October 31, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Peace Corps Volunteer Victor Verloo marked for death in Ukraine
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October 31, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Peace Corps Volunteer Victor Verloo marked for death in Ukraine
Peace Corps Volunteer Victor Verloo marked for death in Ukraine
Victor Verloo was killed in this small apartment in Chernihiv, Ukraine, seen here in a crime scene photograph. Verloo's killer dragged the wounded Peace Corps volunteer around the apartment in a search for money. Verloo was later stabbed to death.
Read and comment on this story from the Dyaton Daily News on 64-year old Peace Corps Victor Verloo who was murdered in the northern Ukraine city of Chernihiv on the night of Sept. 13, 1998. A woman came to Verloo's apartment and laced his drink with a drug. Hours later, Vladimir Minko, an unemployed ex-convict nicknamed "Tomato," went to the apartment and beat the 64-year-old volunteer from Sacramento, Calif., over the head with dustpan handle and then stabbed him to death.
Nona Verloo, who held power of attorney for her ex-husband and managed his business affairs, and the couple's daughter, Monique, said the identity of the woman who stole the keys and other details of the murder were kept from them by then-Country Director Jerry Dutkewych, who oversaw Peace Corps operations in Ukraine. "Every time we would bring up the question of this woman, Dutkewych would say, ‘Oh, I don't want any scandal. Don't want to raise questions.’ He didn't want to tarnish Peace Corps," Nona Verloo said. Read the story at:
Verloo had become romantically involved with a foreigner he hardly knew, a 28-year-old Ukraine woman who sold him beer at a kiosk near his apartment. That relationship marked him for death.
The same woman, according to court records, showed the killer where Verloo lived, told him there was a computer and money inside. The same woman, Ukraine court records show, also stole Verloo's apartment keys, giving them to an acquaintance who passed them along to Minko. Police, however, never charged her, claiming they couldn't prove she was the same woman who drugged Verloo the night of the murder.
Marked for death*
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Marked for death
Botched robbery plot, romance leads to murder in Ukraine
By Russell Carollo
Dayton Daily News
CHERNIHIV, Ukraine | Etienne Victor Verloo survived the Belgium air force, which took him as a teenager and turned him into a jet fighter pilot. He survived the Congo, where he piloted planes above the African bush in the 1960s.
But he didn't survive eight months in the Peace Corps.
In this northern Ukraine city on the night of Sept. 13, 1998, a woman came to Verloo's apartment and laced his drink with a drug. Hours later, Vladimir Minko, an unemployed ex-convict nicknamed "Tomato," went to the apartment and beat the 64-year-old volunteer from Sacramento, Calif., over the head with dustpan handle and then stabbed him to death.
Verloo, who was assigned to help nonprofit groups, had become romantically involved with a foreigner he hardly knew, a 28-year-old Ukraine woman who sold him beer at a kiosk near his apartment.
That relationship marked him for death.
The same woman, according to court records, showed the killer where Verloo lived, told him there was a computer and money inside. The same woman, Ukraine court records show, also stole Verloo's apartment keys, giving them to an acquaintance who passed them along to Minko.
Police, however, never charged her, claiming they couldn't prove she was the same woman who drugged Verloo the night of the murder.
Relationships in foreign countries often end in trouble for Peace Corps volunteers.
In one of every nine assaults against volunteers worldwide since 1990, a total of 330 cases, the attacker was identified as a "friend/acquaintance," according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of Peace Corps computer records. One of every 11 rapists was identified as a current or former "boyfriend."
Since 1984, seven of 13 murders — more than half — were believed to be linked to someone the volunteer knew.
Family members said the Peace Corps told them Verloo lost his keys in a market and a "fruit lady" picked them up. The killer, they said they were told, happened by the market and picked up the keys.
"We got no satisfaction at all from them (Peace Corps)," said Nona Verloo, the volunteer's ex-wife.
