Alexander Pichushkin, an unassuming supermarket worker, would offer passersby in a southern Moscow park a shot of vodka or beer. Sometimes he offered to show them his dog's grave. Or he would invite them to a game of chess. Then, without any warning, he bludgeoned them to death with a hammer or another blunt object. According to police, he would record each murder by marking each one on a square of a chessboard.
The trial of the "chessboard killer" started yesterday in a central Moscow court. The self-confessed killer, who paced up and down inside a glass cage as the jury was chosen, is charged with murdering 49 people and attempting to kill three others, making him one of the most prolific serial killers in Russian history.
In a televised confession after his arrest last year, Mr Pichushkin told his interviewer: "For me, a life without murder is like a life without food for you. I felt like the father of all these people, since it was I who opened the door for them to another world."
"I never would have stopped, never," Mr Pichushkin also said. "They saved a lot of lives by catching me." He later claimed that killing gave him orgasms.
Despite a number of false starts – police shot an innocent man in 2006, thinking him the murderer – it looks to be an open and shut case. Not only has Mr Pichushkin admitted to the crimes, he boasts that he killed as many as 63 people. Evidence found in his apartment would seem to support this. Police reportedly uncovered a drawing of a chessboard with all but one of the 64 squares filled in with the dates when the victims died.
The murders, which proved grimly fascinating for Russians and terrorised residents of southern Moscow, began in 1992 when Mr Pichushkin dispensed with a classmate, according to investigators. Mikhail Odiychuk's family rang Mr Pichushkin to find out if he knew where the student was. It turned out Mr Pichushkin had attacked him and tossed his body into a sewer, the Russian press reported.
Perhaps out of fear or remorse, Mr Pichushkin then went quiet, murdering only sporadically. But in 2005, he went on a killing spree. Most of his victims were male, three women were murdered, and another escaped.
He met Maria Viricheva, a young shop clerk from Tatarstan, in 2001, and lured her into a secluded part of the forest with the promise he would show her some black market goods.
He then grabbed her by her hair and pushed her down a well eight metres deep.
Ms Viricheva "feverishly fumbled about in the walls of tube ...and swam around in the muck for a whole hour" before she could get a hold on the side, she told the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.
Mr Pichushkin's motivations for murder were flimsy.
He said in an interrogation that in 2006 he killed his neighbour, Valery Kulyazhov, because of a row over their dogs 10 years earlier, the Zhizn tabloid reported. Mr Pichushkin's beloved mongrel apparently sniffed Mr Kulyazhov's dog, and Mr Kulyazhov shouted at Mr Pichushkin to "take away his enormous, mongrel mutt."
Mr Pichushkin didn't forget the insult.
The chess games were perhaps a clue to his psychology, said psychoanalyst Tatyana Drusinova.
He was "detached from human beings ...Human beings were no more than wooden dolls, like chess pieces, to him," Ms Drusinova said. But psychiatric tests determined that Mr Pichushkin was sane.
In February 2006, police shot a man in the leg after learning that somebody resembling the suspect had been spotted in the park. He was later released. They also detained a transvestite with a hammer in his purse, though he too was released.
They finally caught Mr Pichushkin that summer after discovering a metro ticket in the pocket of his last victim, Marina Moskalyova, 36. He denied involvement until video surveillance footage from the metro was produced, showing Mr Pichushkin walking with her.
Since then, Moscow has breathed a little easier, though the Tvoi Dyen tabloid reported in August that police feared a copycat killer was on the loose – a woman was found hacked to death with an axe and a stick pushed down her throat, a mutilation similar to those inflicted on Mr Pichushkin's victims.
The maximum sentence Mr Pichushkin can receive is life in prison. At court on Thursday, attended by some relatives of the victims, he fired one of his lawyers after claiming he was working against him.
"He's not preparing to defend my interests, and is supporting the accusation," Mr Pichushkin said, Interfax reported. "I had a conversation with him, and I know which tactics he chose."
Police said they were continuing to investigate Mr Pichushkin's allegations he killed more people.
"Whatever he says – 60, maybe he says 80 – these things need to be proved," said Moscow police spokesman Vladimir Karabkov. "If anything new emerges, it'll be investigated to the end."
If convicted of murdering 49 people, Mr Pichushkin will not be Russia's worst serial killer. That dubious record goes to Andrei Chikatilo, who in 1992 was convicted of murdering 52 women and children and eating some of their remains during a 12-year killing spree. Mr Chikatilo, a paedophile who became known as the Rostov Ripper, was executed in 1994.
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