Bloody bodies & twisted motives: Siberian butcher cop & other Russian serial killers
Mikhail Popkov was this week charged with 60 new murders, in addition to the 22 that have already resulted in convictions. A guilty verdict would make the former cop Russia’s most prolific serial killer, but in terms of relentless brutality, he has "rivals."
Andrei Chikatilo, The Rostov Ripper, 52 victims
Beyond the sheer number of victims, Andrey Chikatilo is undoubtedly Russia’s most notorious serial killer. The cat-and-mouse game between a grotesque and cunning murderer and the thousands of men who tracked him for years — involving manhunts, traps, lucky escapes, and widespread coverage in the increasingly-open Soviet media during Glasnost — was played, while the bodies of gruesomely mutilated victims piled up.
Born in 1936, Chikatilo suffered from an desperately deprived childhood that featured starvation, alleged cannibalism, beatings, and the possible rape of his mother during the Nazi occupation.
As an adult, the academically-gifted Chikatilo led a married life of employed mediocrity that eventually made it easier for him to hide, while harboring a burning resentment and constant sexual frustration. Working as a teacher unable to control his class — the theme of disrespect and bullying by his peers was a constant in the killer’s life story — Chikatilo could have first been stopped in the '70s when he made passes at several of his teenage students. Instead, the future mass murderer was quietly dismissed from a number of schools, easily finding new employment each time.
While suspected of a still-unsolved murder of a nine-year-old girl in 1978, Chikatilo's relentless murdering streak began in 1982 and did not stop until his arrest.
The killer would lure predominantly pre-teen boys and post-pubescent girls from bus stops, train stations, and other unassuming city locations by offering to help them with their bags or to show them his stamp collection.
He then walked them into the woods, attacked them, tied them up and stabbed them dozens of times. Unable to reach an erection from normal sexual activity, Chikatilo was wildly aroused from the struggle and pleas of his victims, and the mutilation of their dead bodies. As well as performing imitative sex acts with his knife, Chikatilo often cut off the victims’ sex organs, bit off nipples, gouged out eyes, and stuffed body parts into the dead youngsters’ mouths.
The murders represented both a release and an apparent vengeful rage against his own sexual failures, particularly as several victims appeared to have laughed at Chikatilo’s inability to perform, shortly before their deaths.
The hallmarks made it easy to connect the killings and already by 1983 a massive coordinated operation to catch the killer was underway. Over the next several years, the net was cast wide —perhaps too much so, distracting the core investigators from their task — resulting in background checks and blood tests on more than 200,000 individuals, and a vast number of arrests. Investigators reported that they solved nearly 1,100 other unrelated crimes as a result, but the killer slipped through.
In September 1984, a drunk Chikatilo, who was on a business trip, acting suspiciously and making clumsy advances towards both sexes in Rostov, was arrested by a city police patrol. He had a knife, a length of rope and a jar of Vaseline in his briefcase, but was able to explain them away; more importantly, though, his blood type didn’t match that of the semen found at the crime scenes, in what was likely a sample contamination error.
Nonetheless, Chikatilo, an industrial buyer at the time, was arrested and imprisoned for petty theft, but let out after three months.
He killed 21 more people after his release, but after committing several murders in quick succession in the fall of 1990, Chikatilo emerged from a forest, covered in mud and the blood of his last victim, 22-year-old Svetlana Korostik, and was spotted by an officer on duty. Police began surveillance on the man, who had already featured in their extensive database, and on November 20, 1990, the killer was captured.
Chikatilo broke his silence quickly, and cooperated with police, giving precise locations of the murders he committed and describing his acts with characteristic self-loathing.
His trial, which began in 1992 in an over-stuffed provincial courtroom — packed with jostling TV crews from around the world and relatives demanding vengeance — was not a dignified scene of justice.
Chikatilo, by then a celebrity monster, clowned around in what appeared to be a blatant imitation of madness at odds with his everyday personality, ranting and blaming a harsh Soviet upbringing for his behavior, while also claiming that he had cleansed society of “undesirables.”
