MOSCOW -- Vitaly Myasin was getting ready for work when two men dressed as police officers showed up at his apartment in the Far Eastern Russian city of Vladivostok.
They told Myasin he was a suspect in a criminal case and that he needed to come with them to the police station for questioning. The men then drove him to a rural area and stabbed him to death. Three days later they returned to the apartment, let themselves in with Myasin's keys, and suffocated his 38-year-old wife, Natalya Gaidukova, with a pillow.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Natalya's bereaved 80-year-old father, Ivan Gaidukov, says "nobody ever bothered" his daughter before, either at work or at home. Now he and his spouse have been left with no relatives to care for them.
"Now my wife and I are on our own," Gaidukov says. "I'm 80 years old; she's 73. Who's going to look after us now? The state isn't going to."
The couple's grisly fate was not an isolated crime. They were among seven people killed by a gang, led by a former police officer, that targeted and killed people in Russia's Far East by posing as policemen in order to seize apartments and sell them for huge profits.
On June 14, a court in the Primorye region found the five-man gang guilty of multiple counts of murder, fraud, forgery, and theft. They were given sentences ranging from nine years to life in prison. The case has added to already widespread suspicions about the close links between law-enforcement and organized crime in Russia.
Kiril Kabanov, the chairman of Russia's National Anticorruption Council, says criminal operations like the one in Vladivostok are disturbingly common and usually involve a wide net of corrupt officials.
"In these cases, it isn't just the police that take part," Kabanov says. "The notaries and courts are also involved. These illegal and criminal activities by realtors are just one of the orientations of criminal corruption -- it's like a small sector of criminal and corrupt business."
Gang Of Five
No evidence has surfaced yet that there was a broader conspiracy in the Vladivostok case beyond the five-man gang.
Avrora Rimskaya, the senior aide to Primorye region's chief investigator, told reporters that "each person in the group was given their own role" based on their experience and employment.
Salavat Biktashev, a district police officer in Vladivostok's Pervorechensky region, was tasked with locating property owners who were particularly vulnerable.
Vladimir Basmanov, a former police officer and the gang's ringleader, would don his old uniform and simulate the victims' arrest with the help of his trusted right-hand man, Sergei Vlasenko. Basmanov used his intimate knowledge of police protocol to carry out the crimes, prosecutors said.
The remaining two gang members were Vadim Nuzhdin, the director of a property company, and an unemployed man, Sergei Chernenko. Both played a part in selling the apartments and forging the required documents.
Sergei Ignatenko, the press secretary for the Primorye regional court, told reporters after last week's verdict that "Basmanov and Vlasenko brought the victims to deserted places where they killed them to make it easier to carry out the fraud of the apartments."
They then burned the corpses, he added.
Many of the gang's targets were alcoholics or drug addicts. The gang also preyed on the lonely and the elderly. Their oldest victim was more than 80.
Since the 1990s, alcoholics and drug addicts have been prime targets of what have been dubbed "black realtors," who coerce their victims into signing over their apartments. A local crime reporter in Vladivostok covering the story told RFE/RL that Myasin was a "very heavy drinker."
Where Were The Police?
Before being caught, the gang managed to seize and sell two apartments for 2.52 million rubles ($78,000) by forging new ownership deeds. They were arrested before they could sell the remaining three, whose owners they had already killed.
The gang was arrested after they killed a father and son but had problems selling their two apartments on the same street. Neighbors knew that there was a second son who was in line to inherit the apartment, suspected foul play, and notified the police.
Gaidukov says the police could have prevented his daughter's murder -- and possibly Myasin's -- if they had reacted more quickly to her appeals for help. When her husband went missing, Ivanova asked police to look into the matter, but they told her they had to wait three days as protocol demanded.
"You can fly to the moon in three days," Gaidukov says. "If they had just looked into it straight away, they would have caught them on the road and he would still be alive and so would my daughter."
The Vladivostok case comes at a time when Russians' mistrust of the police is alarmingly high.
A poll conducted in April by Public Verdict found that 60 percent of Russians do not trust the police, while 16 percent feel "indignant" toward them. Last year, a Levada Center survey found that two-thirds of Russians "fear" the police.
The close links between organized crime and law enforcement came under nationwide scrutiny in November when 12 people -- including four children -- were savagely murdered at a farmer's home in the Krasnodar region of Russia's south.
Among the 20 people arrested for the crime in the wake of national public outcry was a police officer. Many people suspected the police of providing protection for a criminal operation tied to a large agro-business concern that was forcing farmers to turn over their land.
President Dmitry Medvedev has made police reform a top priority. He has scrapped the Soviet-era name "militsiya" in favor of "politsiya" and intends to raise salaries in the Interior Ministry while cutting its bloated workforce by 20 percent. Many of the reform's stronger provisions were slashed as the bill passed through the State Duma in March.
Elena Panfilova, head of Transparency International's Moscow office, says the reforms -- watered down as they are -- have been slow to take hold, especially in the regions.
"The change initially starts from the very top -- meaning from Moscow -- and the drive of this change can be lost on the way -- that is, from the center to the regions," Panfilova says. "I think it will require a big effort and a lot of political will to translate the drive for change from the center to the regions."