Nona Verloo, who held power of attorney for her ex-husband and managed his business affairs, and the couple's daughter, Monique, said the identity of the woman who stole the keys and other details of the murder were kept from them by then-Country Director Jerry Dutkewych, who oversaw Peace Corps operations in Ukraine.
"Every time we would bring up the question of this woman, Dutkewych would say, ‘Oh, I don't want any scandal. Don't want to raise questions.’ He didn't want to tarnish Peace Corps," Nona Verloo said.
Monique said she had similar problems with Dutkewych.
"I pushed Jerry as much as I could about this other woman, because in my opinion, if there was another woman involved, she's as guilty as the guy who did it," she said. "Whenever we brought up the woman, Jerry would shift in his (chair). I mean, he didn't like talking about this other woman.
"It makes me ill just thinking that if she is the one who set up my dad, she has not been punished in any way," Monique Verloo said.
Dutkewych, now with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, D.C., referred questions about Verloo's death to the Peace Corps.
A written response from Peace Corps says, "Country Director Jerry Dutkewych did not withhold information. He communicated to the family the facts that he had." Dutkewych, the response says, was not aware of the identity of the woman until he was contacted by the Dayton Daily News.
The murder was one of four in the Peace Corps that year, equaling the largest annual total in the agency's 42-year history. Verloo was also one of two volunteers in Ukraine found dead in less than 10 months. On July 8, 1999, the body of Brian Krow of California was found under a bridge in the city of Cherkassy.
In Krow's death, too, the family felt the Peace Corps did not provide them with all the details, and even the Ukraine prosecutor overseeing the investigation said the agency withheld information, including the fact that Krow was facing expulsion. The Peace Corps said Krow accidentally fell from a bridge.
"We got a lot of conflicting stories," Nona Verloo said. "There are just a lot of questions. I mean, what is the truth and what is fact? Who knows?"
FRIEND ADMITS STEALING KEYS BEFORE ROBBERY
Peace Corps volunteer Victor Verloo (with hands clasped) was murdered while serving in Ukraine. The 63-year-old man's relationship with a Ukrainian woman led to his death.
When Victor Verloo met Natalya Nikolaevna Kopot, she was earning 12 Grivnas (about $5) a week selling beer and other items at a small kiosk, according to her signed police statement. Her husband of 10 years repaired cars at their home, but she had left him eight months earlier and moved with her 8-year-old son into her parents' apartment.
Living with her parents wasn't easy. Her father, unemployed and on disability for a heart condition, disapproved of her split with her husband.
In early June 1998, Kopot was working in kiosk number 296, one of about four lining Mera Boulevard, or "Peace Boulevard," the main thoroughfare through Chernihiv and a 5-minute walk from Verloo's tiny apartment.
"He used to buy beer all the time," Kopot said in her statement to police. "Then he came and brought a note, which somebody had written for him, (saying) that he liked me and he wanted to date me. . . . He came and suggested beer to me. . . . We went to his house."
Verloo, Kopot told police, only spoke a little Ukrainian at the time.
"He explained to me with the help of a dictionary that he wanted to make love to me," she said.
On the seventh page of her nine-page statement, Kopot said: "I want to correct my words."
Kopot, who went to Verloo's apartment with another woman, admitted she stole Verloo's keys from a table while he went to another part of the apartment. She said she gave the keys to Victor Rybalko, a former classmate at a vocational school. Court records show that Vladimir Minko got the keys from Rybalko, whose brother was one of Minko's partners in a burglary a few weeks earlier.
Both brothers, Kopot said, and two other men came to her kiosk and pressured her for information on Verloo.
"They started insisting that I should learn if Victor, the American, had anything at home, which meant going to his house," she said. "They wanted to rob him.
"They said that they will hit him and me with something in a dark street and arrange it as if there was an assault on both of us."
Kopot also admitted telling them that Verloo had a computer believed to be worth up to $2,500, more money than many Ukrainians earn in a year.
The men planning to rob Verloo, Kopot said, encouraged her to keep visiting his apartment.
"He (Verloo) told me he loved me, wanted to take me to California," she said.
