First HintsThe first body found was mostly bones. A man looking for firewood in the lesopolosa, a rectangular “shelterbelt” or forested strip of land planted to prevent erosion, found the remains. While the area was only about 50 yards wide, with a path running through it, no one had seen this body until it was pretty well decomposed. There were small patches of leathered skin on some of the bones and some black hair hanging from the skull. The man who found the remains reported them to the militsia, the local authorities in this southern region of Russia
The body had no identifying clothing and had been left on its back, the head turned to one side. The ears were still sufficiently intact to see tiny holes for earrings, and those, along with the length of the hair, suggested that this victim had been female. It also appeared from her postmortem posture that she had tried to fight her attacker. It appeared that two ribs had been broken, perhaps by a knife, and closer inspection indicated numerous stab wounds into the bone. A knife had apparently cut into the eye sockets, too, as if to remove the eyes, and similar gouges were viewed in the pelvic region.
Whoever had done this, the police thought, had been a frenzied beast.
They did have a report on a missing 13-year-old girl, Lyubov Biryuk from Novocherkassk, a village not far away. Investigators called the uncle of the missing girl who had done an extensive search for her after she’d disappeared earlier in the month. He came to where the body lay to look at the remains.
Lyubov’s uncle, perhaps clutching to some small glimpse of hope, said his niece’s hair was not as dark and that the bones looked to him as if they had been there longer than she had been missing.
A few hours later, Major Mikhail Fetisov arrived from militsia headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, the closest large city. He was the leading detective, or syshchik, for the entire region. He asked for records of other missing persons in the area and ordered military cadets in training to search the surrounding woods. He also ordered the remaining skin on the hands be fingerprinted.The next day, the searchers found a white sandal and yellow bag containing the brand of cigarettes that the young girl had set out to purchase. Then fingerprints of the corpse and the schoolgirl’s book covers confirmed that this body was Lyubov’s. DNA analysis for body identification was several years away, but from what evidence they had, they could be sure it was the missing girl. The medical examiner hypothesized that warm temperatures and heavy rain had afforded the accelerated state of decomposition.
Despite a thorough search around the remains, no evidence was produced that could help to identify the person who had killed her, and the dress that Lyubov had worn was missing. That meant that no trace evidence could be collected from it. It was thought to be a random attack, nearly impossible to solve.
According to Robert Cullen, author of a well-known book on the case, most murders in that area of Russia fell into one of two categories: intimate killings, in which a person got into a rage or a drunken state and murdered someone he knew, usually a family member; and instrumental murders done to take something from the victim. But no one in the girl’s family was a clear suspect and she’d had nothing of any value on her person.
There was a path near the body that people traveled often, and a road only 75 yards away. This had been a crime of some risk, with evidence of overkill. Although sexual crimes were considered manifestations of self-indulgent Western societies, there were plenty of signs that this incident had been just such a killing.
It became clear later from the autopsy report that she had been attacked from behind and hit hard in the head with both the handle and the blade of a knife. Perhaps she’d been knocked out right away. At any rate, she had been stabbed at least 22 separate times and mutilated in other ways. (In Hunting the Devil, told by Richard Lourie partly from the killer’s perspective, the number of wounds was 41.)
The police came up with ideas and began looking for possible suspects: those who were mentally ill, juvenile delinquents, or someone with a history of sex crimes. They tried to find out whom Lyubov had known and how she might have encountered this killer.
One man, convicted in another rape, learned that he was a suspect and promptly hanged himself. That seemed to put an end to the investigation. There were no other viable suspects, and for all they knew, the killer had found his own form of redemption.
But then another victim was discovered.
The Division of Especially Serious CrimesLess than two months after the discovery of Lyubov’s remains, a railroad worker who was walking near the train station for Shakhty, a small industrial town 20 miles away, came across a set of skeletal remains. It appeared to have been there for approximately six weeks and was soon identified as an adult woman. The body had been stripped, left facedown, with the legs open. What made investigators take note was a key similarity with the murder of Lyubov: multiple stab wounds and lacerated eye sockets. That was a rare manifestation of murder.
Since no one of this approximate size and gender had been reported missing, no identification was made.
Only a month later, a soldier gathering wood about 10 miles south of that spot came across more remains, also of a woman lying face down. She had been covered with branches, but close inspection showed the pattern of knife wounds and damage to the eye sockets. She, too, remained unknown.
The linkage was obvious. A serial killer had claimed at least three victims. But no one was admitting that, especially not to the press. Officially what they had were three separate unsolved murders. (They actually had seven that year, Richard Lourie says, but they would not know that for some time to come.)
Major Fetisov organized a task force of 10 men to start an aggressive full-time investigation. He intended to get to the heart of this and stop this maniac from preying on any more female citizens. Among those he recruited was a second lieutenant from the criminology laboratory named Viktor Burakov, 37, and his perspective is presented in Cullen’s book. He was the best man they had for the analysis of physical evidence like fingerprints, footprints, and other manifestations at a crime scene, and he was an expert in both police science and the martial arts. Known for his diligence, he was invited aboard the Division of Especially Serious crimes in January 1983. Little did anyone realize then just how diligent he would prove to be… and would have to be.