His death sentence was met with applause, and Andrey Chikatilo was executed on February 14, 1994.
Alexander Pichushkin, The Chessboard Killer, 49 victims
At first glance, a drab repetitiveness of the circumstances of Alexander Pichushkin’s crimes fails to elicit the dark fascination of more dramatic serial killers. But as you delve deeper, his routine, cold-blooded nature — for five years Pichushkin was allowed to murder one victim after another in a small patch of a popular Moscow park right next to his house entirely unpunished — creates a sense of everyday horror in a world that ignores death on its doorstep.
Also known as the Bitsa Park Maniac, Pichushkin was born in 1974, the son of an alcoholic father, who abandoned the family when he was an infant. Many outsiders have cited an incident when he was four — he fell off a swing and sustained a brain injury, necessitating a stay at a specialized boarding school that he found traumatic — as an explanation for his crimes.
His earliest murder — which he described at his trial as “like the first time you fall in love” — happened in 1992 when he was still in college.
Pichushkin recruited another teen, Mikhail Odiychuk, to form a double team of serial killers, and took him into Bitsa Park to search for their first victim. Before they set off, Pichushkin said he realized that Odiychuk was having second thoughts, and asked him to write a suicide note, “as a joke.”
Once in the woods, Odiychuk seemed anxious to leave and handed his fellow student the rope he had brought himself. Pichushkin threw the rope over his accomplice's neck, and suffocated his victim, breaking his backbone, before throwing him down a manhole. He then went home and burned his clothes.
This was the only time Pichushkin was questioned by police until he was finally caught 14 years later. Odiychuk’s body was never found and his death ruled a suicide.
Despite having worked out a location, and a method of disposal, there was a nine-year pause, in which Pichushkin became a loader, and later a shelf stacker, at a large supermarket nearby.
It ended abruptly, though, and without obvious external cause, with Pichushkin simply saying that he “was in a mood to kill someone that day.” He did as he planned, but didn't stop there and over the next 11 weeks claimed eight more lives. All of the victims were men, most of them middle-aged, or retired, and homeless or alcoholics.
Despite otherwise being a frequent drinker, Pichushkin exercised regularly while killing. He was always sober as he baited his victims with the offer of vodka in a secluded spot in the park, though in reality, only yards away from popular footpaths.
There, he would wait for his victims to become intoxicated, before picking out a lull in the conversation to strike them with a hammer on their heads. At first, multiple blows were needed, but the police said that by the time of his arrest, Pichushkin could kill his victim with one or two blows. Their bodies, sometimes as they struggled, were then dragged and dropped into the flowing sewerage ducts.
Describing his crimes in court in great detail, Pichushkin only expressed remorse at his sloppy execution, or the lack of excitement if his victims did not resist sufficiently, or the difficulty of getting their bodies to fall down the hole, which occasionally necessitated the killer climbing down into the shaft himself.
Asked about his motivation, Pichushkin reveled in the thrill of the process of setting up the trap for his victims, watching their futile struggles, and finally their helpless, drifting bodies.
He described himself as a "hunter" and the “King of the Forest.” But on a deeper level, Pichuskin, somewhat of a courtroom philosopher, said that he relished the power to decide the fate of his victim.
“I liked to listen to their dreams, desires, and plans… Because I already knew that none of them would ever come true,” he told the judge.
Despite calling himself “a professional,” three of Pichushkin’s victims survived, the first who would have been his 12th victim. Maria Viricheva, 19, managed to escape from a different duct exit, after spending more than an hour in the water. Later, a 14-year-old glue-sniffing orphanage boy did the same. Neither was believed by the police. A third victim suffered from amnesia, despite surviving, and failed to identify his would-be killer when passing him in the street.