RED FACE GIVES CAREER CRIMINAL AWAY
Chernihiv Judge Gennadiy Salayi holds a picture of Vladamir Minko the man who killed Victor Verloo. In March 1999, Minko was sentenced to death in Verloo's murder, but the country later abolished the death penalty and his sentence was changed to life in prison. Photo Chris Stewart Dayton Daily News
Vladimir "Tomato" Minko, the man who killed Victor Verloo, grew up in a children's home. He didn't know his father, and his mother spent much of her life in prison, according to the judge who oversaw his trial.
Like a lot of people in Ukraine, he didn't have a job.
Only months before the murder, 33-year-old Minko was released from prison, where he was serving a 10-year sentence for robbery. In the 1980s, Minko was part of a three-member gang that robbed people at gunpoint, sometimes tying them up.
Oleksandr Glyanko, who investigated Verloo's murder, was a young lieutenant in the Chernihiv police department when Minko was committing crimes in the 1980s.
In the earlier robbery that sent Minko to prison, Glyanko said, the robbers removed their masks, unaware that a 6-year-old girl was hiding in a closet. The girl not only identified their faces but also heard them calling each other by name.
The girl recalled that one of the robbers had a red face.
The detail was a big help. Minko was known as "Tomato" because of the color his face turned when he drank.
Minko and the other robbers were identified after they started drinking and spending the stolen money.
On Aug. 20, 1998, less than a month before Verloo was murdered, Minko and Vasyl Rybalko, the brother of Natalya Kopot's former classmate, climbed to the roof of an apartment building in Chernihiv and lowered a third man to the kitchen window of a fifth-floor apartment, where he stole jewelry, cigarettes, a telephone and other belongings. Minko and Rybalko then went down and broke open the door to let their accomplice out.
They also took a large hunting knife, the same one Minko would take with him to Verloo's apartment a month later.
'ALL THESE PROSTITUTES, THEY KEEP KNOCKING ON MY DOOR'
Victor Verloo was an easy target for murder in Ukraine.Like many Peace Corps volunteers around the world, he had lots of free time on his hands. And like many older American men who come to Ukraine, he found an abundance of young, beautiful women willing to marry men twice their age for a ticket to the United States.
"I know that he had lots of girlfriends there," Nona Verloo said. "From what he wrote me or told me, he liked the Ukrainian women, and I thought that he planned to stay there."
Monique, too, recalled her father telling her about female visitors.
"My father said to me on the phone, ‘You know, all these prostitutes, they keep knocking on my door. They keep wanting me to teach them English,’ ” she said.
Just days before he died, Verloo's credit card records show he paid $20 to the Elegance Network. Nona Verloo said she called the company after seeing the credit card bill and was told that the purchase was for a book of Ukraine women wanting to marry.
"A lot of older single men volunteers — by older meaning in their 40s and 50s — for a lot of them in the back of their mind they think, ‘I'm going to go over there and meet a beautiful Ukraine girl and life's going to be great,’ ” said Joseph Simms, a volunteer in Ukraine from 1997-99.
Women in Ukraine and other countries are sometimes known to act as bait to lure Americans and other foreigners into robberies.
"Ukraine’s viewpoint of Americans is they’re all rich," said Joe Vasta of Providence, R.I., who was robbed outside his apartment in Ukraine beginning in 1997.
A 2002 report on Ukraine from the Peace Corps inspector general says many of the safety, security and health concerns are related to "risky behavior" associated with drinking. "We are in a place where we don't speak the language that well, where we stick out, where they're not used to foreigners, where we are perceived as having a lot of money because we are Westerners, and especially if they find out we're Americans," said Juniper Neill of California, a volunteer in Ukraine from 1997-99. "So we are potentially targets for thefts.
"You're not in spring break Florida. I don't want to criticize volunteers, but sometimes I feel like that was the attitude they had."
Verloo wasn't required to work regular hours.
