Death from BlaBlaCar. Murderer of Burger King manager plays into hands of Russian transport operators
The murder of 29-year-old Irina Akhmatova by her travel companion – a repeated offender – shortly before the New Year has yet again demonstrated flaws in the work of BlaBlaCar international ridesharing service in Russia. Twenty-seven Russian transport operators have been seeking to prohibit BlaBlaCar in the Russian Federation through court action since 2017. The murder of the Burger King manager is not the first blood stain on the reputation of the carpooling service. The CrimeRussia performed its own inquest and found out that operations of BlaBlaCar must be put into a legal framework as soon as possible – otherwise, it may have to withdraw from the perspective Russian market.
Irina Akhmatova, Director of two Burger King restaurants, disappeared without a trace on December 23, 2018 on the way to Tula. Her family was split between two cities – Irina had been pursuing a career in Moscow, while her husband and 9-year-old daughter resided in Tula.
According to the husband, on the evening of December 23, Irina departed to Tula from Anino subway station on her Audi A4 car with license plate t417ns 71 rus accompanied by people found through BlaBlaCar online carpooling service. Shortly after that, she stopped answering the phone.
The last geo position of her iPhone was registered not far from Serpukhov at 23:09. At 23:19, she did not answer a call from her work.
However, at 6:19 am, Irina’s cell phone was suddenly turned on in Yaroslavl – which is located in the opposite direction from Tula. After that, Irina’s husband addressed the law enforcement authorities.
The Moscow, Tula, and Yaroslavl police services, as well as hundreds of volunteers of Liza Alert nonprofit search-and-rescue organization, have simultaneously started searches of the young woman. In order to engage as many resources as possible, a criminal case has been instituted under part 1 of Article 105 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (murder) as per request of the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office. Overnight into December 28, Burger King launched a large-scale campaign to attract volunteers – some 600 thousand users have read the announcement posted on VKontakte social network and asking to assist in the searches of Akhmatova; 740 people have shared this information with other users. The media had broadly covered the search operation as well.
The public stir had its effect – on the same day, the Audi A4 belonging to the woman was found covered by snow and without license plates on the parking lot of a superstore in a residential neighborhood of Yaroslavl. The car interior was thoroughly cleaned – as if it was intended for sale. The first information about the suspect has appeared soon – it was a 39-year-old man convicted twice for illegal actions of sexual nature in the past. Shortly after that, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (ICR) has put him on the wanted list.
Found Audi A4
In the course of the investigation, it became known that the suspect has created several fake accounts on BlaBlaCar and used them to book all passenger seats in Irina’s car. On one of the fake pages, he used a photo of a young Kostroma resident without even altering his actual age for the purposes of consistency. According to The CrimeRussia sources, the data provided to the police by BlaBlaCar at the beginning of the investigation have expedited the identification of the suspect.
Photo used by the killer of Irina Akhmatova on one of his pages
On December 30, the person suspected of the murder of Irina Akhmatova was captured near Gorokhovets, Vladimir region. It was 39-year-old Serpukhov resident Vitaly Chikirev. Shortly after the arrest, he confessed to strangling Irina for the purposes of robbery. The criminal has deliberately chosen the victim based on her car brand. During the trip, he asked Irina to stop on the roadside, attacked her, suppressed her resistance, delivered several blows to the head, and strangled. However, his loot turned out to be very small – after searching the victim and her car, the murderer found only some 10 thousand rubles ($150).
The biography of the detained suspect is pretty interesting.
A specially trained veteran of ‘hotspots’, Chikirev was nicknamed Chekist (public security officer) by fellow servicemen. In the early 2000s, he had served in the North Caucasus in Skif (Scythian) Special Force Unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) of the Russian Federation. Upon demobilization, Chikirev joined Boevoe Bratstvo (Combat Brotherhood) All-Russia Public Veterans’ Organization.
According to Kommersant newspaper, after the end of his military service, Chikirev has been convicted for the first time on November 1, 2004 – the court found him guilty of crimes stipulated in paragraph “b” of part 2 of Article 131 (rape) and paragraph “b” of Article 132 (violent actions of sexual character) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. For the totality of the crimes committed, Chikirev was sentenced to 6 years behind bars – the court has recognized his service in the North Caucasus an extenuating circumstance.
