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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 September 2007, 05:03 GMT 06:03 UK
Russian 'chessboard killer' on trial
By James Rodgers
BBC News, Moscow

Alexander Pichushkin entering a Moscow courtroom
Pichushkin shared a flat with his mother near the park
"If they hadn't caught me, I would never have stopped, never. They saved a lot of lives by catching me."

Alexander Pichushkin was arrested last year. In jail, awaiting trial, he spoke to a Russian TV channel.

It is called the case of the "Bittsa maniac", after a park in southern Moscow. It was here, among the trees, that a serial killer stalked his victims.

No-one is sure of the exact number.

Pichushkin has been charged with 49 murders, and three attempted murders.

He boasts that he killed 61 people - 60 of them in Bittsa Park. Media reports have quoted investigators as saying they believe he wanted to kill one person for each of the 64 squares on a chessboard.

'Auntie Sveta'

Many of the victims were from the local area. Mr Pichushkin, 33, worked in a shop nearby.

Svetlana Mortyakova
Svetlana Mortyakova was a neighbour of the alleged killer
"He called me Auntie Sveta," Svetlana Mortyakova told me.

Svetlana, 70, lives on the floor below where Pichushkin lived. She remembers someone who was always polite and respectful to her.

She says he loved animals - and was inconsolable if a pet died. She recalls one day when she found him drunk and in tears sitting in the stairwell of their home. He was apparently speechless with grief over the death of a beloved cat.

She also remembers returning last year from a children's summer camp where she works in the school holidays.

"My daughter said 'Mum, they've caught the maniac! You'll never believe who! Sasha Pichushkin!' I was shocked," Svetlana said, as we chatted near the entrance to her block of flats.

More than once during our conversation Svetlana crossed herself, as if sensing the presence of evil even as she thought of the times she had met the alleged serial killer on the stairs.

"And I lived for 40 years in the same house as a maniac!" she shuddered.

The edge of Bittsa Park is just a short walk from Svetlana's home. She told me she used to go with her daughter to collect water from a spring there. Only later did they discover that some of the bodies had been found in that part of the park.

Hiding places

The case has caused massive media interest. Pichushkin's first court appearance - at a pre-trial hearing in August - was widely covered.

Bittsa Park
Bittsa Park is a thickly wooded area in southern Moscow
Pichushkin invited people to Bittsa Park to drink with him. Many of them were middle-aged men. He is alleged to have killed them either by shoving them into a sewage pit or hitting them on the back of the head with a hammer.

The "park" is actually a thick wood criss-crossed with paths. After talking to Svetlana, I went to take a look. It seemed a pleasant enough place on a warm afternoon - but the knowledge of what had happened there made the silence seem menacing.

Cigarette ends and bottle tops litter the forest floor beneath the benches set out for visitors. It is easy to picture the "maniac" and his prey passing an hour or two with a beer and a smoke.

Svetlana said that as far as she knew, Pichushkin's mother still lived in the same flat. She said, though, that she had not seen her recently. "It's terrible," Svetlana said, trying to imagine a parent's torment.

Natalya Pichushkina spoke to the tabloid newspaper Tvoi Dyen (Your Day) last year, after her son's arrest.

She talked of a son she doted on. Her description fits with Svetlana's memories of the polite young lad she once knew.

"How could I know that he would become such a beast?" the paper quoted Natalya as telling them.



VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
A sullen Alexander Pichushkin paces his cell in court



SEE ALSO
Russian suspected of 62 murders
01 Aug 07 |  Europe

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