Yuriy Trofimenko, the director of the nonprofit group where Verloo was assigned, said the volunteer spent much of his time working from his tiny apartment on his laptop and usually didn't come to the office until afternoon. The nonprofit, called AHALAR, is funded partially through U.S. tax dollars, he said, and it provides technical support to other nonprofit groups.
Asked what Verloo did during his five months at AHALAR, Trofimenko said he helped create a donor database and design a brochure, which opens to a two-sided 8 1/2-by-11 sheet and has a photograph of Verloo on it.
A SIMPLE PLAN ESCALATES TO MURDER
Just a block or so from the kiosk where Natalya Kopot worked, Vladimir Minko walked past a small playground and into one of the many Ukraine apartment buildings constructed under Communist rule, which ended in 1991. The structures are infamous for having tiny apartments with few amenities.
Minko climbed seven flights of stairs to a small landing with three doors. He stopped at the door with the tacky red upholstery and a metal plate with a number "42" on it, Verloo's front door. He tried to work the keys in the large Soviet-made locks, but he couldn't get them all to open. On Sept. 13, the day before Verloo was murdered, Minko met Kopot and asked her to "take the American out of the city," court records show.
Sometime shortly before the murder, a woman came to Verloo's apartment and put a drug identified as Clophelinum into his alcohol drink, the records say.
The drug, combined with alcohol, can cause severe drowsiness. Verloo, the records said, likely fell into a deep sleep.
Fluid found on Verloo’s body indicates that he had sexual contact with a woman, according a laboratory test performed in Ukraine.
Photos of the crime scene show what appears to be a bottle on a table and cigarette butts in an ashtray. The judge overseeing the case said Kopot's lipstick was on the cigarette butts.
After drugging Verloo, the records said, the woman "left the apartment, having left the door open for V.V. Minko." The woman was not identified.
At about 3 a.m., Minko arrived.
"Minko thought that (Verloo) had money hidden somewhere in the apartment," the judge in the case, Gennadiy Salayi, said during an interview in his office. "When he got into the apartment, Verloo was sleeping."
Minko couldn't find the money he believed was there, so he decided to wake Verloo.
"But Victor didn't wake up," said Salayi, whose office is only a mile or so from the crime scene. "When he was waking Victor up, he was asking Victor where is the money, and he was dragging him around the apartment. And then he killed him."
Records show Minko took a dustpan from the kitchen and began beating Verloo to wake him up, breaking the wooden handle. Then he stabbed him with the knife he had stolen in the burglary weeks earlier.
Crime scene photos indicate that Verloo was bleeding badly as he was dragged around the apartment.
According to reports, Minko stole $225 that he found in the bathroom, a laptop computer, disks, a disk drive, game CDs, a touch-tone telephone, a calculator, a CD player, a radio with headset and a briefcase.
Svetlana Nosanok, whose apartment door faces Verloo's, said she heard noises from the robbery. She knocked, and then heard Verloo groaning. She screamed, "Victor, please open!"
Minko, wearing a mask, burst out the door.
Once downstairs, Minko ran out the front door and to the left, said Detective Glyanko, describing Minko's movements later while standing in front of the building and pointing as he spoke. Nearby, police had recovered bloodstained clothes a vagrant had found in the bushes and thrown into a garden. Minko then went to the home of a married couple he knew through a man he met in prison. The wife, records say, took some of the stolen property to a neighbor, and the husband threw the knife into the Strizhen River in Chernigov.
INVESTIGATORS FAIL TO ASK QUESTIONS
Minko initially tried to convince authorities that he got into Verloo's apartment by himself, by climbing a water pipe. When police showed him that was impossible, he admitted that he came through the door, though denying it was Kopot who helped him.
"The guy who got convicted didn't tell who the woman was," Judge Salayi said. "Me personally, I think it is Natalya (Kopot) because the experts found out that the lipstick on the cigarette butts were from her."
Glyanko, who now oversees four detective bureaus for the Chernihiv police, became guarded when the Daily News asked him about Kopot's involvement in the crime.
