Bumbling Gang Took Gray For Gold

Posted: January 13, 1999

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — A charming but hapless crook, Alexander Scerbinin, known to everyone as Sasha, locked his apartment as steam and drizzle streaked the night in the Russian city of Obninsk. Sasha was scared. In that creaky industrial town, where swindlers and smugglers peddled everything from rocket fuel to underwear, Sasha owed the mob $50,000.

Footsteps scraped down the hall that night in early 1994. They stopped at Sasha's door.

A knock.

A whisper.

``Sasha,'' said Eduard Baranov, a neighbor and trafficker of illicit chemicals. ``There's a way out of your problem. It involves uranium and big, big money.''

Sasha took the deal, saved his life, and made history.

On Dec. 14, 1994, he and several bumbling accomplices were arrested with six pounds of highly enriched uranium while driving a Saab through the streets of Prague. The case - stunning governments across Europe and in Washington - remains the world's largest police seizure of the key ingredient in a nuclear bomb.

The dark gray granules Sasha concealed in two 12-inch-long cylinders could have been converted into a bomb powerful enough to kill thousands of people and spread radioactive contamination across a city the size of Philadelphia.

Sasha's scheme, which failed repeatedly because he couldn't find a buyer with enough cash to seal a deal, still haunts government intelligence agencies. Sasha refused to divulge the masterminds behind the plot. And police believe he was just one crook in a larger plan by the Russian Mafia to smuggle 2,000 pounds of highly enriched uranium - enough for 40 nuclear warheads - out of the former Soviet Union.

Intelligence agencies believe Sasha's uranium came from a former nuclear research facility in Obninsk. But police have yet to prove a clear link to the mob because some witnesses have been threatened and others have vanished.

``Our Russian counterparts did little to help us,'' said Major Jan Rathausky, the Czech detective who investigated the case. ``It was almost as if they didn't want us to find out too much about this uranium trafficking.''

Now, with an enormous nuclear stockpile left vulnerable by Russia's economic collapse, Sasha and his two main accomplices are on the loose. Sasha skipped bail on April 28 following an appeal hearing here on his September 1997 conviction. So did his partners - Jaroslav Vagner, a nuclear physicist who left no trace, and Zdenek Cech, the owner of a trucking company, who is believed hiding in Kazakstan.

This twisting story of small-time hustlers reveals how simple it is for criminals to smuggle deadly nuclear materials out of Russia and onto a bustling, but often amateurish, black market. Sasha's was a clumsy quest to connect with a rogue state or a terrorist group as he and his gang hauled uranium from Minsk to Moscow and from Warsaw to Prague.

A gourmet cook turned criminal, Sasha entangled himself with Nigerian drug dealers, Italian counterfeiters, a German intelligence agent, a nuclear physicist, a former Soviet army officer, a corrupt police officer, hit men, and several lovers and fellow grifters.

Eight people, including Sasha, were arrested.

One was murdered.

Another is presumed dead.

Sasha and his accomplices handled the uranium as if it were just another contraband such as heroin or gold bars. The uranium was stashed in bushes, rose beds, restaurants, and a pile of coal. Sasha locked it in safe-deposit boxes and, cloaking it in a denim jacket, smuggled it out of Russia while he smoked Marlboros in the coach-class section of a train.

``It was highly dangerous stuff,'' one investigator said. ``Yet they moved it from one place to another like you would carry a kitten around.''

The three smugglers had no finely honed plan. They harbored no political passions. They embraced no religious fundamentalism. Their motivation was money, and their asking price was $4 million. They were oblivious to the intricacies of the nuclear black market, like petty thieves who unwittingly steal Mona Lisa but have no idea how to sell it.

This account of Sasha's bungled odyssey was based on court documents, government intelligence assessments, and detailed interviews in the Czech Republic with Sasha, Cech and Vagner, and with prosecutors and police investigators. The interviews with the three smugglers were conducted shortly before they jumped bail in April after spending three years in jail.

``The whole thing was really a comedy, one mistake after another,'' said Rathausky, the Czech detective, who recently retired. ``They were pure amateurs. But we still don't know who was behind it all. We don't know what was going on in Russia and what higher-level criminal structure existed. But somebody much, much bigger than Sasha was behind all this.

``What's frightening,'' Rathausky added, ``is that someone like Sasha was able to get his hands on something so deadly.''

Sasha never wanted to dabble in uranium.

``I'm scared of radioactivity,'' he said that evening in March 1994 when Eduard Baranov knocked on his door in Obninsk.

``Don't worry, the whole city is trading in this stuff,'' said Baranov, who authorities believe was a front man for the Russian mob. ``It's safe.''

