Transcript: 127. The Rostov Ripper | Russia (Part 1)

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Our cases have been researched using open source and archive materials. It deals with true crimes and real people. Some parts are graphic in nature and listener discretion is advised. Each episode is produced with the utmost respect to the victims, their families and loved ones.

Warning: this episode deals, in part, with the abuse and murders of children. It may not be suitable for all audiences.

On a cold winter’s day, December 24th 1978, in the Russian city of Shakhty, something caught the attention of a woman walking along the misty Grushevka River. She walked closer and discovered the small, lifeless body of a girl floating in the icy water. The woman alerted authorities, and soon the body was identified as missing 9-year-old girl, Lena Zakotnova.

Shakhty, a coal-mining town, is located 47 miles northeast of Rostov-on-Don. In 1978, it comprised a typical Soviet structure, with large apartment blocks housing most residents and large green areas, like parks and woods in between the buildings. The average citizen living in Shakhty did not have a lot, and those who were fortunate to have jobs worked long hours.

It was not uncommon for children to make their own way home from school, using public transport. Soviet-style trolley-buses served as transport, as well as entertainment: people who did not have much else to do, simply rode the buses around and around, enjoying the scenes flashing passed outside the windows.

When it was revealed that Lena didn’t drown and had been murdered, it sparked outrage throughout the entire Rostov Oblast. Police appealed to the public for information and learnt that Lena was last seen talking to a bespectacled middle-aged man wearing a long black coat. A composite sketch was released, and a school principal contacted police, saying that the suspect resembled one of his teachers.

Investigators made contact with the teacher, a Ukrainian-born man called Andrei Chikatilo. He was a well-educated married man who had two children. He owned a disused hut in Shakhty but did not live there with his family. Is Soviet times, owning personal property was almost unheard of. The fact that Shakhty was a rural town and that Chikatilo was a member of the Communist Party, made it possible for him to purchase the shack. Investigators searched the place and found spots of blood in the snow outside. When confronted with the evidence, Chikatilo did not know how the blood came to be there. He denied any involvement in little Lena’s death. Chikatilo’s wife, Feodosia {Fiya-doh-zja} offered an alibi, claiming that he was with her at the time of the murder.

Before police could confirm the alibi, another man was arrested. 25-year-old Alexandr Kravchenko had been convicted of rape when he was a teenager and, unlike Chikatilo, he had no alibi for the 22nd of December. After days of interrogation and intimidation by police, Kravchencko confessed to killing Lena. At his trial, he retracted his confession and said he was forced to make the statement. His wife also testified, saying that he was with her that night she and told police, but they threw out her statement. Kravchenko swore that he did not kill Lena.

However, solely based on his first confession, Kravchenko was found guilty and sentenced to life in a labour camp. The victim’s parents, supported by the community, appealed the sentence and pressured authorities to give him the death sentence. After a retrial, Kravchenko was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad on the 5th of July 1983.

With everyone looking at Kravchenko, who was in custody in September 1981, another brutal murder took place in Rostov Oblast. 17-year-old Larisa Tkachenko was last seen at a bus stop outside of the Rostov Public Library, talking to an unknown man.

The next day, her mutilated body was discovered in the woods on the left bank of the Don River: she had several stab wounds and had been strangled. Her eyes had been cut out of their sockets, and one of her nipples had been bitten off. Although there were no apparent links between Larisa’s murder and Lena’s, both were victims of Russia’s most prolific serial killer. In the decade that followed, the Rostov Ripper murdered 56 women and children. And all along the killer was hiding in plain sight…

>>Intro Music

From 1980 to 1990, the USSR came undone, as outdated Soviet policies and practices were shining in their inefficiency. Economic reform was not enough to preserve ideals put in place by Lenin more than half a century before. While Communism was crumbling, a madman was on the loose in one of the country’s most prominent areas. Rostov Oblast in Russia’s southwest is a port city on the Black Sea, bordering Ukraine. The primary industries were agriculture and coal mining, and for the most part, it was quiet and safe. People worked hard and lived modestly, keeping their heads down and staying in line.  

On a warm mid-June day in 1982, 13-year-old Lyubov Biryuk left her home in Donskoy to buy cigarettes for a family member. She had made it to the store but never returned home.

