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Man Pleads Guilty to Kidnapping Plot

June 7, 2002

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LOS ANGELES (AP) _ An immigrant with alleged ties to the Russian mob admitted Thursday to orchestrating a deadly kidnapping plot targeting wealthy businessmen whose bodies were found in a northern California reservoir.

Ainar Altmanis, 42, pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of conspiracy and three counts of hostage-taking resulting in death. He admitted to kidnapping three of five people found floating in the New Melones reservoir between October and March.

The Latvian citizen, who has been cooperating with federal investigators, faces life in prison when he is sentenced next year.

His attorney, Ellen Barry, declined to comment. Altmanis smiled as he was led away from the courtroom. He remains jailed without bail.

Altmanis was among six men with roots in the former Soviet Union who are suspected of holding wealthy Los Angeles-area residents for ransom, then killing them.

Sherman Oaks real estate developer Meyer Muscatel, 58, was found first last October. Rita Pekler, 39, of Encino; Alexander Umansky, 35, of Sherman Oaks; George Safiev, 37, of Beverly Hills and Nick Kharabadze, 29, of Woodland Hills, disappeared between December and January. Their bound, weighted bodies were found in March.

Prosecutors said Altmanis helped kidnap Umansky, Kharabadze and Safiev and that he took part in suffocating Umansky and Kharabadze.

The five other men have been charged with kidnapping or lesser crimes. They face trial in July.

Agents also are looking for a Siberian businessman named Alexandr Aphonia, believed to have laundered ransom money paid by Umansky’s family.

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