Duo in cross-border killing spree

  • 2002-05-09
  • Aleksei Gunter

A special operation organized by the Estonian police on May 5, involving over 1,000 officers, failed to capture the country's most wanted criminal and resulted in the fatal shooting of a Latvian police officer and the serious wounding of two of his colleagues.

The authorities have intensified their efforts to capture 21-year-old Yuri Ustimenko, allegedly responsible for the killing of four people in the last two months, after he escaped from the Latvian border town of Valka following a shooting incident that claimed the lives of his partner Dmitri Medvedev and a Latvian police officer.

According to information passed to the Estonian police by the Russian authorities, the two had been illegally residing in Estonia for about a year, having fled from St. Petersburg in Russia where they are facing murder charges.

On May 3, four people were arrested who were in contact with Ustimenko and Medvedev before the two began a sequence of brutal robberies in Tartu.

On the evening of May 4, the Estonian police received operative information to suggest the two criminals, allegedly responsible for numerous assaults committed in Estonia since March 29, might try to flee to Latvia that same night at the Valka-Valga border station in southern Estonia. Valka and Valga, Estonia are effectively two halves of the same town divided by the border.

After a tip-off from their Estonian colleagues, the Latvian authorities in Valka strengthened the police presence in the town.

At 2:30 a.m. on May 5, a Latvian police patrol noticed two suspicious young men near a Valga church and requested to see their documents.

The two suspects opened fire on the patrol without reply, killing 35-year-old police officer Aigars Kurpnieks, wounding his colleague in the shoulder and shooting a security service worker who came to their assistance in the leg.

One of the two suspects, identified as Dmitri Medvedev, 21, was killed in the gunfight by the security service employee. Ustimenko escaped but left two bags behind at the scene of the incident. It is thought that Ustimenko fled back into Estonia after police dogs lost his trail in Valka.

It seems the pair had been keeping abreast of their own unraveling story. In one of the bags abandoned by Ustimenko, police officers found a diary with newspaper cuttings reporting the crimes, a roll of camera film containing photos of the fugitives, and about 1 kilogram of an explosive substance and detonators.

The picture on Ustimenko's military service card also matched a description given by a Tartu shopkeeper who survived a shooting incident involving the Russian.

Indrek Raudjalg, a spokesman for the Estonian police department, said the criminal police is now focused entirely on the Ustimenko-Medvedev case.

"We are not 100 percent sure if he is in Estonia, so we stopped the massive vehicle control operation carried out on Sunday," Raudjalg said, adding that the police is still keeping an eye on the places where Ustimenko and Medvedev had been previously sighted.

"We assume he could be in Estonia at the moment, so all the possible scenarios are being checked. He could be hiding at his acquaintances' place, in a forest or an old dilapidated house," said Raudjalg.

The police is strongly urging drivers not to pick up any young men hitchhiking alone who fit Ustimenko's description. Born April 23, 1981 Ustimenko is 1.68 meters tall and has a missing upper-front tooth. At the time of the Valka shootings his hair was short and dyed white, although he may since have disguised his appearance.

The suspect is most probably armed with a handgun.

The first of the six crimes Ustimenko and Medvedev are alleged to have committed occurred when a taxi driver was shot in the head in an industrial district of Tallinn on the night of March 29.

On March 31, a 51-year-old shop assistant in downtown Tartu was shot dead when two armed robbers took about 1,000 kroons ($57) from the cashier's desk.

On April 11, a 22-year-old shopkeeper in another Tartu retail store was shot in the head but survived the ordeal.

Later that same month, two unidentified men shot a female driver, along with a young male passenger, and took 50,000 kroons from the car. The young man died from his injuries.

On the morning of May 3, shortly before their attempt to enter Latvia, Ustimenko and Medvedev are alleged to have killed a 25-year-old shopkeeper at a hunting goods store in Tallinn city center. The shooting in Valka on May 5 is their last known crime.

According to those who survived the attacks, the pair shot their victims in the head at close range and had no apparent regard for self-disguise. Police experts suggest that killing itself, rather than money, may have been the primary motivation for Medvedev and Ustimenko.

The police also said the two could be responsible for the explosion on Roosikrantsi Street in Tallinn on March 18, when two bombs blasted several shop windows.