Despite the assurances, Sasha turned him down. But weeks later - with his creditors demanding their $50,000 plus interest - he reconsidered. He and Baranov arranged a meeting, and from under his coat, Baranov produced a small sample of uranium.

Sasha, who peddled chemicals and cars on the black market, kept stolen scientific equipment in his apartment. He used a Geiger counter to scan the uranium to determine that no radioactivity was leaking. When the needle barely budged, he told Baranov he would smuggle as much uranium as the mob could steal from Obninsk's crumbling nuclear-research institute.

But Sasha knew nothing about marketing uranium. He traveled to Minsk, capital of Belarus, to consult with his buddy, Alexander Malysh, a thug who trafficked vodka and chemicals. Malysh sometimes worked at a trucking business owned by Zdenek Cech, a potbellied man with flying white hair and cheeks splotched by broken blood vessels.

Cech, a former communist army officer who kept a vodka and a coil of sausage on his desk, owned four trucking companies. He made millions by transporting everything from vodka to oranges. But Cech saw larger opportunities in moving the tons of chemicals hemorrhaging from former Soviet military and research complexes.

Cech had his Volvo Globetrotter trucks licensed to transport chemicals across the former Soviet republics. But he was reluctant to get involved in illegal uranium smuggling with ``two little mice'' he did not know. This upset Malysh, who suggested to Sasha that perhaps Cech needed some hard-boiled convincing. At one point Malysh planned to kidnap Cech, strip him, tie him to a tree, and pistol-whip him until he agreed.

Sasha preferred more gentle persuasion.

Cech - wrangling for a finder's fee - offered to call someone who might be of assistance.

Rifling through papers on his desk, Cech came up with the name of a nuclear scientist from his hometown of Prague, whom he recently had hired as a technical consultant. Cech telephoned Jaroslav Vagner, a clever, bitter man with bristly hair and a perpetual tan. Vagner had been a quality-assurance expert in Czechoslovakia's nuclear-power industry. But after the fall of communism in 1989, Vagner was bankrupted by a string of failed ventures.

With little to lose, Vagner flew to Minsk.

He arrived at the lakeside Ozerny Hotel. The place was a labyrinth of shady business deals. Some men were trading chemicals; others were peddling lasers. Vagner sipped whiskey with two Belarusian men who dealt in smoked meat.

Sasha, Malysh and Cech met Vagner in his room. From the leg of his jogging suit, Sasha pulled out a small cylinder - four inches long and an inch thick.

He handed it to Vagner.

``We can supply up to a ton of this,'' Sasha said. ``Are you surprised?''

Vagner unscrewed the cylinder and studied the deep gray dust inside.

``This is Russia,'' Vagner said. ``I wouldn't have been surprised if you walked through the door with a rocket or a submarine.''

Vagner wanted to test a sample back in Prague to determine if the uranium contained significant quantities of U-235 - the crucial component for manufacturing a nuclear bomb.

If it did, Vagner told the men, ``we can sell this. We can sell this for a lot of cash.''

With a finely shaped face and a muscular body that flowed with the quiet elegance of a ballet dancer, Sasha was always the pretty boy.

Born in 1963 in Tajikistan, Sasha was 15 when his family moved to a collective farm outside Obninsk. He served as a paratrooper in the Soviet army. And in 1985, as the Soviet empire was collapsing, Sasha was hired as a $5-a-month technician in the Obninsk nuclear power plant. He soon quit and tried to get a job as a gourmet cook, his first love.

There were few chef jobs in Russia in the early 1990s.

In Obninsk, unpaid scientists, chemical workers and arms-makers became smugglers and profiteers as the Soviet military complex was cannibalized. Much of what was scavenged from Obninsk's military and research facilities was funneled into an elaborate barter system in a country where rubles were virtually worthless.

Chemicals were swapped for food, weapons for shoes.

With a wife, a child and a lover to support, Sasha became a smuggler, trading in everything from platinum to meat, from Mercedes-Benzes to vegetables.

``The whole place was for sale,'' he said. ``I sold every chemical listed on the elements chart. I just wanted to be a serious businessman.''

But Sasha lacked the edge to rise in the new, hard-knuckled Russia. His charm and instincts kept him slightly ahead of his mistakes, like a cartoon character with the split-second ability to sidestep a falling piano.

``Sasha is a very romantic man, almost a man not of this century,'' said Rathausky, the Czech police officer who arrested him. ``He is very naive, very gullible, but in a strange way he has a sense of honor . . . He was pressured by everyone to be something he was not.''

Sasha took out a $50,000 loan - with 20 percent interest - from the Obninsk Bank, which police say was controlled by the Russian mob. Sasha attempted to buy his way out of debt by smuggling two Porsches into Russia. The plan failed when he could not find buyers.

