Russian Murder Incorporated Comes to London
When Russian banker German Gorbuntsov was shot outside his apartment in London by a contract killer, even Russians were shocked. They were not surprised by an attempted gangland killing but this was the first time that it occurred on the streets of London. Is London no longer a safe haven for Russian businessmen?
German Gorbuntsov was shot as he entered his serviced apartment block at 11 Byng Street on Westferry Road, in East London on the evening of 20 March 2012. He had just attended a business meeting in Bishopsgate in the City and had been driven home by a black taxi cab. The road near his flat seemed to have been deliberately chosen for its anonymity, but it was an unusual location and an unsuitable residence for a wealthy banker. Most affluent Russians live in Knightsbridge or Belgravia in central London.
It is possible that Gorbuntsov lived in such an offbeat area for security reasons, and chose to live a secluded life because he had a lot of secrets. One secret was that he was living in the apartment with his young, blonde mistress, Natasja Semchenkova, a Moscow born woman in her twenties who had given birth to a son in Israel last year and who had her own armed bodyguard. According to a neighbour:
“He seemed to be living the life of a playboy. You would see women arriving in the evening and see them leave in the morning and never see them again. They could have been work colleagues or anything. People don't ask questions about female visitors in places like this. He appeared to have a pretty busy social life but didn't speak to his neighbours much. You would see him going out to the supermarket in the mornings. He seemed to be very happy and not worried” .
Gorbuntsov was shot at 7:30pm in the lobby of his apartment block between four and six times in the stomach, the liver and once in the face. One witness described bullet holes in the front door, a broken window and blood smeared over the walls of the lobby. Another witness said: “I saw holes in his clothes. He was bleeding heavily. He was trying to stand but he fell to the ground”.
Staff at the apartment block said that Gorbuntsov’s mistress was in the flat at the time of the shooting and she ran down to the lobby when she heard the gunshots. There she discovered her banker lover lying in a pool of blood. One of the witnesses, a Polish man called Bart Fogler, described the scene immediately after the shooting:
“I saw Mr Gorbuntsov a couple of minutes after the shooting and phoned for an ambulance. A blonde woman came down from the apartments and was hysterical when she saw him and started screaming and shouting. She told me she was his wife. I heard her calling his business partner to arrange security to come and protect him. Mr Gorbuntsov was lying on the ground moaning. I saw holes in his clothes where the bullets entered. She was in a blue tracksuit and lives in the apartment with him. They have lived there for a few months. When the police arrived she didn’t want to talk to them because she didn’t understand who they were or what they were saying. I speak Russian so I translated for her and the police asked if she knew who had shot him, but she said she didn’t. She told them he had just got back from work, but hadn’t seen anything as she was upstairs in their apartment”.
Another witness said: “I saw a blonde woman trying to flag down cars for help. She was hysterical. When I moved closer, it appeared he had been shot in the face and there were at least three holes to the back of his jacket”.
Gorbuntsov was taken to hospital where he was put into a medically induced coma and placed under armed guard. His wife Larisa Gorbuntsova then flew over from Russia to be at his bedside and their son Vladislav was seeking a visa to be here.
It is not clear what kind of weapon was used by the assassin. One source said that the attacker used a sub-machine gun, but police described this as ‘speculative’. Another claimed that the police had found a pistol with a silencer in a bush close to the apartment block.
But the police are fairly sure that the suspected gunman was white, 6 feet tall, slim and was wearing a dark hooded top. He was seen running away from Westferry Road, then ran north up Bellamy Close, a side street running north of Byng Street and then disappeared in a warren of alleys. But it is also possible that the attack was a ‘drive-by shooting’ because one witness believed the shots came from a car. This witness looked shocked and said it had all happened just two yards in front of him. He said he saw Mr Gorbuntsov get out of a taxi and then heard shots and saw him fall down. He said the shots came from another car that was following the taxi. The person who fired the gun didn’t get out of the car, he just fired from it so the man didn’t see him. The speculation among Russian exiles is that the hitman was from Albania or the former Yugoslavia.