The close escapes prompted short pauses, but in the long run Pichushkin began to feel invincible. He started killing his colleagues from the supermarket where he worked. When police eventually sealed the manholes, he simply left their bodies out, after putting sticks or vodka bottles into holes in their skulls to make sure that they were dead.
In a trademark that would eventually see him branded the Chessboard Killer – though he actually preferred checkers – with each kill Pichushkin stuck numbered cards onto the squares of a folding board, keeping mementos, such as bottle caps, inside.
His last murder was so cavalier, it is impossible to conclude that Pichushkin didn’t want to get caught. The killer invited Marina Moskaleva, a 36-year-old woman he worked with, on a date in the woods, knowing that she wrote down his name and home number and left it with her son before setting off.
Only then was he caught. Pichushkin was convicted of killing 49 people, but insists the true toll is 61. Initially, the mass killer said he merely wanted to outdo his idol Chikatilo and fill up all the squares on his board, but later admitted that he “never would have stopped, so those who put him up behind bars saved a lot of lives.”
Mikhail Popkov, The Cleaner, 22-80+ victims
Most serial killers lose control or get caught within a few years, but Mikhail Popkov was able to operate unhindered for two decades. This was not only due to his evasiveness, but also the slow response of the police, notwithstanding that the killer himself was wearing a uniform.
Beyond requisite rumors of a violent childhood, the media has latched onto a betrayal as the origin of his killings — an occasion when Popkov, returning from work to his young wife, found a used condom in his trash, thus losing his trust in women, and venting his anger on others.
However, evidence of his virgin-whore complex and mistrust of the opposite sex emerged much earlier. Friends said that almost from the date of his wedding in 1986, he spoke of wanting to put his wife under surveillance and flew off the handle at the mention of “promiscuous” women.
While he killed his first victim in 1992, when he was still a fireman, Popkov’s modus operandum matured when he was re-hired for a second stint as a police sergeant in 1994.
Popkov would cruise the streets of the provincial Siberian city of Angarsk, or linger outside drinking establishments, dressed in his uniform, inviting lone, drunk women into his car where they would consume alcohol. He would then rape and mutilate them with sharp or blunt handheld weapons, and dump their bodies in a forest.
In his confessions, Popkov called himself, 'The Cleaner,' and his victims,"fallen women.”
His brazenness was astounding. Popkov often picked up women while actually on shift, showed his face in shops together with the future victim, used confiscated weapons for the murders while returning to the scene of his crimes hours later with investigators.
The killer’s clean-cut image, average demeanor, and outwardly stable home life helped to shield him from suspicion, but don't explain everything. Despite rumors of a serial killer circulating through Angarsk throughout the '90s, and possibly unwilling to involve federal investigators, local police refused to unify the murders into a single case, instead, writing them off as ubiquitous moll killings in a territorial war that had been raging in the city. There had been witnesses and survivors, but their evidence was ignored.
When the murders became too noticeable to overlook, and an outside team was dispatched in 2002, they found that crime scene analysis had been sloppy. While investigating the killer over the next seven years — while also battling gang violence — the head of the team said that local officers were suspicious and uncooperative; sometimes more concerned with playing office politics than finding the killer. Popkov had by that time abruptly retired from the force, despite being promoted to lieutenant.
Although Popkov had been interviewed about the murders earlier —his wife provided an alibi, despite forensic evidence — it was DNA analysis that finally exposed the killer. Police narrowed down the suspects to 600. Popkov came in and was forced to supply a saliva sample, and realizing that he was going to be caught, reportedly attempted to flee to China by train, when he was arrested.
His wife and daughter went on prime-time TV to declare that they had no suspicions whatsoever about Mikhail.
In January 2015, Popkov was convicted of killing 22 people, and sentenced to life in jail. He now faces charges of 60 more murders, to which he has confessed. As Popkov traveled widely, delivering second-hand cars from Vladivostok to Angarsk and other cities, the true death toll may be higher, and will most likely never be known.
(By Igor Ogorodnev)