It was about 2 a.m. on Jan. 25, 2002, when a Tuolumne County Sheriff’s deputy by the name of Turu VanderWiel saw a light-colored Lincoln Navigator and dark-colored van driving erratically near Sonora.
VanderWiel, who now serves as chief of the Sonora Police Department, recalls following the vehicles as they turned off Highway 108 onto Stockton Road and pulling them over in the parking lot of Sonora Gold Lodge.
“They claimed to be lost tourists from out of town,” he said. “I remember (the driver of the Navigator) had a European accent, which lined up with the explanation he gave to me.”
After determining the driver wasn’t intoxicated, VanderWiel decided to let both vehicles go.
It turned out to be a decision that likely saved his life.
The driver of the Navigator was Ainar Altmanis, of Latvia, who would later confess to his involvement in the kidnapping and subsequent murders of five wealthy Russian immigrants between October 2001 and January 2002.
Inside the two vehicles — and unbeknownst to VanderWiel at the time — were two of the victims: George Safiev, a Russian banking mogul, and Nick Kharabadze, his business partner.
Jurijus Kadamovas, a Lithuanian immigrant, and Iouri Mikhel, a Russian immigrant, were also in the vehicles at the time of the traffic stop. They were later convicted and sentenced to death in federal court as the ringleaders behind the kidnappings and killings.
Kadamovas and Mikhel are among 62 people on federal death row who face the possibility of execution following an announcement by the Trump administration that it would resume the death penalty in federal cases after a nearly 20-year lapse.
Safiev and Kharabadze were killed in secluded woods and roads in the Columbia area shortly after VanderWiel’s stop. Their bodies, like the three victims that preceded them, were then dumped off the Stevenot Bridge into New Melones Reservoir with weights tied to their limbs.
The two victims were kidnapped by Kadamovas and Mikhel four days earlier and imprisoned at Kadamovas’ home in the Encino area, where they forced Safiev to beg for a business partner to transfer $940,000 into a foreign account.
Kadamovas and Mikhel drove the victims up to Tuolumne County and killed them after confirming the money had been transferred. All together, U.S. attorneys say they obtained more than $1 million in ransom money from the monthslong kidnapping-for-ransom scheme.
VanderWiel later testified at the trial of Kadamovas and Mikhel in Los Angeles four years after the encounter. He was told by FBI agents and LA County investigators that the men were prepared to kill him had he asked to search the van.
The experience has left VanderWiel with mixed feelings, however.
“The FBI agents and investigators from Los Angeles shared with me that I was outnumbered and outgunned and couldn’t have changed the outcome, so in a sense I feel fortunate it didn’t go further that night,” he said.
“I have mixed feelings because naturally my position is to be able to help people,” he continued. “I felt like maybe there was something else I could have done in an attempt to prevent the furtherance of their crime.”
Kadamovas and Mikhel, with the help of Altmanis, had kidnapped and killed real-estate developer Meyer Muscatel, of Sherman Oaks, in October 2001.
The trio lured Muscatel to Mikhel’s house in the Encino area, where they bound him with plastic ties, duct-taped his eyes, and pistol whipped him.
According to court documents, Kadamovas and Mikhel suffocated Muscatel with a plastic bag after unsuccessfully trying to withdraw money from his bank account, then drove up to New Melones Reservoir and tossed his body off Parrotts Ferry Bridge.
The pair then hatched a plan to abduct Safiev by first kidnapping his 39-year-old financial advisor, Rita Pekler, of West Hollywood, and using her as bait. After being unable to lure Safiev, they strangled Pekler, who was pregnant, and threw her body off Parrotts Ferry Bridge in December 2001.
Later in December 2001, Kadamovas and Mikhel set their sights on automobile-shop owner Alexander Umansky, of Sherman Oaks. They lured Umansky to Kadamovas home, where they tied him up for three days and forced him to call his brother to beg for ransom money, according to court documents.
Kadamovas and Mikhel also sent Umansky’s family a ransom note asking for nearly $235,000, which the family wired to a bank account the kidnappers had designated in the United Arab Emirates.
After deciding they “no longer needed Umansky alive,” according to court documents, they strangled him to death with a rope and threw his body off of Parrotts Ferry Bridge.
Muscatel’s body was the first to be discovered floating in New Melones Reservoir by a fisherman on Oct. 18, 2001. He was found with his hands tied and plastic bag over his head.
Amy Lindblom, a former crime reporter for The Union Democrat, said she first heard about Muscatel’s body from the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office, though they were unable to identify him at the time.
“They were getting ready to send the head to a forensic anthropologist in the Bay Area to find out who this guy was,” she said. “They checked missing persons and were stuck because they just didn’t know.”
In March 2002, Lindblom learned of a “big operation” involving the FBI and different law enforcement agencies from multiple counties to search Don Pedro Reservoir near the Jacksonville Bridge.
Lindblom said she and a photographer went to the first day of the search and spoke with an FBI agent, who said they were looking for a body.
“Anything involving the FBI was highly unusual because you knew it wasn’t just a local case,” she said. “It was something bigger.”
After the search of Don Pedro Reservoir came up with nothing, the operation moved over the Stevenot and Parrotts Ferry bridges over New Melones.
Media from throughout the region and nation had now heard about the operation and descended upon the reservoir. Lindblom camped out over the weekend at the overlook of New Melones to keep an eye on the search.
After a few days, Lindblom said the investigators brought in a man with knowledge of sonar technology, which he used to locate the bodies at the bottom of the reservoir, 300 feet below the surface of the water.
Lindblom said all of the bodies had weights tied around their arms and legs to keep them from floating to the surface. She remembers them pulling the bodies out one by one and putting them in body bags on the shore.
“It was pretty somber, pretty sad, and pretty heart wrenching what was happening,” she said.
This also came to light around the same time that other unusual and high-profile crimes were taking place in and around the county, such as serial killer Cary Stayner, the Ellie Nesler shooting, and the disappearance of Nita Mayo a few years later.
“I think the community was sad and disheartened and wondering what the heck was going on,” Lindblom said.
Kadamovas, Mikhel, and Altmanis were among a group of people who were arrested in connection with the bodies pulled from the reservoir.
Lindblom said she sought permission to cover their trials in LA, but the newspaper didn’t have the resources to send her.
Despite the horrificness of the crime, Lindblom said it was an exciting time for her as a crime reporter and remains likely the biggest story of her career.
The one lingering question Lindblom said she was never able to answer is why the killers picked New Melones as their dumping ground.
“They have an ocean in LA to dump bodies, they have a ton of lakes between here and there, and why they chose New Melones has never been answered,” she said. “Maybe the prosecutors and FBI know, but people I talked to never could say why they chose here to do this heinous thing.”
On Jan. 17, 2007, Kadamovas and Mikhel were found guilty by a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles of multiple counts of hostage taking resulting in death, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and conspiracy to escape from custody.
They were later sentenced to death and remain the only two inmates from California on federal death row.
Altmanis was spared the death penalty for testifying against Kadamovas and Mikhel. He was sentenced to more than 23 years in prison, according to court records.
Kadamovas and Mikhel spent years appealing their death sentences, but were ultimately denied by the federal Ninth District Court of Appeal in San Francisco last year. They have since appealed their cases to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The federal government has not executed anyone on death row since 2003, but U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced in a press release on Thursday that he directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to adopt a policy that will clear the way for executions to resume.
Five federal inmates on death row were listed in the press release as the first in line for execution, though Kadamovas and Mikhel are not among them.
Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to say when Kadamovas and Mikhel could be executed.
Both men are being held at the high-security U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.