The last time he was seen alive, Parisian art dealer Garabed (Garig) Basmadjian, was stepping from a Moscow hotel near the Kremlin into a waiting car on July 29, 1989.
Not long after that, Moscow police discovered his blood-spattered Mercedes and, shortly afterwards, they were hearing stories of how his body had been chopped into bits and spread about a mountainous area outside the city.
A prime suspect in his murder has always been former GTA boxing coach Alex Yaari (a.k.a. Alexander Sergeevich Podlesnyi), a convicted killer considered by Canadian police to be an early member of the Russian Mafia — or Mafiye — in North America.
“I believe that he was deeply connected with Russian organized crime in the Toronto area, New York City and Israel,” former Toronto Police deputy chief Steve Reesor says.
Authorities in Moscow and France also have suspicions about Yaari, who is now free on bail of 10,000 euros in France as authorities probe the Basmadjian disappearance.
The working theory is that Basmadjian was carrying a large sum of money when he was lured from the Rossiya hotel, in the belief he was en route to a major art deal.
Basmadjian’s widow is being helped by the Association Edouard Kalifat in Paris, a humanitarian group that traces the disappearance of people from the former Soviet Union.
Association spokesperson Denis Sellem notes that a Parisan judge travelled to Canada several years ago in an unsuccessful attempt to question Yaari in his prison cell.
Patrick Ramel, an examining magistrate from Paris, successfully argued with Canadian authorities that Yaari should be extradited to France for the Basmadjian disappearance because, under French law, France has jurisdiction for the case because the victim was a French citizen.
It’s not clear, partly because of the secrecy of judicial investigations in France, why Yaari has still not been formally charged.
While the art dealer’s murder is a cold case, it remains sensitive in Europe, as Armenian-born Basmadjian is beloved for his efforts to raise money for relief for the Armenian earthquake of 1988.
Yaari’s Parisian lawyer, César Ghrenassia, notes that French authorities made no mention of charging Yaari with anything connected to Mafiye membership or activity.
“It means to me that nobody gave credit to these allegations,” Ghrenassia says.
Yaari was born on Aug. 14, 1959 in Magadan, Russia, a city in the old Siberian gulag. The city has a grim history; local tour guides point out that the foundation of nearby Kolyma Highway contains the bones of inmates who built it.
Yaari was convicted at 17 for rape and theft and sentenced to 10 years.
He was on probation when he was re-arrested at age 23 and given 3 ½ years in a forced-labour camp for “ruffianly behaviour” for taking part in a drunken barroom brawl.
Two years after his second release, he was in Moscow, the mecca for the new Russian Mafiye as the former Soviet Union disintegrated.
“He’s probably a product of where he came from,” Reesor says.
Yaari’s immigration papers listed him as a boxing coach in Russia and a sailor in Israel when he arrived in the GTA in January 1991 on a visitor’s permit.
It was commonplace for North American Russian mobsters to pass through Israel en route to Canada. They’d claim to be Jewish, then change their names to make it tougher to trace their backgrounds.
“That was a route that a lot of Russian organized-crime members took to get into Canada,” Reesor says.
Within weeks of his arrival in the GTA, he was married to a woman he barely knew.
A year later, Yaari was also a killer and multi-million-dollar jewel thief.
Yaari was convicted of strangling Michael Kleinberg, 35, who was slain during the robbery of his family’s jewellery store at Bathurst St. and Lawrence Ave. W. in North York on July 9, 1991.
Kleinberg, a father of three, was bound and gagged with ropes that choked him to death. Yaari’s defence was that the strangulation was unintentional.
Some $3.5 million worth of rings were taken. Police noted the robbery was carried out with military precision by two masked robbers who didn’t speak a word as they filled a red hockey bag with loot.
Yaari was arrested by Toronto police after Interpol circulated photographs of rings Vienna detectives seized when Yaari was arrested there for assaulting a friend.
The rings were stamped with a distinctive Kleinberg logo.
In Austria, Reesor and his partner, Det. Sgt. Brody Smollett, met a Moscow police colonel and a KGB major who were there to arrest Yaari.
The colonel’s job was to charge Yaari for the Basmadjian murder, while the KGB major’s job was to make sure the colonel didn’t defect.
Austrian authorities preferred the stable Canadian legal system to the Russian one, even though both cases were relatively fresh.
Solidly built, Yaari looks the part of a former boxer, standing a little under 6 feet. He’s reportedly capable of considerable charm, but didn’t say much to the Toronto cops in Vienna.
He certainly didn’t seem upset that the Austrians chose to send him to Toronto rather than back to the former Soviet Union.
“At that time, it’s quite possible if they sent him to Siberia he would be facing a firing squad,” Reesor says.
He was sentenced in 1994 to 16 years in prison for manslaughter and robbery, making him one of the few Russian mobsters to be convicted of serious criminal charges in the GTA.
Police described the case as the dawn of a new era in local organized crime, with the arrival of a wave of sophisticated, deadly criminals from the former Soviet Union.
Reesor says the case certainly had its novel elements.
“It was a little bit unusual for someone who was in Russian organized crime to be caught doing a straight-up robbery like that,” Reesor says.
Yaari fought, through lawyers, for early release from Canadian prison but was denied by the parole board, federal court and the Ontario Court of Appeal. The appeal court wrote: “As for your involvement in an organized crime group in Toronto with ties to the Russian Mafia, we find that there was sufficient relevant and reliable information to connect you to such a group.”
While he was an inmate at Warkworth medium security penitentiary in Campbellford, Ont., Yaari managed to copyright at least nine songs and a piece of literature.
One of the works is an opera, “On Devotion and Love,” and another is a Russian-language musical, “Ballad of Soldiers.” Other musical pieces include “Over Two Hours of Travel Into Opera of Devotion and Love,” “Over Two Hours With a Vagabond,” and “Forever, On Centuries.”
There’s also a musical and a piece of literature, each titled “Vagabond.”
There is no evidence any of the works was ever published or recorded.
In April 2010, he was extradited to France, where he had no roots.
There, he was locked up in La Santé Prison, a maximum-security Paris facility built in the 1860s and dubbed “France’s most feared jail” in the press. Its inmates have included international terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal).
Yaari was eventually freed in May, on condition that he remain in France until he faces trial or the charges are dropped.
Yaari and his Paris lawyer, Ghrenassia, declined to comment on specifics of the case as the investigation continues.
“As you may know, the judicial investigations in France are deemed to be secret,” Ghrenassia said in an email. “In that respect, M. Yaari and I intend to comply with these obligations.”