That same month, a fourth victim was found. She appeared to have been killed about six months earlier and was near the area where the second set of remains was discovered. She, too, had the familiar knife wounds, but some female clothing was found nearby and assumed to be hers. She was possibly a teenager.All they knew at this point was that the killer—whom they now called the Maniac—did not smoke (or he’d have taken the cigarettes found near Lyubov), and that he was a man. He had some issue with eyes, but whether it was based on superstition or a fetish or some other consideration authorities had no idea. At any rate, as Cullen points out, gouging out the eyes indicated that the killer spent some time with the victims after they were dead.
With no definite leads, the unit decided to look back in time and see if there might be other victims. Burakov’s first real task was to head an investigation in Novoshakhtinsk, a farming and mining town in the general area, where a 10-year-old girl had just been reported missing.
ConfusionOlga Stalmachenok had gone to a piano lesson on December 10, 1982. No one had seen her since. Burakov questioned her parents and learned that she got along with them and had no apparent cause to just run away. However, the parents had received a strange postcard from “Sadist-Black Cat” telling them their daughter was in the woods and warning that there would be 10 more victims that coming year. Burakov dismissed this as a sick prank, but still feared that the girl was dead.
Then on April 14, four months after her disappearance, Olga’s body was found in a field about three miles from the music conservatory where she had gone for her lesson. Her nude body was lying in a frozen tractor rut on a collective farm. The police left her in place until Burakov could arrive to see the crime scene for himself. Because she had been killed during the winter, the snow had preserved the corpse, so the pattern of knife wounds was clearly visible on her bluish-white skin. The skull was punctured, as were the chest and stomach. The knife had been inserted dozens of times, as if in a frenzy, moving the organs around in the body cavity. The killer had especially targeted the heart, lungs, and sexual organs. And as with the others, this offender had attacked the eyes with his single-bladed knife.
Without a doubt, Burakov knew that he was looking for a vicious, sexually-motivated serial killer who was attacking victims at a quickening rate, drawing no attention to what he was doing, and leaving no evidence. There were no resources that Burakov was aware of to utilize. Men who killed in this manner were supposedly few and only top-ranking officials knew the details of those investigations.
Burakov, who followed the long route from the conservancy to the place where the body was left, believed the killer had a car. He also felt sure the man did not frighten people when he approached. There was nothing overt in his appearance that would alarm women or children. That would make him harder to find, though he surely had some sort of covert mental disorder that hopefully some people noticed.
They decided to focus fully on investigating known sex offenders in the area, specifically where they were on December 11. Then on released mental patients, and then men who lived or worked around the conservancy who owned or used a car. Also, handwriting experts came in to compare the Black Cat card against samples from the entire population of that town. It was tedious work, with no promise of yielding a single clue. Yet doing nothing was guaranteed to provide no clue, so at least they had a start.
What they did not know, according to Lourie, was that a 15-year-old boy had also been killed in a similar manner near Shakhty, then left to be covered by snow. He would not be found for some time.
For the next four months, nothing turned up of any value, although they realized that snow could easily cover what might have occurred, and then it was discovered that the killer had struck again. In another wooded lesopolosa near Rostov-on-Don, a group of boys found some bones in a gully. Again, they could find no missing-persons report, and an examination of the bones not only linked this crime with the others but revealed that the girl (it seemed) had had Down’s syndrome. That made things a little easier, despite the horror of realizing the killer had lured a mentally retarded child with no possibility of defending herself. They could check the special schools in the area to make an identification.
A 45-year-old woman was also murdered in the woods over the winter, but no one linked her to the lesopolosa series. That would come later.
The girl turned out to have been 13, attending a school for children with her condition. No one had missed her, since she often left, so no one had reported her. But her case took a back seat to the next body, discovered in September in a wooded area near Rostov’s airport, two miles from victim No. 6. However it was an 8-year-old boy. He had been stabbed, like the others, including his eyes, and it turned out that he had been missing since August 9. Like the little girl going to piano lessons, he had ridden on public transportation.
This new development puzzled everyone. With what little was known about killers, the basic analysis was that they always went after the same type of victim. This man had killed grown women and young children, girls and boys. The investigators wondered if they might have more than one killer doing the same kind of perverse ritual. It seemed impossible, but so did the idea that so many victim types could trigger the same type of sexual violence in one person.
Then Burakov learned that the killer had finally been apprehended. It was over. He went to the jail to learn what he could about this man.
ConfessionThe suspect was Yuri Kalenik, 19. He had lived for years in a home for retarded children and had then been trained to lay floors in construction. He remained friends with older boys in his former residence and one day when they were riding on a trolley, the conductor caught them. Grabbing one boy, she wanted to know what he knew about the recent murders and he told her that Yuri had done them. So based on the squirming accusation of a mentally slow boy who was trying to free himself from punishment, the officials believed they had broken the case.
