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VQR ISSUE: Spring 2009
April 1, 2009
…Saša Dukosi is a longtime reporter for Macedonian radio and television, but today he is my tour guide. “And this is the kindergarten, next to which her cell phone was found,” he goes on. “A woman heard it ringing in the grass and picked up the call. ‘Who are you?’ the caller asked her, and she explained. They told her to wait right there; they were sending a police car.”
Left, right. We are following his route, tracing the turns he took from his home in town to his secluded summer cottage five kilometers away. Even our car is the same as his: a white Opel Astra. We make a final left onto a highway out of town, and Saša steps on the gas.
We get off the highway at a sun-bleached sign that shows the distance (4 km) to the village of Karbunica.
“This is the place,” he says and points. “Look, over there.”
In the distance, nestled under the shade of several big walnut trees, is the summer cottage—a ramshackle thing.
Gathering my courage, I try the door. Of course, the police have locked it. The monster is not at home…
On a high mountain plateau in western Macedonia, just kilometers east of the Albanian border, the town of Kičevo lies in wait. It waits for the buses going north, to the capital Skopje; it waits for the buses going south, to the charming resorts of Lake Ohrid. It waits in vain… In the cafés, people sit across from one another, as if facing mirrors, and discuss the news, watching themselves.
Not that there is much news to discuss. Kičevo is rarely mentioned on Macedonian TV; in travel guides it rates a mere half page. It seems a strange place for an ambitious journalist in search of exciting stories. But Vlado Taneski—a staffer for Nova Makedonija (New Macedonia), the largest national daily in the capital city of Skopje, and the three-time winner of the national award for best reporting—found Kičevo and its picturesque surroundings congenial to his romantic spirit… True to the pastoral tradition, Taneski elegized rural life through the lens of his urban imagination and living. But he was no modern-day Theocritus. Though there was genuine emotion, talent even, his writing often unraveled into pathos inflected by cliché—simplifying the past into a prelapsarian world of affection, an Arcadia, locus amoenus.
Coming upon the deserted village of Podvis, he observed: “No human foot ventures here anymore. All the houses have been abandoned. Dead silence. Only the water in the village fountain follows the quick passage of time. Everything else is a memory from the past.
But, the occasional flights of poetic fancy aside, Taneski was a daily reporter first and foremost. The bulk of his work focused on what little national news Kičevo could muster. In short daily items, he reported on rising unemployment, illegal logging, corrupt politicians, the commemoration of patriotic events, petty crime, and, occasionally, homicides. Mostly, he complained about “the wretchedly chosen local officials.” Taneski was a socially engaged journalist, who did not shy away from taking controversial, albeit conservative, positions. His articles were shot through with yearning for the time before Yugoslavia disintegrated, and he came to view capitalism as a lethal incursion into his country, new ways strangling the old. His was a form of political nostalgia, born of a personal fixation on the past. In his prose, as in his daily routine, he favored the familiar over the daring. His articles were textbook examples of solid writing, but they never took chances, never deviated from traditional journalism. Even his methods were conservative: still working on a typewriter, phoning in his copy rather than sending by fax. Little wonder then that he preferred interviewing old-timers for his essayistic pieces to reporting the dull daily news. But when the elderly women of Kičevo began to go missing, it presented an opportunity for Taneski to wed his thoughts on the declining culture of Macedonia to a steadily unfolding whodunit. It seemed the story he was born to write.
In November 2004, Mitra Simjanoska, a sixty-one-year-old, retired custodian—and, as some people characterized her, “woman of loose morals”—went missing. Maybe a jealous lover lost his temper. Maybe she was on the run from someone. Theories proliferated, but nothing was confirmed. Then, on January 12, 2005, a scrap collector poking around the abandoned construction site of an athletic facility on the edge of town came upon a naked body dumped in a shallow hole in the ground.
By the advanced decomposition, police determined that Simjanoska had been murdered some weeks before. She had been brutally raped and then strangled, her body bound with phone cable and then stuffed into a plastic bag. Kičevo was in shock. Nothing like this had ever happened there before. Even during the 2001 war, when Albanian separatists from Kosovo had crossed into Macedonia and started a campaign of chaos and violence in the nearby town of Tetovo, Kičevo had remained relatively quiet.
