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Wednesday, April 15, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Russian Mafia Moving Into Big-Time U.S. Crime

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES - Andrey Kuznetsov made his way in just two years from a dank cell in a Soviet prison camp to the glamour of the Beverly Hills art scene. Dashingly handsome, he seemed to always have a beautiful woman on his arm and a scheme to make a million dollars overnight.

Ten weeks ago, one of those illegal schemes got Kuznetsov, 28, killed. He and an accomplice were shot execution-style by two fellow Russians who authorities said were working with them to try to bilk merchants out of millions of dollars worth of art works, jewelry and electronic goods.

Federal and local authorities believe Kuznetsov was the mastermind of a fraud ring with ties to Russian criminals in New York and the former Soviet Union.

ORGANIZATSIYA IN DOZENS OF U.S. CITIES

Authorities say that the Organizatsiya, the Russian mafia, already rooted in the Russian community in New York City, has been setting up criminal networks in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

The Los Angeles area, home to the nation's second-largest Russian population, has seen a "tremendous" rise in organized crime activities by Russians, said Thomas Parker, assistant agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles office.

Such activities have prompted unprecedented cooperation between the FBI and its Russian counterpart.

Credit-card and check-kiting scams are common, and so are extortion, loan-sharking, racketeering, gasoline bootlegging, forgery, insurance and medical fraud, and myriad other scams, authorities say. And, authorities believe, there is drug-trafficking, money-laundering, gun-running and even murder for hire occurring within the local Russian community.

"They're into everything," said Los Angeles police Detective William Pollard, the department's Soviet organized crime expert. "If there's a way to defraud someone, or steal, they'll do that."

To be sure, most emigres are hard-working and honest, and fear that talk of such organized crime groups is an unfair smear on their community's reputation, said Ara Khachatourian, spokesman for the regional Western Armenian Committee.

The Russian gangsters have branched out into complex crimes targeting the general population and the government. Examples:

-- Gasoline tax schemes, mostly in New York and Los Angeles, have cost the government more than $1 billion and put many gasoline merchants at risk. Authorities say the Russians have established dummy corporations to bilk the U.S. Treasury of as much as 40 cents in unpaid taxes on each gallon of gas they sell to wholesalers or retail gas outlets.

-- Insurance fraud also has been common, from staged auto accidents to false billing schemes.

-- In a case authorities say is typical, a Los Angeles businessman, Lev Leznik, ended up paying $475,000 in loan-shark money to Russian mobsters. Leznik said loan sharks - backed up by menacing thugs and former Russian athletes - threatened to cut out his tongue and eyes, burn off his skin with acid, kill his family and shut down his businesses.

HIGH ROLLER'S CASE PROVIDED BREAK

The Kuznetsov case appears to be one of the first breaks for law-enforcement officers. When they stumbled onto the murder scene Jan. 26, police found what one investigator described as "mountains" of evidence, including detailed financial records.

Kuznetsov apparently had connections in New York and Russia, said a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who studies Russian organized crime.

Visitors - some of them convicted criminals - would come over from Russia, receive false identities and checking accounts and go on shopping sprees with him at the finest stores and auctions. By "managing" the criminal careers of several such accomplices at a time and taking 80 percent of the profits for himself, Kuznetsov easily netted $1 million, friends and authorities said.

Kuznetsov loved the high life, and he drove a gold Mercedes 300E with a car phone. He was planning to buy a house in Malibu or the Hollywood Hills.

But those plans died with Kuznetsov when he was killed on the night of Jan. 26.

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies stumbled onto the murder when responding to reports of a car left idling in front of Kuznetsov's rented house.

When two deputies knocked on the door, a Russian identified as Sergei Ivanov appeared, drenched with blood and carrying a semi-automatic handgun. The deputies subdued Ivanov and another tenant of the house, Alexander Nikolaev. They caught the two, both former members of the Soviet Army, in the act of dismembering Kuznetsov's body.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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