Eventually Marina stopped asking the police about her sister. She knew how they saw it: Missing girls are a dime a dozen in Nizhny Tagil. They're messy cases, solved about half the time--mainly when the missing return on their own. "I had no faith in the police," Marina said. "I knew my sister was never coming home--at least not alive."
Almost a year after Irina's disappearance, Marina says her older brother Misha got a call from the police. They accused him of killing his sister so he could claim the apartment their recently deceased parents left as inheritance. Misha denied the charge, but the cops brought him in to see what they could get out of him. They locked him up for 24 hours and threatened him with more jail time if he didn't sign the confession they had prepared for him. He refused. Then they moved in on Marina.
"Of course the girls themselves are to blame for what happened to them." — Olya, 19, studying economics (right)
"Yeah, Tagil girls will hang out with any malchik who'll buy them drinks and stuff." — Nadia, 19, studying economics (left)
Marina was tending the strawberry patches in the front yard of her grandmother's country house when a patrol car rolled up. The cops seemed cheery, claiming to have new information about her sister's disappearance at the precinct. They told her to get in the car. They finally have a lead! she thought, feeling the first flicker of hope she'd had in months. But once they arrived at the police station, the cops changed their tune. "They accused me of knowing where my sister was," Marina recounted. "They wouldn't take no for an answer."
She says the cops even tried a crude version of the good cop/bad cop technique, which they no doubt grabbed from some Hollywood movie. "You know where your sister is! Tell us or we'll put you away for a long time, you cunt!" one yelled, threatening to smack her upside the head. The abuse lasted for 12 hours and was repeated the next day. Getting nowhere, the cops ended the interrogation session and kicked her out on the street at 1 A.M.
Marina Kuzmin was no weakling--she had already endured the death of her parents, who succumbed to disease months before her sister's disappearance--but these provincial Russian cops finally broke her. "I was shaking when I left. When I got home I couldn't stop crying. I couldn't get over it for weeks," Marina said. "I feared the police as much as anyone."
In May 2006, more than two years after Irina's disappearance, the Kuzmins got a call from the prosecutor's office in Nizhny Tagil. They were asked to come identify a missing girl's belongings. There was no mistaking the purse, shirt, and shoes--they were Irina's. The prosecutor said that she was murdered on the day of her disappearance in 2004--strangled with a rope and dumped by the side of the road near a town called Novyansk, roughly 65 miles north of Nizhny Tagil. Although a missing-person's report was already on file when the Novyansk police found her body a few days after the murder, Marina says the police didn't bother checking to see if anyone was looking for a girl with Irina's description. When no one came around looking for her, local authorities buried her anonymously, about an hour's drive from her family home.
It was only then that Irina's body became part of a broader criminal investigation into the deaths of 15 other girls from Nizhny Tagil girls. At the center of the investigation were eight local men led by Chudinov.
Slowly the Kuzmin family learned the details of the case, which was broken more by luck than diligent police work. Marina says that the prosecutor gave her an unexpectedly candid off-the-record explanation of how the police cracked her sister's murder.