Luckily, after a swift investigation, the local authorities announced that the culprits had been arrested. Kičevo could sleep easy. Two men, Ante Risteski and Igor Mirčeski, both in their twenties, were charged with the murder of Simjanoska and that of Radoslav Bozhinoski—an old man who was robbed and killed in December 2004 at his house in the neighboring village of Malkoetz. Bozhinoski had suffered a terrible death at the hands of his tormentors, who forced objects in his anus and squeezed his penis and testicles with hot fire tongs before finishing him off. Because Simjanoska had been abused in a somewhat similar fashion, the prosecution established a link between the crimes and decided to treat them as a double homicide. It was reported that during the pre-trial interrogation Risteski and Mirčeski had admitted to murdering both Simjanoska and Bozhinoski, but in the courtroom they insisted they had killed only the man and had nothing to do with Simjanoska.
Vlado Taneski reported on the courtroom proceedings for Nova Makedonija. He sat in his pew and listened to the prosecution, to the witnesses and the defense. In an article entitled “Surgical Gloves for a Monstrous Murder,” Taneski wrote: “In handcuffs and with searching eyes, 28-year-old Ante Risteski and his friend Igor Mirčeski, accused of a horrible double homicide in Kičevo and Malkoetz, walked into the courtroom. They stared vacantly at the ceiling and from time to time whispered, as if to themselves: it’s all over and now we’ll pay for our crimes.”
Risteski and Mirčeski were sentenced to life in prison for the murders. But there was a troubling piece of incongruous evidence. The postmortem examination had uncovered traces of semen in Simjanoska’s body, which, it was later revealed, matched the DNA of neither Risteski nor Mirčeski. Was there a third assailant? Did the court lock up the wrong men? Could it be that the murderer of Mitra Simjanoska was still a free man? There were no answers.
Then, in November 2007, exactly three years after the disappearance of Simjanoska, another woman from Kičevo went missing. Fifty-six-year-old Lubica Ličoska was, like Simjanoska, a custodian, and she also lived in the same section of town. When the similarities were noted, locals suddenly remembered Gorica Pavelska. She was seventy-three, a retired custodian who went missing in May 2003. No one had thought much of it at the time. She might have suffered a stroke in some remote place, they had speculated, or gone to work in Skopje. No trace of her was ever found and the whole business had been forgotten.
But now it appeared that little Kičevo was home to a serial killer, and Vlado Taneski’s editors smelled a big story.
“Lubica was a quiet and gentle woman. She fought poverty and worked as a janitor of apartment buildings to feed her family,” relatives of Ličoska told Taneski. For his article he also interviewed her son Duko: “Two days after the disappearance of my mother, I informed the police. I talked to the residents of the buildings where my mother used to work and searched around a bit for clues, but I couldn’t find any traces of her. The police told me they are on the case.” The town was once again in a frenzy, brought to the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The worst fears were confirmed when Ličoska’s body was found discarded by the Strazha ridge on the Gostivar-Kičevo road, near a Lukoil gas station. She had been slain in an identical manner to Simjanoska: raped and strangled, bound with cable and stuffed in a plastic bag. According to the coroner, the deed had been committed just days before, which meant that the woman, who had been missing for three months, had been kept somewhere as a hostage during all that time, fed and kept alive, repeatedly tortured and raped.
“The new crime is Kičevo’s top story,” Taneski wrote with much fanfare in an article for Utrinski Vesnik (Morning Herald) on February 6, 2008. “Rumors abound. While the police are working on the case, the majority of people in Kičevo think that this murder is related to the double homicide in Malkoetz and Kičevo, when two older citizens were killed for a very small sum of money.” But how could that be, when the criminals convicted of Simjanoska’s murder were already behind bars? In the same article Taneski suggested that Ličoska might have been hit by a car, and the driver, instead of taking her to the hospital, had decided to take advantage of her in the most hideous manner. The police knew better but kept their own council. “The Kičevo police have not announced a suspect yet, but, according to our sources, the investigation is on its way to solving the case,” Taneski reported.