``People came and slapped him around, and he was terrified,'' said Zbynek Podlipny, the Prague judge who presided over Sasha's trial. ``He was an easy target for the black market.''

That was when Baranov knocked on his door, sending Sasha on an odyssey that three months later would find him smuggling uranium on a train with a man he barely knew.

Cech and Sasha rushed into the roar of the Moscow train station on June 6, 1994.

Cech bought two tickets. Sasha balanced two 12-inch-long protective containers of uranium tucked into the waistband of his pants and hidden by his denim jacket. They boarded a coach cabin for a 20-hour ride to Warsaw, Poland, and then on to Prague.

The uranium Vagner had tested earlier revealed that it was 87.7 percent enriched - meaning it was brimming with U-235 isotopes. Most nuclear weapons are manufactured with 90 percent enriched uranium. Sasha's batch, according to experts, could supplement a warhead or be turned into a small nuclear bomb if purchased by a skilled, well-funded terrorist.

Nothing of that purity and size had ever reached the black market, experts say. Vagner told Cech and Sasha to deliver the uranium to Prague.

He had a buyer.

``We got on the train,'' Cech recalled, ``and I was thinking: Here I am traveling with a cook with no capital who has uranium stuffed in his clothes.''

The men passed easily through customs at the Polish border and switched trains to Prague. Sasha then slipped the uranium into a black bag.

``Mr. Cech bribed the conductor with $100 to hide the bag,'' Sasha recalled. ``The conductor took the money and didn't even want to know what was inside.''

They reached Prague on the morning of June 8. Sasha grabbed his uranium and walked out of the station toward what he thought would be the score of his life.

Cech and Sasha took a taxi to Cech's office in east Prague. Sasha would stay there until the deal was done.

Vagner arrived the next day with bad news. ``The Polish guy he promised was a buyer didn't have enough money,'' Cech recalled. ``So there we were with no buyer. Only Sasha, his uranium, and a lot of trouble.''

Vagner vowed to find more buyers and moved into Cech's office with Sasha. Sasha did not speak Czech or German, and sometimes Vagner bought him a pretty female translator. The woman was not very good at her job, and Sasha was often confused when the trio discussed potential buyers and prices per gram.

``I never felt I knew exactly what was going on,'' Sasha said.

Before Sasha left Russia, Baranov told him that the people supplying the uranium wanted to sell it for between $400 and $800 per gram. Sasha, Cech and Vagner decided to inflate the price to between $1,300 and $1,800 per gram. This would give them a cut of about half of $4 million if all six pounds were sold.

With the selling price settled upon, Vagner decided one night to give Sasha and Cech a chemistry lesson. He unscrewed a cylinder and poured granules of uranium into his palm.

``You see?'' Vagner said. ``In this state it is not dangerous or radioactive. It's almost like it's sleeping. Look. I could even lick it, but it is certainly poisonous.''

``You crazy bastard!'' Cech recalled shouting at him. ``Put that stuff away! You'll radiate us all. What a goddamned kook!''

Before Vagner capped the uranium, he and Sasha emptied the rest of the material onto the floor and, with their bare hands, divided it evenly between two cylinders.

Weeks passed. Then months. Buyers kept falling through. Two Germans were interested until Vagner failed to provide authenticity certificates for the uranium. Some Nigerians wanted to trade drugs for the uranium. A few Italians (``Maybe they were Spaniards,'' Cech said) offered to pay five times the asking price, but only in counterfeit cash.

``Sasha and Vagner kept saying, `One more day, one more day and we'll have buyers,' '' Cech recalled. ``They are like two lost children. Meanwhile . . . I couldn't go back to Russia because I thought the mob was looking for people. . . .

``You got the mob's uranium, you got problems.''

By July 1994, a month after Sasha arrived in Prague, the uranium was still unsold.

Cech and Vagner bickered daily.

``What s- buyers you keep bringing us,'' Cech snapped. ``Does any of them have money?''

Sasha had to agree: ``Vagner may be a good scientist, but he's a lousy businessman.''

Cech booted Vagner out of his office and sent Sasha and the uranium to the Pension Domino hotel outside Prague. Sasha hid the uranium first under bushes and then in the attic of the hotel's owner, Havel Buhumil.

Sasha was nearly out of money when his mother visited from Germany with 2,000 deutsche marks. He soon went broke anyway and could not pay his hotel bill. But he and Buhumil became friends, and Sasha - who kept promising a big score - was allowed to stay.

``Sasha was a charmer,'' Buhumil said. ``So handsome, and a superb cook. He did terrific things with spices and lamb.''

