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Crooked Cops? Dropped Russian Phone Provides Clues

Filipp Romanov (left) and Sergei Bulanov in the courtroom during their trial last year

One night in March 2014, two luxury BMWs were stolen from the underground parking garage of an elite residence in Moscow. It was the prosaic beginning of a story that has unexpectedly cast light onto the usually shrouded world of Russian police corruption and malfeasance.

In July 2015, Filipp Romanov and Sergei Bulanov were convicted of stealing one of the two cars. Romanov was sentenced to eight years in prison, while Bulanov got seven. A few months later, an appeals court reduced Bulanov's sentence by six months because he had no previous convictions.

It would have been an ordinary case among thousands of others in which a court ignored glaring flaws in the police investigation except for one unique circumstance: The lead investigator in the case, police Lieutenant Anastasia Baryayeva, dropped her mobile phone in the car of Romanov's wife, Inessa Biryukova, during a meeting about the case.

When the phone was found, the messages it contained laid out a shocking pattern of police abuse of office and corruption that marred a highly dubious case.

"In general this case about the BMW 6 is completely dodgy," Baryayeva wrote in a text message to a friend on April 3, 2014, less than a week after the thefts. "There is zero proof; there is an alibi; no witnesses. In short, complete crap."

Biryukova is convinced her husband is the innocent victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. She repeatedly presented the evidence from Baryayeva's telephone to the authorities, including the Federal Security Service (FSB), but no investigation was opened.

An appeal to all 450 members of the Russian State Duma eventually led to an investigation by the Interior Ministry that determined the phone did belong to Baryayeva but found no evidence of wrongdoing. In September 2015, Baryayeva's office requested the telephone's return and threatened to file criminal charges against Biryukova for "theft."

On February 5, prosecutors officially rejected Biryukova's request for charges against Baryayeva, two of her colleagues, and the two arresting police officers, arguing circularly that the fact the two men had been found guilty proved the investigation was conducted properly.

With nowhere left to turn, Biryukova showed the telephone and the case materials to RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Dodgy From The Start

The case of the stolen luxury BMWs was strange from the beginning. One of the cars, a BMW X5, disappeared without a trace and has never been recovered. But Moscow police found the second car the very next day in the Moscow region village of Krasnoznamensky. They arrested Romanov, 34, and Bulanov, 42, as they came out of the house where Romanov and Biryukova rented an apartment. The stolen BMW X6 was parked nearby.

From the beginning, the accounts of the arresting officers -- senior police Lieutenants Stanislav Belov and Aleksandr Tutushkin -- differed substantially from the testimony of the accused. The investigation lasted over a year, and when investigator Baryayeva was trying to assemble the case file for the court, she was stymied by the inconsistencies in the police report. She wrote texts to her supervisor, police Captain Nelli Trostyanskaya, several times in February and March 2015 asking advice on which bits of the police report to include.

Filipp Romanov and Inessa Biryukova
Filipp Romanov and Inessa Biryukova

During the trial, apparent irregularities mounted. Romanov's lawyers asked that the police crime-scene report be deemed inadmissible because the accused was not allowed to read it. A defense expert testified that the defendants' signatures on the report had been forged.

On February 16, 2015, Baryayeva wrote to Trostyanskaya that if it was determined the signatures were fake, the court could arrest Baryayeva herself for "illegally detaining" a suspect. "Don't worry about that," Trostyanskaya wrote back. And then she sent a second message saying, "I won't leave you in the lurch." (For screenshots from the phone, see the Russian version here.)

An expert enlisted by investigators later ruled the signatures were "probably" not made by Romanov or Bulanov but that "it isn't possible to say with absolute certainty." The court decided that opinion was enough to rule the document admissible.

The defendants also allege that, soon after their arrest, police began asking for bribes. Romanov had two previous convictions for theft. He reasoned that he would have a hard time being acquitted even though he had a solid alibi. Telephone records and traffic cameras showed the defendants were working -- they were account representatives for a wholesaler visiting client stores -- outside the Moscow ring road the entire night.

So Romanov reportedly decided to pay the bribe. The police officers originally asked for 1 million rubles (about $27,800). They later increased their demand to 3 million and then 5 million rubles.

Biryukova filed a bribery complaint in December 2014. That is when investigator Baryayeva began meeting personally with Biryukova to discuss the case. On April 3, Baryayeva, allegedly after consuming alcohol, dropped her telephone in Biryukova's car, where Biryukova found it days later.

'We've Had Enough Of This Case'

There appeared to be many other questionable aspects of the case, including the handling of alleged microfiber evidence, the gathering of fingerprints, and the collection of cigarette butts that police claim were found in the car and belonged to the defendants.

By early March, it is clear from the text messages on Baryayeva's phone that both she and her boss, Trostyanskaya, believed the case against Romanov and Bulanov to be bogus.

"We aren't going to hold these innocents anymore," Trostyanskaya wrote on March 1.

"I think I've had enough of this BMW," Baryayeva responded.

"We've had more than enough of this BMW," Trostyanskaya wrote back.

Nonetheless, they sent the case to court. In Moscow's Kuntsevsky district court, a judge seemingly accepted every point of the prosecution's case. All the defense motions were dismissed. The entire process lasted about six weeks, and the men were found guilty and sentence was pronounced on July 6, 2015.

Romanov and Bulanov are now serving their sentences. Baryayeva and Trostyanskaya still work at the same branch of the Moscow Interior Ministry. Inessa Biryukova continues to try to prove her husband's innocence.