‘Killer frogmen case’. Australia offers reward for information on murder of KGB colonel – ‘boss of Russian mafia’
After the murder of former KGB colonel Gennadi Bernovski committed in 2000 in keeping with the best traditions of spy thrillers, the Australian media started actively discussing the invasion of ‘Russian mafia’ on the continent – according to the investigation, both the victim and suspects had direct ties with it. The CrimeRussia was figuring out why has the Australian police resumed the investigation of this unsolved murder and offered $250 thousand for information about its masterminds?
The gunning down of former KGB officer Gennadi Bernovski at the doorway of his mansion supposedly committed by scuba divers went down in the criminal history of Australia as a ‘squabble’ between representatives of the Russian organized crime laundering billions of dollars in the country through acquisitions of deluxe real estate and industrial enterprises. In 2001, Peter Ryan, then-Commissioner of the New South Wales Police, confirmed this in an interview to The Herald Sun.
According to the newspaper, the Australian police have even sent its officers to the USA to adopt the experience of combating the threat earlier unknown on the green continent. By that time, the FBI has already carried out several special operations against ‘Russian mafia’ operating on Brighton Beach under the leadership of Evsei Agron, detained thief-in-law Yaponshik, and exposed financial frauds of Semen Mogilevich. In that period, a fierce gang war was waged in Australia between Irish, Sicilian, and Calabrian ‘mafia clans’ on the one side and Melbourne-based clan under the leadership of Williams on the other side. However, the Australian authorities had no idea of Russian bros who had made their shady capitals in the ‘turbulent 1990s’.
Two men in diving suits
Gennadi Bernovski immigrated to Australia with his family in the mid-1990s. On the evening of July 24, 2000, he was killed at the entrance of his luxury mansion in Benowa Waters, a suburb of Gold Coast, Queensland
The mansion in Benowa Waters
According to the investigation, the former commander of an elite KGB special task force was gunned down from the darkness with semiautomatic weapons while taking out garbage bins. Bernovski received two bullets in the stomach and one in the leg; he managed to crawl to the entrance door screaming to his wife Svetlana to call the police and died in front of her. The 6-year-old daughter of Bernovski had witnessed his death as well.
The body of Gennadi Bernovski. Photo from the case file
Bullet holes in the door of Bernovski’s home
Later, the ballistics analysis has established that two weapons were firing, while a neighbor of the Bernovski family, who was parking her car at the time of the crime, told the police that she had seen two unknown persons in dark fitting clothes resembling diving suits.
Svetlana Bernovski with police officers immediately after the murder of her husband
Based on her testimonies, it was suggested that some military divers emerged from the Nerang River near Bernovski’s villa, shot him dead, and escaped through the extensive channel system of the city.
The murder of Gennadi Bernovski caused a public stir; initially, its investigation was pretty active. In the first two years, the police were searching for the masterminds behind this crime and assassins in the Russian-speaking community of the state – after the collapse of the USSR, many wealthy people with criminal past have relocated to Queensland and Gold Coast, the primary tourism destination in Australia, from post-Soviet republics. Over 3 thousand Russian-speaking immigrants currently reside in Gold Coast. Furthermore, according to friends of Bernovski, he had posed as a leader of a Russian organized criminal group.
However, the Russian-speaking community had kept silence, and the police learned nothing from them about the criminal past of Bernovski and possible revenge of his former ‘colleagues’.
Over the years, the investigation got stalled – although the Australian media had never forgotten about this high-profile crime. But on November 14, 2018, the cold case investigation team of the Queensland Police Service has offered a reward in the amount of 340 thousand Australian dollars (some US $250 thousand) for information able to shed light on this mysterious murder. Inspector Marc Hogan, Head Detective of the Gold Coast Domestic and Family Violence Taskforce, told in an interview to Brisbane Times that the police had never abandoned the search for answers in that case and is still determined to find the perpetrators, while Mark Ryan, the Queensland Minister for Police, suggested those possessing any information pertaining to the murder of Bernovski to contact the law enforcement authorities in order to solve this crime and let victim’s relatives see the people who had assassinated their head of the household in the dock.
Mark Ryan, Queensland Minister for Police
Interestingly, despite the circumstances of the crime committed a la James Bond movies (a KGB colonel supposedly killed by military divers), the version of possible revenge taken by Soviet secret services upon a former agent who had defected to a capitalist country had never been considered seriously– nether 18 years ago nor recently, amid the scandal with the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, former colonel of the General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, and his daughter in the UK.
The police never had doubts that the murder of Bernovski has criminal grounds. Initially, the blame was put on ephemeral ‘Russian mafia’ – but in 2003, the investigators concluded that Bernovski could be assassinated by his former business partners Oleg Kouzmine and Valentin Masnyi, cofounders of Prima Foods distribution company.
