In Kazakhstan, a season of murder and a lost local hero
Panayot Zakharopulo and his wife, Irina -- pictured here at their home in Almaty in October 2009 -- were both found dead.
Panayot Yevstafevich Zakharopulo was an imposing mountain of a man, who at the age of 76 could still perform the sign of the cross while holding a massive barbell.
But his strength -- as well as his reputation as the fearless protector of one of Kazakhstans most cherished nature preserves -- was not enough to prevent his murder in the countrys latest bizarre mass killing.
Zakharopulo, who had served as chief ranger of the countrys Ile-Alatau national park for more than three decades, was found dead on August 13 outside his home on the park grounds. He had been stabbed 26 times.
Police eventually discovered a total of 11 bodies, including Zakharopulos wife, Irina, and several other relatives and co-workers.
The familys Niva off-road vehicle was found some distance away, empty, its interior streaked with blood.
Further off, the Nissan Patrol of Zakharopulos son, Igor, was found crashed against a barrier -- also bearing traces of blood, but with no sign of the driver or his fate.
Five of the bodies were found inside the charred remains of a second rangers house a significant distance from Zakharopulos. The bodies were burned beyond recognition and a full list of victim identifications has yet to be made.
Police have launched a manhunt for Igor Zakharopulo, saying he does not appear to be among the dead and suggesting he may be involved in the killings.
Journalist Gennady Benditsky is covering the case for Kazakhstans independent "Vremya" newspaper. He says the sons apparent disappearance has only added to the peculiar nature of the crime, which follows the suspicious death last year of an older son, Yevgeny, apparently killed by an acquaintance during a brawl at the familys forest home.
Both Igor and Yevgeny, however, were seen as working closely with their father, with no hint of animosity, in what they called the "family business" of guarding Ile-Alatau.
Another puzzling aspect of the crime, says Benditsky, is that despite the presence of several sophisticated hunting rifles in Zakharopulos home and in the Nissan Patrol, it was a knife that was used for the killings.
"There were many stab wounds. It took numerous stab wounds to kill [Zakharopulo], who was physically very strong despite the fact that he was an elderly man, " Benditsky says. "There were 26 stab wounds in his body. In others, there were 18, 10, six, eight. Usually, a single stab wound is enough to kill a man. You can say whoever killed them was kind of hacking at them."
Police have offered few details about the case and have even courted public assistance, asking for people who may have visited the park during its busy weekend hours to step forward with information.
The killings, committed in the heart of a vibrant nature preserve, have sparked suggestions the crime may have been prompted by Zakharopulos avid battle against poaching.
Ile-Alatau, located along the northern Tien Shan mountain range, is home to a rich variety of local vegetation, including rare breeds of tulips and peonies, as well as endangered animals including the distinctive argali mountain sheep, black storks, and snow leopards.
The natural abundance of the park has proven a draw for poachers, including teams of high-placed businessmen who have traditionally looked at Ile-Alatau as an ideal getaway for a weekend of drinking and hunting.
Benditsky says Zakharopulo -- who came to be known as the "Brest Fortress" of Ile-Alatau, a reference to the popular symbol of Soviet resistance against Nazi forces in World War II -- had maintained an uncompromising stance against unlicensed hunting. He often personally trolled the forest with his sons in search of undocumented visitors, and even confronted his own bosses when they attempted to sanction lucrative logging deals in the park.
"He was very strong physically. And he was also strong in terms of character, " Benditsky says. "There are officials and high-ranking policeman who try to use their positions to get what they want. Those things didnt impress him. He was fired several times because of that. And each time he went to court and got his job back."
The Ile-Alatau murders have sparked comparisons to the shooting deaths in May of 14 border guards and a forest ranger at the remote Arkankergen outpost on the mountainous Kazakh-Chinese border to the east of Almaty.
Although authorities quickly settled on a chief suspect in the murders -- the sole remaining border guard, 19-year-old Vladislav Chelakh -- many doubts remain about the case and motives behind it.
Chelakh has complained that he was beaten and threatened with rape by interrogators eager to extract a confession. This week he was officially questioned by officers investigating his torture claims.
The bizarre nature of the Arkankergen killings -- and the fact that Chelakh, like Zakharopulo, is a member of Kazakhstans ethnic Greek minority -- has prompted speculation of a direct link between the two cases.
Both the Interior Ministry and observers like Benditsky dismiss the notion of a connection in the two killings.
Officials, meanwhile, on August 17 turned their attention to a fresh killing -- a shootout between alleged militants and security forces that left nine people dead outside of Almaty.
The incident prompted prosecutors to offer a hasty assurance that, again, no link to the Ile-Alatau murders was suspected.
But Turysbek, a doctor in the capital, Almaty, said the uncustomary season of violence has left many ordinary Kazakhs unsettled.
"Of course, its alarming, " he says. "This kind of thing never happened before, but now its happening often. At this point we dont know exactly what happened. But I would say that the fact these types of tragedies are taking place so frequently now probably means that our law-enforcement system and general law and order are getting worse."
Elsewhere, other Kazakhs mourned the death of the man they credited with protecting one of the countrys most beloved natural treasures. "There are very few people who put nature before family interests or material concerns, " one person commented on the website of the Kazakh news website Megapolis. "Im so sorry for them, that the whole family was killed."
RFE/RLs Kazakh Service contributed to this report