Two weeks later, her body was found in the forest by a man looking for firewood. She was lying on her back, with her head to the side. It was a sweltering summer, and her remains were in a bad state of decomposition: patches of flesh clung to the bones, but the ears were still intact. Investigators had trouble identifying the person, but earrings and long black hair were the first clues to help identifying her as a girl. A white sandal and a handbag containing the brand of cigarettes she set out to buy was found nearby, and the sad conclusion was that the girl was in fact, Lyubov. Police assumed it was a random killing or an attempted robbery, as no one in her circle of family or friends had a reason to harm her. She had been stabbed so many times, it was over-kill. Investigators knew that the killer was seriously deranged.

Ten days after Lyu bov’s knife-wound riddled body was found, the killer struck again. This time, he killed another girl called Lyubov, of similar age who was last seen waiting in transit to board a plane at Krasnodar Airport. She was stabbed seven times, and her body was discovered in an orchard near the airport two weeks after her death. Again, due to the location, this time about three and a half hours south of Rostov-on-Don, police could not conclusively say that Lyubov Volobueva’s murder was committed by the same person who killed Lyobov Biryuk.

Police grew concerned when the bodies of murdered women and children were discovered every other month. The killer always made a feeble attempt to hide his victims’ bodies, covering them with leaves and twigs, and most of the time, they were found within a couple of days of the attacks. The murderer left the bodies where he killed his victims, they were not transported or dumped, and likely accompanied the killer willingly to the scene. Because of the similarities in evidence found at all of the crime scenes, police were able to link the murders. Between 1982 and 1983, multiple victims, bearing the same signature injuries, were left out in wooded areas between Rostov-on-Don and Shakhty to the north.

16-year-old Olga Kuprina did not get along with her parents. After a heated argument one August night in 1982, she left her parent’s home in Kazachi Lagerya – never to be seen alive again. Her body was found in the woods two months later. Irina Karabelnikova, a 19-year-old runaway was last seen talking to a man at Shakhty station on the 12th of September. Her body was found a week later.

10-year-old Olga Stalmachenok was reported missing on the 11th of December 1982. She was on her way home after a music lesson when she vanished. As snow covered the ground for another winter, investigators wondered how many bodies were still out there, waiting to be discovered. Maybe even Olga’s?

Her parents received a postcard from someone who called himself ‘Sadist Black Cat’. It said that their daughter was in the woods and the anonymous writer predicted that there would be 10 more victims in the coming year. Investigators felt the postcard was a prank, but could not exclude the possibility that it wasn’t. Handwriting experts compared the card to samples taken from every person living in Olga’s hometown. They could not find a single match.

The first body found that winter was 15-year-old Sergey Kuzmin, who had run away from boarding school four months before. He had been bullied relentlessly and decided to leave, a fatal choice. His frozen body was found in the snow-covered forest floor near Shakhty Station in January of 1983.

To the knowledge of police, Sergey was the Ripper’s first male victim. This change in victim profile confused investigators, and they concluded that Sergey was probably murdered by a second killer. Because of the ritualistic nature of the crimes, police considered the possibility that it was the work of a religious cult, with a group committing the murders, as a rite of passage. The truth is, they had no idea who was responsible.

In the spring of 1983, as the snow began to melt, Olga Stalmenok’s body was found under a high-voltage powerline post on a farm near Novoshakhtinsk – three miles from the music conservatory where she was last seen. Not only had she been stabbed multiple times, but the killer also removed her heart. Hear heart was nowhere to be found and investigators feared that the killer had escalated his brutality: was he keeping organs as trophies? Who was this monster?

Soviet authorities controlled the media, so very little was publicised about the brutal murders. Law enforcement kept information under wraps, as they did not want to cause mass panic. But if women and children go missing or turn up dead, people talk. The public was enraged that no one had been arrested as they feared for their safety. Top-level officials were tasked with catching the elusive killer, who had earned himself quite a couple of nicknames. Some called him the Butcher of Rostov others called him the Forest Belt Killer. He was also simply referred to as The Maniac and outside of Russia, The Red Ripper. The most common name used at the time was the Rostov Ripper.

Throughout 1983, the murders continued. In August, the Ripper’s youngest victim was found three weeks after he disappeared. 7-year-old Igor Gudkov’s butchered little body was found in Rostov’s Aviators Park.

