Crime Watch

A Former Policeman Bites Off His Tongue

Mar 04, 2004
The Moscow Times

Legend has it that Japan's mysterious ninjas in the Middle Ages would bite off their tongues when taken prisoner. By severing the large arteries in the body's strongest muscle, a ninja could then bleed to death peacefully rather than face brutal torture.

Whether former traffic policeman Alexander Astapov was familiar with the tradition of the ancient Japanese warriors is unclear. But police said death wasn't his objective when he bit off the tip of his tongue before an interrogation: He just didn't want to accidentally rat out his partners-in-crime.

Astapov, 39, is the convicted leader of a group of former police officers whom authorities say killed dozens of Moscow residents over the course of five years. Their motive? Real estate.

Astapov and five accomplices were convicted last year of fraud, extortion and the murder of two people in a brutal scheme in which the group sought out elderly or lonely Muscovites, killed them and seized their apartments. They then falsified the ownership documents and sold the properties for a tidy profit.

Investigators believe the incidents for which Astapov and his band were convicted are just the tip of the iceberg, according to media reports. They may have committed anywhere from several dozen to up to 100 murders.

Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that the group earned some $1.5 million from the fraudulent sales, though a city prosecutor's office spokeswoman could not confirm that figure.

Astapov started up the grisly business around 1996, after finishing a two-year prison sentence for automobile theft, media reported. He recruited police acquaintances with access to registration records to help target victims.

Citing investigators, Kommersant described one Kafkaesque setup in which Astapov would go to a victim's apartment dressed in a police uniform. He would inform the owner that he was being summoned for an interrogation in connection with criminal charges that had been brought against him. Astapov would then lead the victim to his accomplices, who were waiting in a car temporarily adorned with police insignias.

Once in the car, they would shoot the apartment owner in the head and drive the body to the city outskirts for burial. Investigators have found the bodies of 20 suspected victims, Kommersant said.

The newspaper reported that Astapov bit off the end of his tongue and hung a sign around his neck that read "I'm mute." Komsomolskaya Pravda said he "bit it off cleanly, without a deadly loss of blood but with a guaranteed loss of speech."

The city prosecutor's office spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday that Astapov did indeed bite off his tongue ahead of police questioning after his arrest in 2000.

She could not describe the current condition of his tongue.

The investigator handling the case declined requests for an interview.

Despite the court convictions last year, the case is still going on. Astapov and 16 suspected members of his gang face charges of banditry, fraud, forgery and the illegal possession of weapons.

After his first conviction, in which he was sentenced to nine years, Astapov was declared mentally unfit -- presumably due to the tongue-biting incident -- and moved from his prison cell to a psychiatric ward, the prosecutor's office spokeswoman said. But he will only be tried if he is declared mentally fit.

A date for court hearings in the case has yet to be set.

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