And no one heard the victims scream

April 21, 1993|By Neely Tucker | Neely Tucker,Knight-Ridder News Service

Title: "The Killer Department."

Author: Robert Cullen.

Publisher: Pantheon.

Length, price: 258 pages, $22.

In southwestern Russia, city planners often left small parcels of woodlands undisturbed when cities moved outward. Maybe 50 yards wide, they were called lesopolosa, an amalgamation of words for "forest" and "strip," and they were intended to be little breaks from urban sprawl.

It didn't work out that way. Weary workers began using them for city dumps, a place to toss their trash.

In 1982, someone began using the lesopolosa for his own brand of garbage -- the mutilated corpses of young women and children.

He was a stunningly successful killer. During the next eight years, he would brutally murder at least 53 children, often within earshot of major roads or bus stops, and all within a 200-mile radius. He never -- never -- left a finger- or footprint, a trail, or even a witness.

The case stretches credulity. He tortured his victims, raped them, sliced their eyes out and slashed out their sexual organs with a kitchen knife. And nobody ever reported hearing a scream or seeing a bloody, disheveled man.

So secretive was Andrei Chikatilo, a married father of two, that when police finally stumbled across him in 1990, they only knew of a little more than half of his murders -- despite having hundreds of officers working the case.

"The Killer Department," written by Robert Cullen, a former Moscow bureau chief for Newsweek, is one of three recent books about the maddening eight-year search. Cullen often pauses to comment on how the disintegrating nature of communist Russia slowed the investigation, and these vignettes do much to explain how police remained so ineffective for so long.

Of course, serial killers in the United States can also make detectives look like fools -- witness John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. But in a repressed society where police forbid psychiatrists to evaluate the killer, where police departments had no computer crime network and where media outlets reported nothing about a serial killer, Chikatilo flourished.

Plus, most of the Russian cops portrayed here were just plain incompetent.

Police knew the killer was picking up victims along a train line. They decided on risky plan -- they would put hundreds of cops at all but three remote stations. The killer would be forced to use those three stops to entice his victims off the train. The catch: They'd have undercover cops at the target stations, 24 hours a day.

The killer took the bait.

And murdered at least two more victims before Russian cops caught on.

How did he evade the trap? Well, the undercover guys needed lunch breaks . . .

"The Killer Department" stops short of being social commentary, but it works exceedingly well as crime reportage. Cullen does a fine job of revealing Chikatilo's nature. It is possible, despite the monstrosity of his crimes, to feel pity for the man.

When a detective asked Chikatilo why he slashed his victims' eyes out, he at first said it was because of the Russian superstition that a view of the killer remains on a victim's eyes.

But later, Chikatilo said it was for his own peace of mind:

"It was terrible to see her gaze," he said.

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