Weeks more passed. And then the bizarre kaleidoscope Sasha found himself in turned again:

Malysh, who had been waiting in Russia for news of the uranium deal, arrived at Sasha's hotel with a gun in his pants. With Malysh was Valery Kunicky, an entrepreneur who hoped to start a trucking business. Malysh owed money to Kunicky, and Kunicky owed money to the Russian mob. The two traveled to Prague to baby-sit the uranium deal and to collect - and protect - their shares.

One night, a drunk and exasperated Malysh threatened Sasha with the gun. Cech then started his own search for buyers and called his boyhood friend, Zdenek Sindlauer, a corrupt Prague police officer, who boasted of links to the underworld.

Vagner became the group's outcast. He disappeared, working his own connections, faxing a fellow scientist in Canada to inquire about the price of a gram of uranium.

``It got nuts,'' Sasha said. ``There were too many intermediaries. Guys I didn't even know were trying to sell my uranium to screwballs without money. Vagner was running around making everybody mad.''

Intelligent and egotistical, Vagner earned a degree in nuclear physics from the Czech Technical University in 1961. He specialized in heavy-water research for Czechoslovakia's nuclear-power industry.

When communism collapsed in Czechoslovakia in 1989, Vagner bolted the nuclear industry, determined to find fortune in the emerging capitalist landscape of Eastern Europe. But several business ventures failed.

``I was broke,'' he said.

Then Zdenek Cech called. He wanted to expand his trucking business into chemical sales.

He needed a scientist.

By September 1994, the men in Sasha's gang were desperate for a buyer.

Their quest unwittingly led them to a rogue German undercover intelligence agent tracking stolen chemicals and metals. The agent - who never attempted to arrest Sasha - arrived in Prague about the same time police in Landshut, Germany, seized less than one ounce of uranium being peddled by several smugglers. Like Sasha's uranium, the Landshut material was 87.7 enriched with U-235. Investigators now believe both caches originated from the same nuclear institute in Obninsk. They also concluded that Vagner had connections with the smugglers in Germany.

In Prague, Sasha and his gang were hopelessly adrift.

``It seemed like the whole thing was unraveling and going nowhere,'' Sasha said. ``But I knew, after spending so much time, I could not settle for anything but money. I would wait until something happened.''

October.

November.

Still, no sale.

On Dec. 13, Vagner announced: ``At last we have a buyer.''

Sasha and Cech thought, ``Here we go again.''

Vagner and Sasha met two men - an Austrian and a German - at a bank just off Wenceslas Square. The men led Vagner and Sasha into a vault, slid open a safe-deposit box, and revealed $5 million in cash.

They wanted to see the uranium.

On the afternoon of Dec. 14, 1994, Vagner, Sasha and Kunicky took Vagner's blue Saab 99GL to Na Vlachovce restaurant in northeast Prague. They waited inside, too nervous to speak. They sipped Cokes and espressos. The two buyers arrived. Everyone walked outside. Vagner pulled a briefcase from his car. The buyers inspected the uranium and nodded their approval.

The final exchange was arranged for the following day.

The buyers left in a dark blue BMW. Vagner, Sasha and Kunicky headed happily south in the Saab. Vagner was finally going to be a wealthy man. Sasha would return to Russia with enough money to satisfy both his wife and his lover. Kunicky would collect his cash from Malysh and be on his way.

But before the three men had driven very far, an unidentified woman with a broken Czech accent called the police emergency line and tipped off authorities about a uranium deal. Minutes later, police cars raced through the city.

The Saab was stopped, and the uranium was seized on a downtown street busy with Christmas shoppers.

Sasha confessed.

The would-be buyers - police say they were not undercover agents - vanished with their $5 million. A cryptic letter, believed sent from the Russian mob, warned Czech authorities that if Sasha was not released, a nuclear bomb would be detonated in the center of Prague.

Cech was sentenced to eight years in prison but appealed. His trucking empire in ruins, he skipped bail in April and fled to Kazakstan, where he faxed the Prague Supreme Court a note saying he had salmonella poisoning and would not be returning to jail.

``There were so many grammatical mistakes in the fax that it confirms the identity of Mr. Cech,'' said Prague Judge Podlipny.

Vagner was sentenced to nine years. He, too, escaped. His whereabouts are unknown.

Baranov, who first presented Sasha with the deal, was almost certainly executed by the Russian mob, according to Czech authorities.

Malysh has disappeared.

Sasha was sentenced to eight years. During his appeal, he married his third wife - the daughter of his prison cell mate. On April 28, Sasha jumped bail and is now believed to be living in the southern Czech Republic. He still owes the mob $50,000 - and the Pension Domino hotel in Prague would like him to settle his $10,000 account.

``One day I will pay it all back,'' Sasha said a few days before he skipped bail. ``There will be other deals, different opportunities.''

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