By September of the same year, police believed the Ripper had killed more than 14 people. Detective Major Mikhail Festisov was seconded to Rostov from Moscow to assist with the investigation. He employed forensic analyst Viktor Burakov because HE was the one who convinced investigators that they were dealing with a serial killer. However, his superiors in the Soviet Government refused to use the actual term ‘serial killer’ as they were adamant there was no such thing in Russia. It was a Western phenomenon, something that had not ever occurred in Russian history. Well, no serial killer had ever been called so, and authorities refused to admit that a Soviet citizen was responsible for killing fellow Soviet citizens. But with so many unsolved cases, the Public Prosecutor of the USSR publicly linked six unsolved murders to the same killer and admitted a serial killer was roaming the streets of Rostov.

Parents warned their children not to play outside as there was a wolf who grabbed kids off the street and dragged them into the woods. Of course, this was a cautionary tale. But, in a culture with many superstitions, there is even a lullaby about the lurking wolf, ready to pounce at any moment.

Viktor Burakov was frustrated with the attitude of his narrow-minded superiors. He knew that by asking for help from the FBI and other agencies, they could learn what was needed to catch a serial killer. All his requests for man-power, publicity and collaboration with American counterparts were denied. Not only was he trying to catch one of the worst serial killers in Russian history, but he was also always fighting with his superiors. Superiors who did not appreciate insubordination, so the forensics man/turned-investigator, was always looking over his shoulder.

Under Burakov’s lead, a new 10-person unit was created, named ‘Division of Especially Serious Crimes’. Among officers, the case was known as ‘Lesopolosa‘ which translates to ‘Forest Strip Killings’, because most of the bodies were found in the woods.

Burakov’s team had their backs up against the wall. People wanted answers, and it was time to make an arrest. In Soviet Russia, it was not uncommon for police to force people into making false confessions. Investigators honed in on all known sex offenders and paedophiles in the Rostov-on-Don area, focusing on Shakhty. Due to the extreme violence of the crimes, they also looked at local residents with mental health problems.

19-year-old Yuri Kalenik came forward and confessed to stealing a car. He said that he had committed the crime with three of his friends from a school for mentally disabled kids. All four were interrogated with violence and threats. These sessions were so intense, one of the suspects died at the hands of his interrogators, and another took his own life. In the end, Kalenik buckled and confessed to seven of the Ripper murders.

Lead detective, Viktor Burakov, knew that it was a false confession, he was not their guy. Burakov was openly critical of how interrogators handled the suspects. But in their custody was a man who confessed, so many officers felt the case was closed. They took

Kalenik to crime scenes, even though he wasn’t quite sure what was expected of him. He took the cue from police officers before providing details, and it was apparent that he was guessing most of the time.

Three days after Kalenik was taken into custody, the Ripper claimed another victim. 19-year-old sex worker, Vera Shevkun was found in the woods near a cotton mill on the outskirts of Shakhty in October 1983. Like other Ripper victims, she had been stabbed many times and both her breasts had been removed. Kalenik was not the Ripper after all, and police released him but kept him under surveillance.

There would be one more murder before the end of December 1983, at Persianovsky – along the Moscow-Rostov railway line. The body of 14-year-old Sergey Markov was found with 70 stab wounds. He was sodomised (either before or immediately after his death), and the killer removed his genitals with a kitchen knife. Near the body was feces, most likely left behind by the killer.

Investigators tracked Sergey’s movements on the day he disappeared. He left his home in Gukovo, taking the elektrichka (or commuter train). Teachers from a local school for the mentally challenged reported that a former student, 23-year-old Mikhail Tyapin took the same train that morning.

Tyapin, who could barely speak due to his disability, signed a statement confessing to Sergey’s murder. The statement said that, together with a friend called Alexandr Ponomaryev, he lured Sergey into the woods, killed him, then defecated closeby. However, Tyapin’s so-called confession made no mention of obvious details at the crime scene. Also, evidence at the scene proved that there was one killer, not two. When semen found on Sergey’s body did not match Tyapin’s bloodtype, he was released.

Detective Burakov worked endlessly to move the focus of the investigation. He felt officers were arresting anyone and everyone for the sake of appearances, so it could look like the wheels of justice were turning. To Burakov, pacifying the community was not as important as catching the deranged serial killer.

