MOSCOW, Sept. 14, 2007 — -- One of the attractions of Moscow is its so-called "lesoparki," a curious urban cross between a cultivated park and wild woodlands.
There are several of them, some even quite close to central Moscow. They are every city dweller's dream for a weekend picnic with friends, a fishing outing or just a jog. But they are also notorious for being an ideal setting for the serious crime that besets any large city.
In Russia last year, Moscow police recorded 1,000 cases of homicide. According to official statistics, in 2006, throughout Russia, 500 people are believed to have been killed by serial killers.
To any casual visitor, the Bitsevsky Park on the southern outskirts of Moscow is an idyllic scene. Escaping their polluted capital, Moscovites relish their weekends and time off on horseback, on bicycles or making the best of the large sports club situated just next to the park. But the single telltale sign of any Russian park, going back in history, are men playing chess, on long rows of tables, never mind the weather.
One such player was Alexander Pichushkin, 33, a supermarket shelf stacker whose trial opened in Moscow Thursday. Among Muscovites he is now known as the Bitsevsky Maniac, charged with the murder of no fewer than 49 people in that very park. Some of them were his fellow chess players. Pichushkin allegedly confesses to have known 20 of his victims "quite well."
Prosecutors say the Bitsevsky Maniac's first murder victim was a fellow student in 1992. In 2001 he went on a killing spree that ended June 18, 2006, when Moscow police arrested a suspect.
By any standards, this isn't an everyday Russian court case. This one gets a jury and is open to the public — not that frequent in Russia where people are usually banned from the courtroom and the institution of a jury is still a novelty.
Sixty-two of the 64 squares of the chessboard that police say they found in Pichushkin's one-bedroom apartment, which he shared with his mother, were marked with coins depicting the victims he allegedly confesses to have killed. He had two more to go to fill the chessboard, but perhaps many more to fulfill his killing instinct.
"If they hadn't caught me, I would never have stopped, never. They saved a lot of lives by catching me," he told NTV, a Russian TV channel that interviewed him shortly after his arrest last year.
Although charged with 49 proven murders, Pichushkin claims 13 more and says the markings on his chessboard are the real total.
In a Moscow court, the neatly clad and groomed Pichushkin complained that he had been denied the title of Russia's most-notorious serial killer because the police failed to attribute the other 13 to him.
At the opening of the trial, prosecutors said that Pichushkin, according to his testimony, had hoped to surpass the record of Andrei Chikatilo, Russia's worst serial killer to date, who murdered and cannibalized 52 women and children in 1992.
One of the prosecutors, Yuri Syomin, told the court that "Pichushkin dreamed of surpassing Chikatilo and going down in history." And according to a police spokesman, "In all likelihood, this case will turn out to be even bigger than that of the notorious maniac Chikatilo."
After Pichushkin's arrest in June 2006, a reporter from Russia's NTV network asked him the simple question, "Why?" Pichushkin's response was, "Well, that's the way it ought to be. How should I put it more clearly? You see, life for me is like life without food for you -- a craving. I felt like the father of those people. After all, I opened the door to another world for them. I released them into a new life."
Doctors at the Serbsky Institute in Moscow, Russia's most respected psychiatric clinic, have pronounced Pichushkin sane. According to investigators and psychiatrists, Pichushkin has never had any documented mental disorder, has an average intelligence level and has never had any extreme tendencies.
"Serial killers need medical attention, but they never reveal themselves until their actions become obvious to other people," psychiatrist Alexander Gonopolsky told AP Television.
According to authorities, Pichushkin's favored way of living out his murderous streak was to pick out mostly middle-aged men, although not only, then suggest a glass, or two, of vodka over the grave of his beloved dog buried in the Bitsevsky Park. Then he would attack from behind by shattering the victim's head with a hammer or a steel rod.
"I liked the sound of a skull splitting," he told prosecutors. Pichushkin sometimes rammed twigs or a vodka bottle into the shattered skull. He then threw most of his victims into a nearby sewage well.
Hundreds of police were deployed to sweep the 6.6-square-mile park for suspects, and at one point in March 2006, police thought they had broken the case. They shot and arrested a man who had threatened them with a knife.
Within a week, two more murder victims were found in the park. Clearly, the killer was still on the rampage. Pichushkin later admitted to the investigators that he had known about the arrest and wanted to show that in this game of cat and mouse he still had the upper hand.
Russian police officers have the right to check citizens' identity documents and Pichushkin's had been checked in the park on more than one occasion. No officer had ever found anything suspicious about this well-dressed and clean-cut man.
In June 2006 Pichushkin was detained, among other suspects, on the vague suspicion of killing his supermarket co-worker whose body had been found in Bitsevsky Park. Officers found Pichushkin's name and phone number on a piece of paper in the apartment of his last victim.
She had apparently become suspicious of Pichushkin, and had left behind a note so police would be able to track him down — just in case. Pichushkin denied involvement at first, but when confronted with subway surveillance camera footage showing him with his future victim, he confessed to the crime. Police said he even gave them the hammer he had used to kill the woman.
To those who knew Pichushkin, he was a polite and even sensitive man. A BBC reporter spoke with his downstairs neighbor, 70-year-old Svetlana Mortyakova, "He called me Auntie Sveta. He loved animals — and was inconsolable if a pet died." But then she said with a shudder, "For 40 years I lived in the same house with a maniac!"
Pichushkin's mother, Natalya, spoke to Moscow's Tvoi Dyen tabloid after her son's arrest. "How could I have known that he'd become such a beast?" she said. "He grew up as a normal child. Although at the age of 4 he did fall off a swing, hit his head and spent a week in hospital."
The "Crazy Chess Player," as Moscow police now call him, does not deny the toll of his killing spree. His lawyer, Pavel Ivannikov, told the court that Pichushkin would plead guilty.
Capital punishment is still in the Russian penal code, but since 1996 Russia has observed a freeze on the death penalty, as required by its Council of Europe membership. Realistically, if convicted, Pichushkin faces a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
After leaving the courtroom, Alexander Fyodorov, an elderly, intellectual Muscovite, told reporters, "He got my brother drunk, then threw him into the sewage well, still alive. Pichushkin deserves more than a life sentence. A firing squad would be too light on him."