The shooting was not a total shock to his friends and business partners. One of them Vladimir Antonov, remarked that Gorbuntsov said he had been followed by an Audi in the days before the shooting. “When I met German he told me that two days earlier, on the Saturday, a suspicious dark-coloured Audi had followed him along Byng Street as he walked home after a business meeting”, said Antonov. “Canary Wharf is very empty at weekends so this seemed strange and unusual. … When we had lunch and German talked about the Audi, he said he was worried that he might be attacked in London, and he asked what I thought. I said: “German, it's simply impossible. This is the safest town in the world. The whole city is covered by CCTV. Nobody can touch you here”. Clearly, I was mistaken. He was shot the next day.
Gorbuntsov came out of his coma on the night of 30 March and gradually the possible reasons for his shooting are emerging. For Gorbuntsov, 45, has a controversial past. In the 1980s he was convicted of robbery and in the 1990s he founded around 40 companies before moving into finance and banking. In 2002 he became a shareholder in Interus Bank, which was later stripped of its license for suspected money laundering. In 2006 he went into partnership with Alexander Antonov and his son Vladimir, who was once linked to a planned takeover of Portsmouth football club. In 2008 he acquired Universalbank in Moldova where he is wanted for fraud and then moved to London in October 2010.
Gorbuntsov's lawyer, Vadim Vedenin, said he left Russia after allegations of fraud were made in connection with the state-controlled Russian railway company. He was accused of stealing money from the company, a claim he denies. It was alleged that an estimated £415 million was not repaid to the company after being deposited into a Moscow bank whose ownership later passed to Gorbuntsov and his associates.
Despite denying the allegations, Gorbuntsov fled to London because he believed that he would be safe there and would not need to hire bodyguards. His business visa is due to expire in 2013 and according to his lawyer he was planning to make a request for asylum in the UK.
Most sources say that the motive for his attempted murder was commercial. Police officers at Scotland Yard are working closely with the Serious Organised Crime Agency and MI5 and they believe that the murder was a contract killing organised from Russia. Some suggest that the shooting may be connected to Moldova, but most observers believe that the attack is related to the shooting of Gorbuntsov’s former business partner Alexander Antonov by three Chechens in Moscow in 2009.
The same Chechen group were also convicted of the September 2008 murder of a former Russian MP, Ruslan Yamadayev – a political opponent of Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov. That victim’s brother, Sulim Yamadayev, was later shot dead in Dubai in March 2009 by men using a gold-plated automatic pistol. The Dubai authorities accused Ramzan Kadyrov’s cousin of masterminding the assassination but later removed him from Interpol’s wanted list weeks after Kadyrov visited the country.
The Russian authorities never identified who ordered the shooting of Alexander Antonov, but the case was reopened on 2 March after Gorbuntsov submitted new testimony to the police. In his testimony Gorbuntsov accused two former business partners, Pyotr Chuvilin and Sergei Mendeleyev, of involvement in Antonov’s murder. His lawyer, Vadim Vedenin, said that Russian prosecutors were due to travel to London to meet with Gorbuntsov at the Russian Embassy, but the day before he was shot they cancelled the trip and said they would instead ask local investigators to question him.
In his testimony Gorbuntsov linked his former associates to the Russian railway company theft. His lawyer said that his former business partners had links to the Russian security services: “He told me that his former partners warned him that he could not touch them because they were protected to such an extent that they could even ‘kick open the door’ of top officials at the FSB and Interior Ministry”, said Vedenin. Gorbuntsov’s lawyer also claimed that the men threatened his life over the payment of $106 million from their bank: “At the time Gorbuntsov and the others didn't take the threat seriously. He changed his mind when the attempt on Antonov took place. Gorbuntsov was threatened and told the same thing would happen to him if he talked about the meeting”.