But before the police could make an arrest, yet another body, that of Živana Temelkoska, was found raped and strangled, bound with cable and stuffed in a plastic bag. The pattern was painfully familiar, as was the profile of the victim: a sixty-five-year-old woman who had once worked as a custodian at the local primary school and lived in the same section of town as the other victims. She had disappeared on May 7, 2008, but unlike the previous women, was found dead just a week later. Her mutilated corpse, naked under a peignoir, had been thrown on a rubbish heap outside of town, next to an open field that was the home of the local soccer team, Vlazrimi. The autopsy showed numerous external and internal injuries, including five broken ribs and thirteen cuts on the skull. Cruelty and outrageous perversion had guided her executioner, who had violated his victim with a glass bottle, a vial of aftershave, cotton, and gauze. Semen was also extracted from her body, as in the case of Simjanoska. By chance, the victim’s cell phone was discovered near a kindergarten on the other end of town, apparently thrown out of a moving car.
Terror gripped Kičevo. Older women were afraid to go out alone and mothers would not let their children play in the streets. On May 19, Taneski wrote in Nova Makedonija, “The people of Kičevo are living in fear and panic after another butchered body of a woman from town was found over the weekend. The local police, as well as the town populace, see the mysterious disappearances and terrible deaths of Živana Temelkoska and Lubica Ličoska as the work of a single person—a serial killer.” And most troubling of all, though his victims fit a clear profile, no one knew for sure how the killer selected his targets. “The motives of the Kičevo monster,” wrote Taneski, “are still unclear.”
To see if he could uncover what investigators might be withholding, Taneski interviewed police detectives working on the case. He reported, “Officials from the Ministry of Interior say that they have several suspects, all of them from Kičevo. They were interrogated and released. There is confirmation that traces from the murderer have been found on both victims, and those are now being analyzed.” Taneski also wanted to interview Temelkoska’s relatives, asking them for specific details about the case. When did they last see her? What were their versions of the events? Did they suspect anyone? It would be easy, he told his editors, because the Temelkoski family resided just a few houses down from him on 11th of September, the name of Taneski’s street (so called for the first time Kičevo was liberated from the fascists in 1943). The Temelkoskis were his neighbors. In fact, all of the victims had lived in his neighborhood.
The hunt was on.
Saša Dukoski, my guide around Kičevo, tells me over coffee that police detectives from all over Macedonia swooped in, giddy with purpose. The three victims (and the one still missing) had left a trail, like breadcrumbs in the forest. All the victims had worked as custodians; all were of similar age and resided within shouting distance of each other; they were all tortured and executed in an identical manner. From these clues, it was possible to assemble a profile. The serial killer—for there was little doubt now what he should be called—was most likely someone who lived in the same part of town and knew his victims personally. He was likely a middle-aged male, relatively strong. His intelligence was probably above average, as the crimes had taken careful planning and organization that allowed him to maintain a high degree of control over the crime scene. He suffered from deep-seated sexual frustrations, originating in early childhood or youth, which had gradually metastasized into a pathology of sadomasochistic desires. More than likely he acted alone, though the presence of an accomplice could not be dismissed.
A psychological profile all by itself, however, is a key in search of a lock. If the Kičevo police were to track down their killer, they would need more than a rough outline of who that criminal was. The lucky break came in the testing of an old jersey found next to Temelkoska’s body. Forensic analysis uncovered traces of blood that did not belong to the dead woman. An identification of the blood type—rumor had it that it was B positive—and several days of intensive interviews with about one hundred and fifty men narrowed the pool of men against whom police wanted to test DNA from the collected semen samples. Among the main suspects were a taxi driver, several of the victims’ neighbors, and the journalist covering the case, Vlado Taneski.
“We heard that somebody had been arrested in connection with the case,” Branko Zakev from the Skopje office of Nova Makedonija remembers, “but we didn’t know who that somebody was. So we decided to call Vlado, who was our reporter in Kičevo, but nobody answered the phone. Then we called the Ministry of Interior and they said, ‘You don’t have a reporter in Kičevo anymore.’”