Gennadi Bernovski, Valentin Masnyi (on the left), and Lyudmila and Oleg Kouzmine (on the right)
The investigators consider fingerprints of Kouzmine left on the gates of Bernovski’s villa the most important evidence. It is believed that Kouzmine was directly involved in the murder of his former business partner – although his fingerprints could be left earlier: Kouzmine and Bernovski had joint affairs and used to visit each other.
Concurrently, the version with killer divers discussed for 18 years by the Australian media and police turned out to be irrelevant. According to the investigators, the suspects could not carry out such a complex special operation requiring involvement of professional commandos.
Russian native Oleg Kouzmine, former partner of Bernovski in several joint projects, was among the first questioned by the police immediately after the murder.
Kouzmine and Masnyi were already familiar to the Australian law enforcement authorities – in 1998, they were victims in an extortion case. According to Kouzmine, representatives of ‘Russian mafia’ had demanded from them a large sum of money. However, after their refusal to testify against the racketeers in court, the case was closed.
Based on witnesses’ statements (over 150 people were questioned shortly after the murder), it turned out that Bernovski and Kouzmine had serious disagreements lately. The police became aware that Kouzmine has brought to Australia at least $1.3 million and invested, according to various estimations, $400 thousand to $1 million into joint projects with Bernovski. However, the business was not successful and went bankrupt – allegedly, due to a fault of Bernovski. As a result, Kouzmine has sustained severe losses.
Former Gold Coast lawyer Kerry Salinger (on the left) who became friends with Gennadi and Svetlana, calls the victim a big man and loving father and husband – despite his reputation of a former secret service officer and criminal leader
Then the investigation became aware that Kouzmine had a conflict with another business partner of Bernovski and himself – Mikhail Shnirman. Upon returning from the funeral of Gennadi Bernovski, Shnirman has discovered in his mailbox a scary note with three numbered names: “1. Bernovski; 2. Shnirman. 3. Starikov”. The first name was stricken through. Shortly after that, another person mentioned in the note – Starikov – has mysteriously disappeared, while Shnirman has been concealed under the witness protection program.
Svetlana Bernovski at the funeral of her husband in Southport
It was Oleg Kouzmine who has tipped the investigators to search for the masterminds behind the murder of Bernovski among Russian-speaking immigrants with criminal past. When asked whether Bernovski had enemies seeking his death, Kouzmine said that the victim, a professional martial artist, had never made a secret of his influence in the criminal world and openly claimed to be a leader of organized criminal groups in Yakutsk and Kaliningrad prior to the emigration.
The former KGB special force officer was proficient in many martial arts
On the next day after the questioning, Oleg Kouzmine hastily fled to Russia – allegedly, to visit relatives – and promised the investigators to attend the second questioning in a few days. However, he never returned to Australia, and on the sixth day after the death of Bernovski, fingerprints of Kouzmine were found on the gates of victim’s villa.
His spouse Ludmilla Kouzmina remained in Australia and said during a questioning that, on the night of the crime, her husband was at home with her, thus, providing him with an alibi. However, in 2003, an arrest warrant has been issued against Kouzmine who became the primary suspect in the murder of Gennadi Bernovski. The police also suspect Valentin Masnyi, who still resides in Australia, of complicity in this crime.
After resuming the investigation 2 weeks ago, the operatives have questioned Masnyi in his Hobart residence – but didn’t share the results of this interrogation with journalists.
Then Ludmilla Kouzmina has suddenly changed her statements and told ABC Investigations journalists that she “does not remember” whether her husband was at home on the night of the murder. Shortly after that, she was questioned again by police detectives and told them the same. This brought new momentum to the investigation
In the meantime, the Australian police had contacted the Russian law enforcement authorities with regards to the prosecution of Kouzmine for the murder of Bernovski. According to ABC Investigations, a few years ago, the Russian colleagues have responded that Oleg Kouzmine "was sentenced to six years of imprisonment on probation for attempted murder" in St Petersburg for trying to kill someone with a knife.
Last week, ABC investigators have disproved this information – they found out that Oleg Kouzmine is currently on the loose. He lives on Prosveshchenia avenue in St. Petersburg and, based on his pages on social networks, travels a lot posting holiday snaps from Portugal, Thailand, Italy, and the Caribbean.
Apartment building in St. Petersburg where Oleg Kouzmine is living
The cold case investigation team of the Queensland Police Service intends to address the Russian authorities via Interpol for assistance in the solution of this 18-year-old murder. The policemen need to visit St. Petersburg and question Oleg Kouzmine – but any such trip will have to be arranged through formal channels; therefore, the detectives are skeptical about this perspective. They expect the ‘iron curtain' to fall again amid the deteriorating relations between Russia and the Western world.
Minister of the Chechen Republic for National Policy, Dzhambulat Umarov, noted that there are a huge number of cases all over Russia, when people, wearing camouflage uniforms, do "not very plausible things."
Today, St. Petersburg tensely awaits two important political events for the city. Election of the governor and the rotation of the heads of power structures. The prosecutor of the city Sergey Litvinenko is again named the first in the line of generals. The CrimeRussia is trying to find out whether there are any compelling reasons for this.