Irina Malezhik was ending an assignment as a Russian-language translator at a law office in 2004 when she asked an innocent but fateful question: Could anyone offer a lift to Brooklyn?
The man who obliged by chance, authorities say, was a stranger named Dmitriy Yakovlev. He says she later began tutoring him in English and that he loaned her money.
Three years later, the Ukrainian-born Malezhik walked out of her apartment building and was never seen again.
The disappearance is central to a disturbing identity theft case that went to trial earlier this month in federal court in Brooklyn. With the trial entering its third week, a jury has heard about a surgically dismembered body, a Halloween mask discarded with the body parts and an extravagant shopping spree by Yakovlev and his wife that began only 48 hours after Malezhik vanished.
Yakovlev, a 43-year-old Russian immigrant, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, bank fraud, using stolen credit cards and other charges involving Malezhik and two other victims.
As part of the conspiracy, prosecutors allege Yakovlev murdered Malezhik, 47, and Viktor Alekseyev, a neighbor of Yakovlev in a seaside, gated community in Brooklyn. They say he also stole the identity of another acquaintance, a retired New York Police Department employee who disappeared in 2003 without a trace.
Yakovlev's wife, Julia, avoided trial by pleading guilty last month to identity theft and credit card fraud. She faces at least two years in prison at sentencing in May.
Following Yakovlev's arrest in 2009, federal agents claim he admitted making ATM withdrawals and purchases with the missing victims' credit cards. But he "stated that in the past he had been given permission by others to use their credit cards in lieu of cash repayment for loans (he) had extended to them," court papers say.
He claimed Malezhik owed him $20,000, Alekseyev $30,000.
Defense attorney Michael Gold also told jurors in opening statements the government can't say how the two were killed or prove he did it.
"There is certainly no forensic evidence Mr. Yakovlev in any way, shape or manner or form contributed to (Malezhik's) disappearance," Gold said.
Alekseyev was last seen in 2005 on the eve of a planned trip to Moscow. About three weeks later, his body parts were found in plastic garbage bags – inexplicably, with a vampire mask – in a wooded area of New Jersey.
Prosecutors have shown the jury crime scene photos of the bags and mask, entered as evidence immigration papers saying Yakovlev once worked as a surgeon. A forensic pathologist testified how the victim's limbs were removed without cutting through bone. Whoever did it, the witness said, "had anatomic knowledge."
Acting on a tip in 2009, FBI agents using cadaver dogs dug up the basement of Yakovlev's home in search of the translator's remains. Agents "found a clump of long, brown-colored hair which appeared to them to be consistent with what was known of the length and color of the hair of (the victim)," court papers say, but no body parts turned up.
The spectacle of a failed search in a mysterious death ran counter to Malezhik's simple life.
Born in Kiev, she settled in Brooklyn several years before she disappeared. She lived alone in a tidy, one-bedroom apartment in Brighton Beach – a longtime Eastern European enclave bordering Coney Island that's sometimes called "Little Odessa" – with a view of the ocean and "a lot of orchids," a close friend, Olga Fisher, testified.
Malezhik spent most days working as a translator in state and federal courts and for law firms. In the mornings, she would take long walks with Fisher on the boardwalk near their homes.
Her walking partner was "very intelligent, very intellectual and a very hard worker, a good friend," Fisher said.
That's why it was strange in the fall of 2007 when Fisher stopped hearing from Malezhik. She left a string of phone messages and got no reply.
Fisher finally reported Malezhik missing and went to her apartment to meet the police. The mailbox was full, the apartment was unoccupied.
An initial investigation turned up a security camera video showing Malezhik leaving her building for the last time on Oct. 15, 2007. That day, authorities say, the Yakolevs began depositing checks drawn on Malezhik's bank account by forging her signature.
The following day, Julia Yakovlev purchased two Franck Muller watches for $16,200 using the victim's Social Security card as identification, prosecutors say. The couple was later captured by a camera at a Century 21 department store in Westbury, N.Y. using the victim's credit card.
After his arrest, Yakovlev appeared unfazed by the allegations, according to court papers. He told the FBI he had been trained as a doctor and served in the Russian Army before coming to the United States in the 1990s. He described himself as self-employed and an owner of rental properties.
After meeting Malezhik, she had tutored him in English – not at either of their homes, but "on the beach and places like that," he said. He claimed he loaned her money so she could buy furniture, and the last time he saw her was when she gave him her credit cards as repayment as they sat in his Lexus SUV.
"He stated he did not find (her) disappearance concerning, and suggested that she returned to Russia," according to an FBI report.
The report adds that when told he would have to appear in court that afternoon, "he expressed frustration that the court appearance would interfere with a scheduled motorcycle lesson."