Murderous odds in Moscow

Crime: With only a cigarette butt and bloody footprint for clues, a young Moscow detective tracks down a killer.

March 20, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - A 55-year-old music teacher lay with his skull crushed in his Moscow apartment, and an 11-year- old student lay in the next room, stabbed through the heart. None of the neighbors heard anything. The only obvious clues that might lead to the murderers were a cigarette butt and a bloody footprint.

The odds were high that this would be another crime in Moscow to go unpunished.

All the statistics and trends seem to be conspiring against the innocent: Last year, the number of murders in the capital jumped 14 percent, according to the city's Bureau of Forensic Medicine. Officials say that about half of all serious crimes are solved, a percentage some experts believe to be wildly inflated.

Police are crippled by low pay, dismal morale, high turnover and endemic corruption. And crime victims and witnesses are afraid to come forward, out of fear police can't protect them.

Marina Alekseyeva, 43, a former police lieutenant colonel, says salaries are so low - about $90 a month for senior detectives - that about one in four officers turns to illegal sources of income. Some officers deliver drugs, weapons or stolen cars. Some organize their own gangs or work as enforcers for mafia chieftains, collecting debts and even committing contract killings.

"With the police," said Alekseyeva, now a best-selling detective novelist, "the professional nucleus has been destroyed."

So, the murder of the music teacher and his pupil might never have been solved. Except that the case was given to Capt. Dimitri Mironov, 27, a thin, intense young man with an idealistic streak and a dislike for people who kill children.

Forget that he looks like a poorly nourished literature student studying for final exams. Never mind that he lives in a single room in a university dormitory, because he can't afford an apartment. Mironov is one of the rising stars of the Moscow homicide squad, with an office in militia headquarters at 38 Petrovka St.

Mironov and other senior detectives in Russia typically don't go to crime scenes. Detectives usually don't interview witnesses or even interrogate suspects. They read reports and assign others to do their legwork.

But this double-murder intrigued Mironov, a specialist in serial killers.

Compared to many U.S. cities, Moscow is virtually crime-free; its homicide rate last year was about one-third that of Baltimore's. But there are far more murders here than in Soviet times. About one in five is a contract killing.

"Almost every day," Mironov said, "you read that a businessman was shot and the killer left the gun nearby, or that someone shot at a businessman's car with an AK-47."

Mironov went to the music teacher's apartment.

"When we entered, the sight was shocking," he recalled. "The walls were splattered with blood." The picture turned even uglier. The teacher, Viktor Kiryushin, was naked under his bathrobe. And he had a collection of more than 500 videotapes, some showing him having sex with his young students. Kiryushin, it turned out, had served time in prison for child molestation.

Seven detectives were assigned to the case, two from 38 Petrovka. They set up their headquarters in a local police precinct. They found smudged fingerprints at the crime scene, took samples of dried blood, found the cigarette butt and bloody footprint. It seemed like a pitiful haul.

The apartment was an incredible mess, with drawers pulled out and papers and clothes strewn everywhere. Mironov reached two conclusions. First, that someone was looking for something valuable. Second, that the mess was made by at least two intruders.

A search turned up an address book. Friends and acquaintances told police that Kiryushin, like many Russians, kept his life savings in $100 bills in his apartment. (Russians have learned not to trust banks or their nation's currency.) And Kiryushin was relatively wealthy. Friends said he had about $20,000 and some gold jewelry. All of it was missing.

The detectives turned to a usually reliable source - the building's concierge. Two young men had knocked on her door the night of the murders, asking where Kiryushin's apartment was, she remembered. But she didn't get their names, and gave police only a hazy description.

They questioned some of the students in the videotapes and found one who nervously recalled that Kiryushin would sometimes get visits from a man named Yuri, who was so threatening that he seemed crazy. That's all the student could tell them.

"It was very little information," said Mironov. "But we started to follow this direction."

Detectives began searching through databases of violent criminals with a history of psychiatric treatment. But the search led nowhere.

Kiryushin's phone records showed he had received a call the night of the murders from a cell phone registered to a woman living in a Moscow suburb, a neighborhood that is home to a state psychiatric clinic. Local police questioned the woman, who turned out to be a psychiatric nurse.

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