They had very little physical evidence. The Ripper never cleaned up the scenes, and his semen (Type AB) and grey hairs were found on many victims. But with no sample to compare it to the evidence was futile. It was crucial to find a suspect.

It did not seem like the victims were alarmed by the killer’s appearance, and evidence showed that they willingly accompanied him to the murder locations. In many instances, eyewitnesses saw the victims talking to a middle-aged man. The victims never looked frightened and walked alongside the man; he did not force them. This implied that the killer was an unassuming, unthreatening person; someone that would be extremely difficult to find.

The list of murders in 1984 is an extensive one. The Ripper’s second victim of the year, left to die in Rostov’s Aviators Park in February, was his oldest one. 44-year-old Marta Ryabenko, a homeless alcoholic, had both her nipples bitten off and her uterus removed.

The next month, 10-year-old Dmitry Ptashnikov was lured from a kiosk where he was looking at stamps. Many witnesses saw the boy walking with an older man and provided a description to police. All eyewitnesses agreed that it was a greying middle-aged man with big eyeglasses. The boy’s body was discovered three days after he was last seen. Samples of semen and saliva were found on the victim’s clothing, and a clear footprint was found next to the body. In a case with very little physical evidence, the shoe print was invaluable to the investigation.

In March, the body of Lyuda Kutsyuba, a 24-year-old disabled vagrant, was found in the forest belt between Kirpichny and Shakhty Station. She was last seen in July the year before.

By September 1984, six more women aged 17-22 and an 11-year-old boy were killed. Most victims were found strangled, with their eyes gauged out in the greater Rostov-on-Don area. Two more victims found in Aviators Park were a 29-year-old mother and her 12-year-old daughter who were killed together. The trauma they must have suffered is unimaginable.

The killer was out of control. He had killed fifteen people in 1984 alone, and the year wasn’t even over yet. Soviet Minister of the Interior spared no expense or man-power to catch the monster who was terrorizing the people. A task force of 200 worked around the clock, hunting the ever-elusive Ripper.

In October 1984, the Public Prosecutor linked more than twenty murders to the Ripper and dropped all pending charges against Kalenik and other mentally disabled youths who had been coerced into making false confessions. The total victim count stood at 24 – that police were aware of – this was an unprecedented killing spree.

Plainclothes officer Alexander Zanosovsky was one of many officers who patrolled the streets, keeping an eye on young people waiting at bus stops or walking alone. When he saw a middle-aged man talking to a child at a bus stop, the officer approached him and asked if he knew the child. The man downplayed the situation, explaining that he used to be a teacher and missed talking to young kids. Zanosovsky let the man go but had a bad feeling about him. He decided to follow the man and saw him talking to multiple people – mainly women and teenagers. If they did not engage in conversation, he went on to the next person. Officer Zanosovsky saw how the man paid a sex worker for oral sex at a train station and was able to arrest the man for soliciting.

This man’s name was Andrei Chikatilo. When he was arrested, he had a briefcase with him, containing a jar of Vaseline, rope, a dirty towel and a long-blade kitchen knife. Police were confident they had finally caught the Rostov Ripper. He resembled the composite drawing, made up after many eyewitness accounts: he was middle-aged with grey hair and glasses, and wore a long coat.

When police learnt that Chikatilo, lost his teaching job because of child molestation accusations, they were convinced he was the Ripper. However, they did not have any evidence connecting him to any of the murders. His blood type did not match the semen samples found on the victims, so how could he be the killer? However, police were not convinced that he was innocent.

Because a recent employer had filed theft charges against Chikatilo, police were able to detain him. He stole a roll of linoleum and a car battery from work and received a one-year prison sentence. But Chikatilo had many things in his favour. For starters; he was a first-time offender. He was also a family man who had kept steady employment over the years. But ultimately, he was a member of the Communist Party. So, after serving only three months, Andrei Chikatilo was released on the 12th of December 1984.

Because of Chikatilo’s standing in the community as a member of the Communist Party, police superiors came down hard on local officers. Zanosovky, the officer who arrested Chikatilo was demoted for being ‘overly zealous in the performance of his duties.’

