Serial killers : the serial homicide case of the day

The Serial Homicide Case of the Day, from "Hunting Humans, the Encyclopedia of 20th Century Serial Killers" , by Michael Newton

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  Komaroff, Vasili

Vasili Komaroff in 1923.

Vasili Komaroff was known among his neighbors as a friendly, smiling family man. He dealt in horses, and maintained a stable at his home, in Moscow's Shabolovki district. None who knew him well suspected that he might have been the "Wolf of Moscow," an elusive killer who had terrorized the neighborhood and foiled police investigators in a two-year manhunt.

Times were hard and life was cheap in Russia, in the early 1920s. Revolution and a grueling civil war had trained the populace to live with danger, but the recent spate of murders in the nation's capital were something else, entirely. From the latter part of 1921, through early 1923, police pursued the brutal executioner of twenty-one male victims , each of whom had been discovered tightly bound in sacks, their bodies dumped on waste ground in the Shabolovki neighborhood. The corpses had been "trussed like chickens for roasting," and detectives noted they were nearly always found on Thursday or on Saturday.

The timing seemed to be no mere coincidence, considering the fact that horses went to market in the neighborhood on Wednesday afternoons and Fridays. It seemed probable that victims were selected from the market crowds, but probability and proof were two entirely different things.

At length, investigators heard about Vasili Komaroff from other traders in the district. It was curious, they said, that while Vasili seldom brought a horse to market, he was often seen to leave with customers. It might have been coincidence, and then again...

Detectives questioned neighbors of the Komaroffs. and learned that familyman Vasili had a nasty, violent streak behind the ever-present smile. On one occasion, they were told, he tried to hang his eldest son -- an eight-year-old -- but was prevented by his wife, who cut the struggling victim down. A raiding party visited Vasili's stable, on the pretext of a search for bootleg liquor, and they found his latest victim, trussed and bagged, beneath a pile of hay.

In custody, the Wolf of Moscow readily confessed his crimes. In all, he reckoned he had murdered thirty-three prospective buyers, luring each in turn with promises of bargain prices, killing them in the seclusion of his stable. Robbery was cited as the motive, though he averaged barely eighty cents per man -- a miserable $26.40 for the entire series of crimes. Vasili led his captors to the dumping grounds where five more corpses lay in burlap bags. He had disposed of half a dozen others in the Moskva River; their remains were never found.

The prisoner tried suicide three times, without success, thereafter trusting in the court to grant him speedy trial and execution. "I am fifty-two," he told reporters from his cell. "I have had a good time and don't want to live any longer." Questioned on the nature of his crimes, he spoke of murder as "an awfully easy job." Vasili told the press, "I killed a man who tried to beat me in a horse trade. He was the only one who ever resisted. It was very easy. I just knocked them on their heads with a hammer or strangled them."

His murder trial convened on June 7, 1923. Vasili's wife was also charged with murder, on the theory that she scarcely could have overlooked her husband's grisly homework. The proceedings were conducted in Moscow's huge Polytechnic Museum to accommodate gawkers, and Vasili seemed to take it well when, in the predawn hours of June 8, the court condemned him to be shot within the next three days. Departing for his cell, the Wolf of Moscow quipped, "Well it's my turn to be put in the sack now."

An eleventh-hour change of heart resulted in appeals, delaying the inevitable, but the fate of the defendants had been sealed. On June 18, the Komaroffs were executed by a Moscow firing squad .

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