Vlado Taneski was arrested at his house in the early afternoon of Friday, June 20, 2008. Three independent lab tests had confirmed that his DNA was an exact match for the samples taken from the bodies of Mitra Simjanoska and Živana Temelkoska. Results from the Ličoska case were still inconclusive at the time of his capture, but two weeks later Ivo Kotevski, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior, privately verified that seven hairs found near her body belonged to Taneski, thus directly implicating him in the third murder as well. The jersey from the last crime scene was also identified as Taneski’s, while the peignoir, in which Temelkoska had been wrapped, green with polka dots, had allegedly belonged to Taneski’s mother. It appeared he had dressed all of his victims in his mother’s clothes before raping and killing them.
The search of his house in Kičevo and his secluded summer cottage several kilometers away, where he had probably held the women before disposing of them, yielded additional clues, including shoes and pieces of clothing, which, according to the police, had belonged to some of the victims. (Taneski’s wife disputed their claims and said that the clothes were her mother-in-law’s.) As for Taneski’s newspaper articles, in which he had diligently described his crimes, they were just circumstantial evidence, though the detectives had followed them with fascination. In his final report on Temelkoska, one detail in particular stood out. Taneski had written that the woman had been strangled with the same cable with which she was later bound. But investigators had not released that detail to the media. Only a secret source within the police department—or the killer himself—could have known.
During his grueling interrogation in custody, Taneski mostly kept silent. To many of the questions he gave evasive answers or said he could not remember. He maintained that he was innocent and did not know the women personally. Detectives described the conversations with him as frustrating and fruitless. No coercive force had been used against him, he later told his wife, but at the end of the day he was weak and exhausted. He expressed a resolve to defend himself in court, so he was assigned a public defender and transferred the next day to a jail in the nearby town of Tetovo on a thirty-day detention order.
When he arrived at Tetovo, he was placed, because of short space, in a cell with three other inmates. Taneski’s cell had sleeping quarters with two iron bunk beds and a separate bathroom with a toilet bowl and a sink. There was also a large white bucket for sanitary purposes because of frequent water-supply restrictions. It was here, in the jail’s lavatory at around 2 a.m. on Monday morning, June 23, less than three days after he had been arrested, that one of Taneski’s cellmates found the disgraced reporter on his knees, his head in a bucket of water. After a failed resuscitation attempt, Vlado Taneski was pronounced dead.
… “Vlado was just a normal child,” Ljupcho repeats like a mantra, avoiding eye contact. “We weren’t very close in the last thirty years, so there isn’t much else I can tell you.” Information about Taneski’s adult life is equally spotty. He attended a technical high school and after graduation took a job as a metalworker at the local factory. Soon after, he was made head of Kičevo’s Communist youth organization. The inertia of the bureaucratic machine propelled him to the political school in Kumrovec, in central Croatia, where for two years he was inculcated in the principles of Tito’s League of Communists of Yugoslavia. When he returned to his hometown in 1980, Taneski was an important person by local standards, unfit to go back to sweating in a factory. In confirmation of his new standing he was granted an editorship at Radio Kičevo, where his belated professional career as a journalist was finally launched. In the meantime, he had married and become the father of two sons.
Vlado and Vesna met in 1973 during a regional poetry reading. He got first prize, she third. He was twenty-one, she—nineteen. “Our love of literature brought us together,” she tells me, the memory softening her features. She seems to turn young and happy again, in love, unaware of the terrible future. “He had only a high school diploma but was widely read and often helped me with my studies.” They dated for four years before tying the knot in 1977. It was a time when Vesna’s need for love and support was especially dire, as she had just survived a car accident in which her brother and father had been killed—a trauma that would haunt her for years and leave her clinically depressed. “During our entire marriage, Vlado was good to me, caring. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention such private things, but he was always a very tender lover. When he worked at Radio Kičevo, there was a broadcast, Mini Disco Club, and he would put on the air my favorite songs. Afterwards, he helped me finish law school and even made an office space in the house just for me, where I set up a private practice for two years. He believed in me.”
She pauses to think of what other praise she could bestow on him. She seems eager to prove to me that Vlado was a good man who could not have had anything to do with the events of recent weeks. Or, at least, that she could not possibly have known. “He loved our children and spent a lot of time with them. When he was not reporting, he stayed mostly around the house, cleaning the yard, fixing things. He was a good husband, son, and father. He could have sacrificed himself for his family.” While Vesna talks, her mother enters the room and joins us at the table. She is a frail woman with cloudy eyes—eyes that refuse to see or be seen. Listening to her daughter speak, she can hardly hold back her tears. “It’s a tragedy for all of us,” she finally says with a choked voice. “It’s hard to believe that all of this actually happened. Vlado was always so good to me, always helpful.”
