allegedly demanded a $5 million ransom for Safiev and $250,000 for Umansky. At least $1 million of the ransom was allegedly transferred from Moscow to the United Arab Emirates and Dubai, the location of two other suspects, Andrei Augeev and Andrei Liapine, who were allegedly supposed to remit that money to the kidnappers.
One of the mysteries in the case is the death of a nonimmigrant, Meyer Muscatel of Sherman Oaks, a religious Jew, a real estate developer and a man who dreamed of setting up learning centers for disabled children. The fact that his body was found floating in New Melones Lake and that Pekler was the accountant for both Muscatel and Safiev are the only connections between his death on Oct. 13 and the disappearances of the four immigrants two to three months later.
The trial of the four kidnapping suspects and their alleged accomplices is sure to be a media circus. We can only hope that it will not serve to generate anti-immigrant feelings against the law-abiding Russian-speaking community.