Another possible motive behind the killing is the possible involvement of the Moscow underworld organisation, the Solntsevo Brotherhood. In mid-January Gorbuntsov’s wife, Larisa, told the Russian prosecutors that the Solntsevo gang claimed that Gorbuntsov owed them money and had forced her to sign over her share of her husband’s fortune and that weeks later her husband was forced to do the same. She claimed that threats were made on her life and also that a banking official threatened to arrange for her son Vladislav to be arrested on drugs charges.
In an affidavit Larisa Gorbuntsov revealed how she received a call on her mobile phone in April 2009, asking her to come to the Moscow headquarters of her husband's bank in Grunzinskaya Street. At this stage, she didn't realise anything was wrong. When she arrived, however, she was confronted by four ‘heavies’ from the Solntsevo gang. An associate told Mrs Gorbuntsov that she had to sign over her share in her husband's fortune to them, because he allegedly owed the brotherhood money. The men from Solntsevo then pulled out revolvers from their shoulder holsters. If she refused to sign, she was told, her son would be sent to jail on trumped-up drug charges, their home would be burnt to the ground the following night, and she would be kidnapped. Mrs Gorbuntsov signed the documents. A few days later her husband was forced to do the same in similar circumstances. They lost millions. When the Gorbuntsovs reported the matter to the authorities, no action was taken against the men who had threatened them. They denied any wrong doing and the couple's accusations remained on file at the state prosecutors’ office.
It is not clear however how these accusations relate to those made by Gorbuntsov against his former partners and so the case remains open. Contract killings are not new in Russia. They were common-place during the ‘The Great Mob War’ of 1993-4, which was concentrated in Moscow. Official statistics recorded between 500 and 600 contract killings a year in Russia throughout the 1990s, but the real figure was higher. There were dozens of high profile assassinations during this period.
In 1994 Boris Berezovsky was the target of a car bomb which decapitated the driver of his limousine and the next year the television journalist Vladislav Listyev was shot dead in Moscow. One account states that the killings reached their peak with the murder of the liberal MP Galina Starovoitova, who was killed in St Petersburg in November 1998. But in fact statistics show that such killings increased in 1999, probably due to the non-payment of debts following the market crash the previous year.
The pattern was that there would be a spate of assassinations in a particular industry, which would then cease – presumably after the industry had been successfully consolidated. The Polish journalist Zygmunt Dzieciolowski recalled: “Assassins have targeted bankers and oilmen. In Russia's far east, their favourite targets were businessmen involved in lumber and fishing. But no other Russian industry has proved as dangerous to be involved in as aluminium production. In the mid-1990s the wave of contract killings hit managers of Russian smelters in cities from Krasnoyarsk to Sayanagorsk to Bratsk”.
Contract killings declined under Putin’s regime. But, according to Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, “there are still between 500 and 700 contract killings a year in Russia which is comparable with the level of killings in the 1990s”. In 2008 a report in Kommersant noted that the victims of contract killings shifted under Putin from businessmen and entrepreneurs to state bureaucrats. No doubt this reflected the shifting centres of power under Putin’s Presidency.
In recent years the most notable deaths include Governor Valentin Tsvetkov in 2002, Forbes journalist Paul Klebnikov in 2004 and the Central Bank official Andrei Kozlov in 2006. They were all shot dead in Moscow. Kozlov’s death was followed by the high profile murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the less well known killing of Aleksandr Plokhin, who was a manager at Vneshtorgbank. Journalists have been a particularly notable target of contract killings under Putin and at least 12 journalists were targeted by hired killers before Anna Politkovskaya’s murder.
Even today hired assassins, usually from Chechnya and Albania, charge as little as $1,000 in Moscow, but the attempted killing of Gorbuntsov is estimated to have cost between $40,000 and $50,000.
However, the legacy of the shooting of Gorbuntsov is that it appears that London is no longer as safe as wealthy Russians had always assumed.ShareThis