“No beggarwomen and hobos having no residence”
After the release in 2010, Chikirev had worked as a taxi driver for a short time, married twice, and became a father of two children. But apparently, the former special forces trooper was not really willing to work – an ad posted on his VKontakte page some time ago confirms this. Chikirev is looking for a woman to support him; he sets a number of conditions: “aged 18 to 27, bust not less than size two” and specially notes: “no beggarwomen and hobos having no residence”.
Screenshot from Chikirev’s page
The ad was posted on the social network shortly after his release from a penal colony where Chikirev had served the second term: in 2014, Chekist was convicted again – this time, for robbery (Article 162 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation). The Nizhny Novgorod District Court has sentenced him to 7 years in a maximum security penal colony for robbery of a prostitute. His minor children and military service in ‘hotspots’ were again recognized extenuating circumstances. After serving a portion of his term, Chikirev was released on parole. According to the case file, the former special forces trooper has visited a representative of the oldest profession, used her services, then tied the prostitute and her female friend, and robbed them threatening with a knife. He told her: “I am on the wanted list; should you make a move, you are dead”.
According to Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, Vitaly Chikirev was put on the wanted list after the escape from a mental health institution where he had received compulsory treatment, while in 2011, he was charged under Article 159 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (swindling) – but the case against him ultimately collapsed.
During the questioning, the repeated offender charged with the murder of Irina Akhmatova said that he regrets his deed. However, Moskovsky Komsomolets wrote that, based on his subsequent actions, including attempts to mislead the investigation and conceal the place where the victim’s body was hidden, it does not seem that he feels regrets.
On December 31, the next day after the arrest, the court has remanded Chikirev in custody for 3 months, and he was escorted from the courtroom to show the location of the body of Irina Akhmatova that was not found yet by that time. The suspect, who has confessed to the murder of Irina, was transported in one car with her husband Dmitry Akhmatov.
Dmitry and Irina Akhmatov and their daughter
According to the newspaper, the searches had continued for 9 hours. Chikirev tried to mislead the operatives till late at night by showing false places and claiming that he has forgotten the way. However, on the border between the Chekhov and Stupino municipal districts, the police, grieving widower, and suspected killer have ultimately discovered the remains of the victim. Chikirev located Irina’s body lying 30 meters from the road and covered by snow and tree branches. But this was not the end of the investigation.
On January 9, 2019, a source in the law enforcement authorities told Moskva City News Portal that the former special forces trooper is suspected of a series of sexual crimes, including the robbery and attempted rape of a woman in the Kuntsevo District of Moscow in November 2018. In addition, the detained suspect is currently checked for involvement in five more assaults against women committed in other regions: one attack in Yaroslavl, two in Vladimir, and one in the Moscow region. Taking that the preparations to the murder of Irina Akhmatova, including several fake accounts on BlaBlaCar, were made by Chikirev in advance, it can’t be ruled out that he had already used the popular ridesharing service to commit crimes.
Ridesharing or carpooling is the joint usage of a car, mostly, for long-distance rides, using online services to find travel companions. The driver submits an application on the web site or in a mobile app specifying the departure and destination points, number of seats in the car, its brand, etc. and the travel cost. Passengers willing to take a ride book the seats in advance. The key feature of ridesharing and its distinction from paid passenger transportation services is partial compensation of travel costs (fuel, etc.) provided to the driver by the passengers, which makes it a noncommercial activity – i.e. the driver does not gain profit. The average travel cost is usually calculated by the carpooling service. BlaBlaCar is the world leader in the ridesharing sphere.
In Russia, the use of BlaBlaCar involves risks not only to drivers – but to passengers as well. The death of Irina Akhmatova is not the first murder in our country committed with the use of the popular service. In spring 2018, the Krasnoturansk district of the Krasnoyarsk krai was shocked by the cruel murder of 18-year-old Angelina Litvinenko – her crippled body with severed wrists was found on May 13, two days after her disappearance, 2.5 km from Krasnoturansk.
The investigation established that 47-year-old former police officer Nikolai Lebedev, who was earlier convicted for double murder and rape and served 15 years behind bars for these crimes, had given a ride to the girl returning from Abakan to Minusinsk in his blue Hyundai Solaris.