For seven months, the ‘Division of Especially Serious Crimes’ held their breaths as there were no further murders. But it was only a matter of time. The first murder of 1985, took place at the end of July. He murdered a woman near Domodedovo Airport near Moscow. In August, there was yet another victim in Shakhty – a mentally disabled girl he met on a train. He shared his vodka with her, lured her into the woods and stabbed her 38 times. Police linked both murders to the Ripper.

Police interviewed all sex offenders in Shakhty, Rostov and Novoshakhtinsk. They also brought in all known homosexuals in a sweep action, detaining them for days on end. Doctors were obliged to hand over medical records of everyone who had suffered from venereal disease at any stage of the investigation. All these patients were also taken in for questioning. Sex shops, brothels – anything that would attract a possible sexual deviant was placed under surveillance.

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Detective Viktor Burakov, who was still a forensic analyst at heart, was frustrated at the lack of progress in the investigation. He had been on the case for two years, and they had no feasible suspect. Burakov approached psychiatrist, Alexandr Bukhanovsky to compile a profile of the killer. This had never been done in the Soviet Union before, and other prominent psychiatrists distanced themselves from this unusual step. Criminal profiling was still a new investigative tool in the USA, and USSR officials did not want to mimic American counterparts. Still, Burakov insisted: they had nothing to lose by involving Bukhanovsky.

Bukhanovsky, who specialized in sex crimes and sexual pathology, wrote a detailed profile titled ‘Citizen X’. He theorized that the killer was between 45 and 50 of age, which was older than investigators believed he was. He was a man of average intelligence who was most likely married, but not particularly close to his wife. He travelled regularly and was familiar with transportation hubs. The killer must have been tied to a production schedule, seeing as most of his murders occurred mid-week, between a Tuesday and a Thursday. This most probably coincided with issues he faced at work or at home. He was heterosexual but chose young adolescent male victims to serve as ‘vicarious surrogates’ for his fantasies.

Citizen X was also influenced by the weather – if the mercury suddenly dropped, he struck.

He was a ‘necro-sadist’, who derived sexual pleasure from watching his victims suffer and die. The knife became a substitute for his penis as he was impotent. Bukhanovsky predicted that he had the self-control to stop when he thought he could be caught. But in the end, the only way he’d ever stop was if he were arrested or if he died.

Detective Burakov read the profile, and although it was interesting, he did not quite know how it would aid their investigation. Burakov also travelled to Moscow where he interviewed serial killer Anatoly Slivko before his execution, hoping to gain a better insight into a serial killer’s mind. Slivko, a school teacher, was found guilty of killing seven boys in Moscow. Burakov was intrigued to see how the killer’s mind worked: he compartmentalized things, and although he admitted to killing boys, he would never drink alcohol in front of children, because he didn’t want to be a bad influence. Burakov realized yet again that if their killer was anything like Slivko, they would probably never catch him. He was most likely hiding in plain sight, and no one suspected what he was capable of.

In 1986, the murders came to a sudden and unceremonious halt. No new bodies emerged, and missing persons’ cases did not appear to be linked to the Ripper. Although Burakov tried every possible angle, the investigation was not progressing, they were not getting any closer to solving the case. By the end of 1986, Detective Burakov suffered a nervous breakdown. He had been working on the case for more than four years without a break and without psychological debriefing after seeing the most heinous of crime scenes. The stress of it all became too much. The detective was a husband and a father, and seeing countless bodies of murdered and mutilated women and children in the city where his own family lived must have been a nightmare. Burakov was sent to a psychiatric facility for a month. After his release, he recuperated at home for another month.

In 1987, three murders occurred with the Ripper’s signature, all far away from Rostov. In a massive triangle from Revda in the east, Zaporizhzhia in the Ukraine and Leningrad (that is St Petersburg today) in the north. All three victims were boys between the ages of 13 and 16. There was some doubt about his involvement in these murders. The locations were thousands of miles apart and up to this point, the killer seemed to prefer female victims. However, the similarities to other cases were too strong to ignore, so these three murders also became part of the investigation.

In 1988, police were still out in force, staking out bus stops and stations. Investigators were wondering if they’d ever catch a break. For two years there were no murders that bore the signature of the Ripper in Rostov. Was the killer in prison for another crime? Did he die? Was the nightmare finally over? However, without knowing who the killer was, police could not assume that he was done. Was this merely the calm before the storm?