Many relatives, neighbors, and colleagues refused to believe that Taneski, who had always been quiet and courteous, could commit such horrifying acts while wearing “the mask of sanity.” A criminal was someone who had no education and lived in squalor and never offered his seat to old ladies on the bus. A monster had fangs, sharp claws. All men have secrets—some may even cheat on their wives, lead double lives—but those are minor sins compared to what Taneski was accused of.
“I never suspected that he was the murderer,” Cvetanka, Lubica Ličoska’s sister, told me. “I knew him as a good, honest person. We weren’t close at all, but we were neighbors.” In his guise as journalist Taneski often visited her house scouting for information. He also interviewed Zoran Temelkoski, the son of the last victim. “When my mother disappeared, Vlado asked me questions. Even when he met me in the street he’d inquire if I had news, or if I suspected anyone in particular. We were neighbors for a long time, knew each other for years, so it never even crossed my mind he might be the guilty one.” Zoran was stunned when the police announced they had found the culprit. “You can’t describe the feeling. It was very hard on me. To have someone kill your mother and then come to your house to say, ‘Hi.’ It’s horrifying.”
Even Taneski’s editor Daniela Trpchevska couldn’t believe the news. “To say that I was gobsmacked is an understatement,” she wrote in the Financial Times. “I was speechless; I was shaking. I couldn’t believe he was the serial killer, and part of me still doesn’t believe it.” She wasn’t alone. Many townspeople adamantly refused to believe Taneski’s guilt. “He has been framed,” were the whispers in local cafés. “The murderer is surely still at large.” To admit that an exemplary member of the community was a serial killer amounted to a collective judgment. Vlado Taneski’s guilt would threaten not only his family, but all Kičevo, the entire country. It meant that the Republic of Macedonia had a dark side that nobody knew. Even if “the other Vlado” did exist, it was much better to send him back under the bed.
Taneski’s uncanny death further complicated the question. How could a person drown himself in a bucket of water? Were the police hiding something? Any number of conspiracy theories emerged, from the faintly probable (he was a victim of a botched waterboarding procedure) to the patently ridiculous (he was killed so his organs could be harvested). Though he had left a suicide note under his pillow—“I have not killed the women. I’m proud of my family.”—doubts were hardly allayed. Maybe someone had written the note for him. Or maybe he really was innocent, but his nerves were shot. Because of the prison staff’s hasty rescue attempt, the crime scene had been compromised and some of the evidence that could have helped the inquest—for example, the position in which the body had been initially found—was lost. What was to be done now?
One of Macedonia’s best-known criminologists and a professor at the police academy in Skopje, Marijan Kotevski, called Taneski’s suicide “balanced and tendentious.” Taneski had carefully calculated the pros and cons of his situation and reasoned out that his most realistic course of action, the one that would perhaps protect his family from infamy, would be to leave another mystery behind. His great willpower and determination, in Kotevski’s opinion, helped him to overcome the biological reflex of his body and keep his head in the bucket until he passed out. In a kneeling position a suicide like that would not be impossible.
Kotevski may be right, but even he seems to have overlooked a crucial detail—a detail very few people knew. Three items were found in Taneski’s pockets after his death: a signed note, in red ink, divulging the place of his longer suicide letter (“I have a note under the pillow on the bed”), a roundtrip train ticket from Kičevo to Skopje that he had with him at the time of his arrest, and a blister pack of paroxetine. Paroxetine’s main ingredient, paroxetine hydrochloride, is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) used in the making of powerful antidepressant drugs—sold in the US and Britain under the names Paxil and Seroxat. Once regularly prescribed for the treatment of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and social-anxiety disorder, paroxetine stirred recent controversy when it was determined that its use greatly increased the risk of suicidal ideation and behavior, especially among people—children and adolescents mostly, but also adults—with a family history of suicide and those exposed to periods of prolonged stress. Though other antidepressants are known to have similar side effects, paroxetine could be especially dangerous; in February 2005, a team of researchers published a paper in the British Medical Journal documenting “an association between suicide attempts and the use of SSRIs.”