The criminal went on the run after the murder; his car was found abandoned. Lebedev was put on the wanted list. Initially, the Russian media had stated that the murder was committed by a taxi driver – but British tabloid The Sun reported in May that both the victim and driver were using BlaBlaCar service.
and her murderer
The criminal was captured two days later – he was hiding in a hay barn in Nikolo-Petrovka village, Minusinsk district. Shortly after the arrest, he made a full confession. It became known that Lebedev has brought the girl to his home and tried to rape her – but the victims had resisted, and he stabbed her with a knife several times. The murderer has severed her wrists to get rid of the DNA under her fingernails. According to The Sun, a representative of BlaBlaCar has refuted the allegation that the carpooling service was involved in the crime because its database contains no information on that ride.
BlaBlaCar is the world’s largest international ridesharing service. It is managed by Comuto SA startup founded by French native Frédéric Mazzella in 2006. Since then, the company has attracted some $330 million in investments. The value of Comuto SA is currently estimated at $1.6 billion. BlaBlaCar operates in 23 countries; the number of its users is almost 60 million people. According to Irina Reyder, Director of the Russian Branch of BlaBlaCar, today, Russia is the market number one for the company. Over 15 million people in our country use the carpooling service, and this number is continuously growing. In 2018 alone, it has increased by 70%.
In Ukraine, BlaBlaCar is also very popular (this is the fourth top priority market for Comuto SA) – but in 2016, the murder of Lviv native Taras Pozdnyakov by his travel companions has caused a massive public outcry there.
Taras Pozdnyakov and his vehicle
On April 4, 2016, the officer of the Lviv Court has departed from Lviv to Kiev in his car together with companions found via BlaBlaCar. He never arrived in Kiev; later, his car with blood stains and bullet holes, including holes in the back of the driver’s seat, was found near the Ukrainian capital. The body of Taras Pozdnyakov was never found; Luan Kingisepp and Dmytro Holub, former members of Right Sector, have been put on the Interpol wanted list for this murder as per request from the Ukrainian authorities.
Here and there
In addition to the high-profile murders in Russia and Ukraine, BlaBlaCar is often mentioned in traffic accident reports. In 2018 alone, dozens of such accidents occurred. The car crashes kill both drivers and passengers – sometimes, 3–4 persons at once. Victims’ relatives don’t receive any insurance compensations from BlaBlaCar – because the service does not offer insurance in Russia. Of course, the compensation won’t help the victims – but it would definitely help the children who have lost one or even both parents in traffic accidents.
The law enforcement authorities accuse the carpooling service of complicity in illegal transportation of criminals and trafficking illegal shipments, including drugs.
The CrimeRussia source, who has been using BlaBlaCar since its launch on the Russian market, believes that it is absolutely realistic to transport drugs from point A to point B using this service. For instance, the driver may drop the passenger far from the transport infrastructure to avoid road checks.
In 2017, the Krasnodar Krai Court has banned the carpooling service as a source of unlawful business activities: some 40% of its accounts were used by illegal transport operators under the disguise of real users. Since then, a number of big transport companies are trying to bring BlaBlaCar to justice through court action – and their arguments are pretty serious.
Criminal incidents involving BlaBlaCar occur in Europe as well. For instance, in 2017, a driver was arrested in France – he had drugged female passengers and raped them, while the victims hadn’t remembered anything. In 2018, a driver transporting illegal immigrants throughout Europe was detained in Italy. However, the general situation there is quite different from Russia. It is mandatory for BlaBlaCar clients to buy insurance, while the payments are made through the service web site using bank cards – this ensures additional identification of the users and enhances the security of drivers and passengers.
In Russia, such mechanisms cannot be introduced yet due to the specificity of the national legislation. In Spring 2018, BlaBlaCar addressed the Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation (Mintrans) with an initiative to enshrine the term “carpooling” in the legislation regulating the passenger transportation in order to separate the drivers traveling episodically for their own needs and taking passengers to compensate fuel costs from commercial transport operators. The Village news portal wrote in November that a workgroup is developing such a bill – but its completion date is unknown.
According to the Director of the Russian Branch of BlaBlaCar, the service plans to introduce an identification procedure in 2019 to increase the safety and mutual trust of the travel companions. However, in anticipation of this innovation, BlaBlaCar users should exercise caution.