Yuri was arrested and interrogated. He had no right to a lawyer or to remain silent. He barely knew what was happening to him. Nevertheless, he denied everything. He had not killed anyone. Yet the interrogators kept him there for several days, believing (according to Cullen) that a guilty man will inevitably confess. It soon became clear to Yuri that to stop being beaten he would have to tell them what they wanted to hear, so he did. And then some. He confessed to all seven murders, and added four unsolved murders in the area to his list. Now all the police needed was supporting evidence. This young man was quite a catch.
Viktor Burakov accepted the task of further investigation. Yuri seemed a viable suspect, because he had a mental disorder and he rode on public transportation. And why would he confess to such brutal crimes if he did not do them? At the time—and even today—there was little understanding of the psychology of false confessions. Less intelligent people tend to be more susceptible to suggestion, especially when fatigued, and they will tell interrogators whatever pleases them—usually supplying whatever clues they hear from the questions. Sociologist Richard Ofshe recounts case after case of suspects who admitted to things they did not do, despite the harsh consequences, and Wrightsman lists several studies of people exonerated by DNA evidence who had confessed to the crime for which they were imprisoned. Most juries do not believe people will confess falsely and they accept a confession as the best type of evidence against someone.
Even better, when a suspect can lead police to the site of where someone was murdered, that’s considered good confirmation, and Kalenik did just that with several of the incidents. Nevertheless, Burakov was not convinced. He saw that Kalenik did not go straight to a site, even when he was close, but appeared to wander around until he picked up clues from the police about where they expected him to go. Burakov did not consider that to be a good test. Upon examining the written confession, he was even less convinced. It was clear to him that Kalenik had been given most of the information that he was expected to say, and had then felt intimidated.
It was difficult to know just how to proceed, but then another body was found.
Operation LesopolosaIn another wooded area, the mutilated remains of a young woman were found. Her nipples had been removed—possibly with teeth, her abdomen was slashed open, and one eye socket was damaged. She had been there for several months and her clothing was missing. Kalenik could have been responsible for this one, whose identity remained unknown, since he was free at the time, but not the next one, found on October 20.
She had been murdered approximately three days earlier, while Kalenik was in custody. He definitely did not kill her, but her wounds were similar to those of the other victims. Whoever had killed her was growing bolder and more frenzied in his surgical removal of parts. This victim was entirely disemboweled, and the missing organs were nowhere to be found. However, her eyes remained intact. She might not be part of the series, although she did ride the trains. Perhaps the killer had changed his method or had been interrupted.
Four weeks later and not far away from that site, a set of skeletal remains was found in the woods. Her death was estimated to have occurred some time during the summer, and her eyes had been gouged out.
It wasn’t long before the 10th unsolved murder turned up, just after the turn of the year into 1984. This one was a boy, found near the railroad tracks. He was identified as Sergei Markov, a 14-year-old boy missing since December 27. For the first time, thanks to winter’s preservative effects, the detectives, led by Mikhail Fetisov, were able to see just what the killer did to these young people.
He had stabbed the boy in the neck dozens of times—the final count would be 70—and he had then cut into the boy’s genitals and removed everything from the pubic area. In addition, he had violated his victim anally. Then it appeared that he had gone to a spot nearby to have a bowel movement.
Clearly the jailed Kalenik was not responsible and the maniac who was perpetrating these crimes was still very much at large. In their rush to close these cases, the police had made a mistake.
Fetisov decided to retrace the boy’s steps on the day he had disappeared. Beginning in a town called Gukovo, where the boy had lived and from where he had gone that day, he boarded the elechtrichka, or local train. In the same town was a home for the mentally retarded and the teachers there reported that a former student, Mikhail Tyapin, 23, had left around the same time as the boy and had taken the train. He was a very large young man and barely knew how to talk. Once again, the police got a confession.
Tyapin and his friend, Aleksandr Ponomaryev, said they had met Markov, had lured him to the woods, and killed him. They had also left their excrement. Tyapin, in particular, had numerous violent fantasies, and he claimed credit for several other unsolved murders in the area. But he never mentioned the damage done to the eyes. And he and Ponomaryev confessed to two murders that were proven to have been done by someone else.
The police were now thoroughly confused, and Fetisov had some doubts, while Burakov felt certain they had not apprehended the killer they were after. All of the so-called confessions were flawed. He believed that only one person was involved, that this person was a loner and not part of a gang, and that he was clearly demented in some subtly perceivable way.
Then they had their first piece of good evidence. The medical examiner found semen in Markov’s anus. He had been raped and the perpetrator had ejaculated. When they apprehended the killer, they could compare the blood antigens. This would not afford a precise match, but could at least eliminate suspects. In fact, it eliminated all of the young men who had confessed thus far. They all had the wrong type of blood.
But then the lab issued another report, claiming it had mixed up the sample. The type did indeed match that of Mikhail Tyapin. That meant that the odds were good that they had Markov’s killer.
Yet bodies still turned up.