“This city is full of savage, wild people. People who come here, come with caution," a teenage girl named Marina Kuzmin told us the day we arrived. And she should know.
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Dusk was falling in November, 2004, when Marina Kuzmin and her 16-year-old twin sister Irina were hurrying home from the trade school where they studied to become secretaries. Bitten by the cold, they ducked into a corner store to buy a snack and warm up. When they emerged, a young man approached them. He zeroed in on Irina.
"You're so pretty," he cooed. "Won't you give me a bite of your corn dog?"
The man introduced himself as Stas. He wore a dirty black raincoat, scruffy white sneakers, and a tattered beanie. Yet he had the confidence of a player in an Armani suit. He looked directly into Irina's eyes and complimented her long eyelashes and the sheen of her jet-black hair. She recoiled when he placed a hand on her shoulder and chided her for wearing such a light jacket in early winter. "It's so thin, I can practically see through it," he joked, throwing Marina a wry smile.
Stas's large, luminous blue eyes were "a little hypnotizing," Marina recalled years later. Within minutes of their meeting, Stas had found a topic of common interest: a new bowling alley in the center of town. Soon the three were chatting. Stas talked rapidly, asking about their age, where they studied, and where they lived. He said little about himself. The only thing the girls could get out of him was that he kept a chicken coop in the back of his house, which explained his soiled clothes. Stas said he was 19, although the wrinkles around his eyes and his weathered skin hinted at a much older man. People age quickly in Nizhny Tagil, but the Kuzmins hadn't met many teenagers who were this slick. The sisters were intrigued, but sensed something wasn't right. Eager to get rid of him before they reached their apartment building, Irina agreed to meet him the next day at the local movie theater.
Stas cleaned up for the date. His ratty clothes were gone, as was his pushy manner. He arrived with flowers, dressed in black, clean slacks and a tucked-in dress shirt. He tickled Irina with compliments as they strolled through a barren winter park. It was her first real date, and the attention made her swoon. Telephone calls followed, then a second date, and then longer talks on the phone. She didn't return home from their third meeting. Her lifeless body, found by the side of a road outside a nearby city, would be returned to her family a year later.
Stas’ real name was Mark Kustovsky, a local ironworks factory hand. Kustovsky supplemented his wages by finding young girls like Irina for a local gang headed by a hulking 45-year-old thug named Eduard "Edik" Chudinov and his buddy, Igor Melizhenkov. For each girl Kustovsky handed over, he'd get anywhere from $20 to $500. "The better the merchandise," Kustovsky later wrote in a confession, "the more I got."
Once Kustovsky's girls were handed over to Chudinov, they were offered a choice: Accept a life of prostitution, or join Uncle Edik for a private picnic in the woods north of Nizhny. Those who accepted were kept as prisoners in their own city, sometimes only blocks from their homes. Those who rejected the offer would take a ride with Edik or his henchmen and learn that the picnic menu was limited to rape, torture, and strangulation.
Police file photograph: investigators rummaging through the snow to get their first glimpse of the bodies
According to Chudinov's videotaped confession, which the police encouraged Marina to watch, most of the girls were dumped in a mosquito-infested clearing adjacent to a forest swamp, about 30 miles south of Nizhny Tagil. The mass grave is just a few minutes by foot from the main road. One of its distance-marker signs which features an ominous bullet hole from a high-caliber gunshot.