LOS ANGELES — Five bodies pulled from a deep reservoir 40 miles east of Stockton may be the latest evidence of Russian organized crime activity on the West Coast, sources said Wednesday.
Until police pulled the bodies of Meyer Muscatel and four other people from the waters in the Sierra foothills, the Russian mob in California was better known to federal and local authorities for Medicare and gas tax fraud, car theft and petty shakedowns.
The search for the bodies began with an organized crime investigation in Los Angeles, said FBI spokeswoman Cheryl Mimura.
Other law enforcement officials who asked to remain anonymous linked the crimes to Russian mobsters.
Muscatel, a Sherman Oaks businessman and homebuilder, had been trying to empty his bank account when he disappeared and told his bankers he was in danger.
His body was pulled from the reservoir in October. The other four bodies were found this week.
On Wednesday, the FBI ended its search of New Melones Lake. A remotely operated submersible was used to look for evidence that may have been dumped off bridges spanning the reservoir, said Nick Rossi, a spokesman for the bureau's Sacramento field office.
Autopsies on the first two bodies, both men, were completed Tuesday but no results were released, Rossi said. Autopsies on the final two bodies, a man and a woman, will be conducted this weekend.
Further details of the investigation will be released after the bodies have been identified and relatives notified, Rossi said.
Business success could have been what drew Russian organized crime figures to Muscatel.
"If he's wealthy that's probably a red flag," said Larry Langford, who headed an FBI organized crime squad specializing in Russian mob activities in Los Angeles until his retirement two years ago.
Kidnapping and extortion are both popular crimes in the countries of the former Soviet Union, Langford said.
But Russian mobsters are better known in California for intricate frauds, like a 1993 Medicare scam in Los Angeles that netted two Russian immigrants $1 billion. Another scheme discovered in 1996 in San Francisco involved $180 million in gold and diamonds allegedly stolen from the Russian government.
The FBI started tracking Russian organized crime activities in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. The LAPD and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department have organized crime units focused on Russian-speaking criminals in West Hollywood, Hollywood, Glendale and Burbank.
Russian organized crime elements — most visible in Los Angeles, New York City and Miami — are also active in Toronto, Seattle and Portland. Their activities mirror the old Cosa Nostra in use of violence, but the organizational structures are different, experts say.
"They can be very violent and often use violence for control of territory, intimidation and extortion," said Louise Shelley, an international organized crime expert at American University in Washington, D.C.
"They kill people just to prove a point or teach someone a lesson," said former federal prosecutor William Callahan, who now heads an international security company in New York.
Russian organized crime comes in many different forms and ethnic mixes, from high-ranking former intelligence officials to ethnic Armenians and Chechens, Shelley said.
They don't organize like the Italian mafia, with a clear hierarchy. Instead, Russian mobsters work in small networks or actual families or clans, Shelley said.
And thanks to the old Soviet education system, they are well-educated and capable of intricate schemes, Callahan said.