It is not certain exactly when or why Vlado Taneski began taking antidepressants—his wife had been taking them for years—but he certainly took them without his physician’s knowledge. (In Macedonia, paroxetine-related drugs are freely sold over the counter.) Was he aware of a psychological condition that he determined required treatment? Mikhail Levenski, an eminent psychologist from Skopje, said that in Macedonia there was still a grave stigma attached to people seeking mental health advice, especially in small towns like Kičevo. Even if Taneski had sensed he needed help, he could not have gone to a specialist without suffering much disgrace in the eyes of his neighbors. When, in 2002 to 2003, he lost both of his parents, his job, and the comforting presence of his wife and two sons, his emotional crisis could have been mitigated with professional help, Levenski said. Instead, in May 2003, the disappearances began.
Whether paroxetine was one of the factors that pushed Taneski to murder, then to commit suicide—if it was a suicide at all—is impossible to say. Aleksej Duma, the head coroner working on the case, refused to grant me an interview and referred me back to his official report—but it leaves these issues unresolved. Likewise, the photographs from the autopsy, which I obtained from an anonymous source, reveal nothing. A lifeless corpse. Only the questions remain. Perhaps Daniela Trpchevska, Taneski’s old boss at Utrinski Vesnik, summed up the confusion best: “Police said it was suicide; others—like me—don’t think so. And I’m not 100 percent convinced that Vlado was the killer, either. After all, he never stood trial.”
Left, right. Left, right. The road winds up the mountain, through a young forest of oaks, ashes, and sycamores. Filtering through the leaves, the summer sun casts patches of light on the asphalt in front of us, like ice floes in a deep black river. We are moving against the current, toward its source. Left, right. Hogweed and chicory, yarrow and daisies in the sunny spots on the roadside. Ferns in the shade.
Enough of murder and suicide, Saša says. Today he wants to show me the sights of Kičevo, and so we are climbing toward the famous Christian Orthodox monastery of Sveta Bogorodica Precista—the Holy Immaculate Mother of God. The monastery “huddles like a swallow’s nest” in “the bosom of mount Cocan,” Taneski wrote in one of his nostalgic pieces. If still free and alive, he probably would have come here with other pilgrims on September 21, the day of the patron saint, the Virgin Mary. Saša and I are two months early, so there is little traffic. When we pull up in front, ours is the only car. A shaggy sheepdog has sprawled by the tall gates. It opens its drowsy eyes for a second, looks at us, and then goes back to sleep.
Behind the gate, enclosed by a semicircle of whitewashed buildings, is a courtyard with stone pathways running in all directions. Rosebushes and geraniums dapple the grass. We wash our faces at the fountain; a drinking tin hangs on a nail. In the middle of the courtyard, perched close to a precipice overlooking the surrounding mountains, is the Holy Immaculate Mother of God Church. A middle-aged nun opens the door for us with a large skeleton key. Creaking hinges. Dust. Silence. From the concave space of the main cupola Christ Pantokrator stares at the puny visitor. Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles line the walls in descending order, followed at the bottom by Christian Orthodox kings. Hundreds of eyes. No place to hide.
Saša and I buy candles from the nun—he buys ten, I buy only one. I light mine and place it in a box of sand, then quickly step away. While Saša is busy, I wander the stone floor, my steps echoing. Hidden in a recess, next to a spring of holy water, I find the miraculous icon of the Mother of God, which, according to legend, flew to this place from another monastery destroyed by the Ottomans. Here she felt safe—and stayed.
Saša has finished lighting all of his candles and tells me we should be leaving. I walk toward the door and turn for one last look. There, on one of the walls, is the Dormition of the Theotokos, the scene representing the death of the Mother of God. She lies on a bier, mourners and saints all around her. In the middle stands Christ in all his glory, cradling in his hands the infant soul of his dead mother.
Dimiter Kenarov is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey, and a contributing editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in Esquire, Outside, The Nation, The International Herald Tribune, and Boston Review, and was recently anthologized in the Best American Travel Writing series.
Issue: Spring 2009 Volume 85 # 2
Published: April 1, 2009