Then, he struck again… He went on another killing spree, this time throughout Rostov Oblast, specifically along the train line between Rostov-on-Don and Shakhty. Countless middle-aged men were asked for identification documents, and anyone seen approaching a stranger was questioned. The killer must have known that police were keeping surveillance on bus and train stations, so he became more cunning when luring his victims to leave with him.

Between 1988 and 1990, another nineteen people fell victim to the Rostov Ripper. But he had changed his MO. During this time, the majority of victims were young boys. The murders were committed in public places, and it was clear that the killer was getting bolder. Was he taunting police? Perhaps he was simply getting sloppy – he managed to get away with the most atrocious crimes for the best part of a decade after all.

The beginning of the 1990s saw the fall of Communism, and everything in Russia was on the verge of change. This meant that the Soviet Government did not control the media anymore, and journalists were able to report on the killings. Burakov made the most of the opportunity. He no longer had the top-heavy police command structure to deal with. This gave him more authority to get the job done without wasting time on red tape. And finally, he could openly admit that the Rostov Ripper was a serial killer, and yes, Russian citizens could be serial killers too. The extent of the murders was made public, and things were heating up for the Ripper.

On March 11th 1990, Detective Major Mikhail Festisov called all investigators working on the case and made it clear that the Ripper HAD to be caught. If anyone was found to neglect leads or slack on the job, they would be fired. The pressure to solve the case was beyond the boiling point. The public and the Ministry of Interior in Moscow were pushing for a resolution.

1990 saw the deaths of nine more victims, seven of which were boys aged 7-16. It all came to a head with the murder of 11-year-old Ivan Fomin in August. The boy went for a swim down the road from his grandparents’ cottage. His body was found in the reeds near Novocherkassk beach three days later. He was stabbed 42 times, and he had also been castrated. It was a busy spot, and he must have been killed in broad daylight. When the news of this heinous murder hit the media, the community was up in arms: enough was enough.

Twelve years into the investigation, police had come no further in making a substantial arrest. One good thing that came from the lengthy investigation and police presence in the area was that more than 200 other criminals were apprehended. The general rate of rape and murder was drastically reduced, but there was one man out there that appeared to be uncatchable, invisible even.

It was lead investigator, Viktor Burakov, who came forward with a suggestion to trap the killer. He reckoned they should increase the presence of uniformed police officers at larger stations and parks where the Ripper had struck before. This would deter the killer from picking victims at these locations. Undercover officers were present at smaller stations along the Rostov-Shakhty line, where he would be more likely to strike to avoid detection. With nothing to lose, his superiors gave the green light, and the operation was launched on the 27th of October.

The idea behind the operation was proved to be correct when sadly, three days into the sting, the body of 16-year-old Vadim Gromov was found in the woods near Donleskhoz Station. He had been killed on the 17th of October, before the operation was officially launched. On the day Vadim’s body was found, a young man called Viktor Tishchenko boarded a train at Shakhty Railway Station. The athletic, 130-pound 16-year-old, accompanied a new acquaintance off a train at Kirpichnaya Station (one of the stations under the surveillance of undercover agents). Viktor was killed in a nearby forest – no one noticed him leaving with the killer.

In the end, the operation paid off. On the 6th of November 1990, a plainclothes police officer, Sergeant Igor Rybakov, noticed a middle-aged man emerging from the woods near the station at Sulin. The man had a mark on his face that looked like a smear of blood. He had injured his hand, and the back of his jacket was covered with foliage and twigs. Moreover, most people who went into the woods that time of year went to gather wild mushrooms. The man did not have a basket and was wearing a long trench coat and leather shoes, not quite suitable for mushroom-picking in the snowy forest. Sergeant Rybokov asked the man for his ID but did not have any grounds to arrest him. The sergeant did report the incident, however, as it stood out to him.

When Burakov went through all the reports of the day, one name stood out. It was a man they had arrested in 1984, but released when his blood type did not match the semen found at the crime scenes. This man was 54-year-old former teacher and grandfather. His name would always be engraved in Russian criminal history, he was: Andrei Romonovic Chikatilo.

** Thank you for listening to Part 1 of The Rostov Ripper. Part 2 will drop next week, same time, same place.

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