Murder on the Don

IT HAS BEEN one of the most dramatic murder trials in Russian history. For almost six months, a court in Rostov-on-Don has heard details of a series of brutal killings spanning more than a decade:


more than 50 in all, from middle-aged women to young boys and girls, stabbed and hacked to death, their bodies left to rot in the forests of southern Russia.


Relatives of the victims fainted by the dozen when they heard for the first time how their sons and daughters died. Even a couple of the prison guards passed out. The defendant, incarcerated during the trial in a giant metal cage, alternated between periods of sullen silence and noisy defiance, at one stage ripping off his clothes in protest.


Next week it will be over. At 10 A. M. on Wednesday, Oct. 14, Judge Leonid Akubzhanov will begin to read the verdict on Andrei Chikatilo, 57, grandfather, ex-schoolteacher and former card-carrying member of the Communist Party. If, as expected, the defendant is found guilty, he will go down in history as the world's worst serial killer. He will almost


certainly face execution, delivered by a bullet in the back of the neck.


As detailed by Akubzhanov at the start of the trial in April, the charges against Chikatilo read like the script of a horror movie. In the period from December 1978 until his final arrest in November 1990, Chikatilo has been accused of killing 53 women and children Most of the bodies were found along the railway line running north from Rostov. Others were discovered as far afield as Tashkent in the south and St. Petersburg in the north. Chikalilo initially confessed to 55 murders, although charges relating to two were dropped because of lack of evidence. During the course of the trial he then denied six.


It is not just the number of murders that distinguishes the case, but also their nature. Police photographs show mutilated corpses with 50 or more stab wounds. Often, the genital were sliced off and internal organs cut out; several were also decapitated. In what became the killer's signature, most of the victims had their eyes gouged out.


Chikatilo is accused of torturing his victims and prolonging their death as long as possible to enhance their suffering. He allegedly wielded his knife with such ferocity and professionalism that at one stage police investigators systematically questioned Rostov's butchers and slaughter-house workers.


Many of those who died- up to 70 percent, according to investigators - were down-and-outs, tramps and prostitutes. Sleeping in the squalor of Rostov's railway station, they were ready to go off for sex with anyone in return for a swig of vodka or the promise of a meal. But the victims also included children and young people from happy homes, tricked into walking into the forest with a stranger who promised to show them a shortcut or simply asked for help.


Tne apparent willingness with which, such victims went to their death was a tribute to the almost hypnotic powers of their murderer.


THAT CHIKATILO was allegedly able to continue killing, undetected, for more than a decade, remains a puzzle. Almost half a million people were questioned in what was one of the country's largest police operations: homosexuals, motorists, former police officers and video-salon managers were all among the target groups swept up in the massive dragnet. An army of women police officers in short skirts and heavy makeup walked the streets as human bait; their male colleagues lay for hours in ditches along the railway line. In their search for the serial killer, police solved more than 1, 000 crimes, including 95 murders and 245 rapes. But for years, the man at which it was all aimed remained at large.


Under fire for their handling of the operation, police have pinned the blame on the lack of witnesses and the sheer diversity of the victims. Most serial killers have a "specially". Chikatilo, it is alleged, did not: "Boy or girl, it was all the same to me", he told the court. It was not until 1983, almost five years after the first murder, that Vladimir Kazakov, a senior investigator from the Russian Public Prosecutor's Office in Moscow, succeeded in convincing the locals that they were dealing with one killer.


The initial slowness paled beside the other errors of a tragically bungled investigation that appeared to take the wrong turn at almost every step. Another man, Alexander Kravchenko, was executed for the 1978 killing of a nine-year-old girl, Lena Zakotnova, later admitted by Chikatilo as his first victim.


During 1983 and 1984, in particular, countless people were detained for weeks and sometimes months on suspicion of murder. So, bizarrely, was Chikatilo, himself. Arrested early one morning in September 1984 at a Rostov market after spending the night trying to pick up women, he was held for three months while ' prosecutors probed a connection with the murder of Dima Ptashnikov, a 10-year-old boy stabbed to death that March in the nearby city of Novoshakhtink'.


Chikatilo was released at the beginning of 1985, largely because of a rare discrepancy between his blood and sperm groups that appeared to rule him out as the killer. When he was arrested again almost six years later, after being spotted near the scene of a crime, police checked more carefully and discovered their error. Twenty one of his alleged victims date from that period. In the history, of criminal investigations, it must rank as one of the most glaring mistakes ever.


But if police Were fooled, so too were those who knew Chikatilo. Colleagues who worked with him remember a quiet, introverted and unpleasant man, who kept disappearing for days on end without explanation. Strange? Certainly. A serial killer? Nobody could believe it. Nor did the person who knew him best, Fayina Chikatilo, who had been married to him for 27 years at the time of his arrest. She told prosecutors she had never suspected anything:


not during the increasing numbers of nights her husband spent away from home, not even when she had to wash flecks of blood off his clothes.


"If I had known what my husband was doing all those years, then of course I would have done something to stop him", she said. "But how was I to know? "


Although the Public Prosecutor's Department believed her, others did not. Spurned by her friends and neighbors and facing death threats from strangers, Fayina Chikatilo fled Rostov shortly before the start of the trial in order to start a new life in Ukraine.


If, as the prosecution claimed, Chikatilo did kill 53 people, then how can it be explained? Andrei Tkachenko, a psychiatrist from Moscow's Serbsky Institute who examined him for more than two months last year, has traced his patient's descent into infamy. From a shy, problem child, too ashamed to admit chronic short-sightedhess, Chikatilo turned into a troubled adult with problems relating to women and a host of other complexes, which, by the time he reached his late 30s, were beginning to turn criminal.


In the 1970s, when working as teacher in mining towns north of Rostov, Chikatilo allegedly committed a series of escalating assaults on children. According to Tkachenko, once Chikatilo began gaining sexual satisfaction from the inflicting of suffering, it was only a short step to murder.


Dominating everything were his sexual problems. Although he fathered two children, Chikatilo was, for all intents and purposes, impotent; his wife tried in vain to get him to seek treatment. He did not even succeed in raping his alleged victims. By the end, the cut and thrust of his knife had taken the place of intercourse, Tkachenko believes. A sadist, pure and simple; but according to Tkachenko, a sane one who was fully responsible for his actions and able to stand trial for them.


"Homicide is a very grave offense and it takes very serious disorders of physical activity for you to fully forget what you are doing", the psychiatrist concluded. "One must be very deeply deranged to commit murder unconsciously, totally without control - and Chikatilo was not".


Peter Conradi is Moscow correspondent for The European. His book, "The Red Ripper: Russia's Monster Serial Killer and the Men Who Stopped Him", will be published by Dell Books in November.