Asked if Verloo and Kopot had sex prior to the murder, he said, "It's not our problem to solve this issue. I know the answer to this question, but I don't want to reply."
Asked if Kopot's fingerprints were found on drinking glasses in Verloo's apartment, he said, "The girl didn't deny she was there sometimes."
Told that fluid found on Verloo indicated he had sex sometime before he was murdered, Glyanko suggested that the sex might have occurred much earlier and that Verloo hadn't bathed.
Kopot refused an invitation for an interview in Ukraine.
In March 1999, Minko was sentenced to death in Verloo's murder, but the country later abolished the death penalty and his sentence was changed to life in prison. Though the husband and wife who accepted the stolen property were convicted, Kopot was not charged with either stealing the keys or helping to plan the burglary that resulted in Verloo's murder.
If DNA testing had been available to match evidence found on Verloo's body, the judge said, the woman who poisoned Verloo likely would have been identified. Like many countries where volunteers are sent, Ukraine lacks many of the technical resources available to American investigators.
The Peace Corps, however, has provided DNA testing in other cases. The same year Verloo's killers were sentenced, the agency ran DNA tests which helped Bolivian police exclude as a suspect a taxi driver accused of raping a volunteer.
In a written response, the Peace Corps says that authorities in Ukraine determined that DNA testing was not necessary.
"The assailant was convicted and received a life sentence," the response says.
Verloo's family was surprised that investigators didn't ask them about his girlfriends. In his letters and phone conversations, they said, he mentioned several women he had met.
"The interesting thing is they never asked us: ‘What do you know about any of the women he knew?’ ” his ex-wife Nona Verloo said.
U.S. GOVERNMENT WANTS TO KEEP IT QUIET
The U.S. government's first reaction to Verloo's death was to keep the details quiet. Under item number 12 of a State Department document dated Sept. 17, 1998, three days after the murder, an official writes: "There are at least two women who had visited Victor's apartment and probably stole his keys. After news of the murder came out, these women came forward and gave details to the police."
Still under item 12, the next paragraph of the document — obtained after the Daily News filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Peace Corps — discusses a pending arrest of an unnamed suspect, and the final paragraph under item number 12 says, "The official version will not contain these details."
A letter to "all Peace Corps Volunteers" dated Sept. 23 doesn't mention a woman, saying only: "This is what we officially know about the case: Local officials suspect that the burglary was planned. The individuals involved were able to obtain keys to the apartment. How the keys were obtained is speculation at this point."
During an interview in June 2002, Ephraim Zimmerman, a Ukraine volunteer at the time of Verloo's murder, still wasn't aware that Verloo had been poisoned.
"I don't think we were ever informed as to the circumstances surrounding his death, but that quickly got through the rumor mill," said Zimmerman, whose mother is from Dayton. "They didn't say anything about poisoning. If they did, I wasn't aware of it."
Neither Monique Verloo nor her mother was aware that Kopot had given a statement to police admitting she stole the keys and gave them to an acquaintance of the killer.
"I think that someone is hiding something," Nona said.
When they pressed Ukraine Country Director Jerry Dutkewych for answers, they were told the woman fled to Poland and that the international police association Interpol was looking for her, they said.
In a letter to the office of U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., Dutkewych offers another explanation: "As for the woman who drugged Mr. Verloo, the prosecutor's office has written to me indicating that after their investigation, there is not enough evidence to proceed with a trial."
Monique said Dutkewych tried to convince her not to come to Ukraine to attend the murder trial.
"He said you shouldn't come because of the scandal," she said. "I said, ‘What scandal, Jerry? If my father was involved in prostitution, drugs, whatever, tell me now. I'm a grown-up woman. I can handle these things.’
"To me, justice really hasn't been served in the fact that we don't have all the parties involved, and it's very hard for me to believe that Minko did it all by himself, considering all the stuff that had to be carried out. There's a lot of question marks to my father's death."
[From the Dayton Daily News: 10.31.2003]
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