Mikhail Drachev, 31, fled the country and lived as a fugitive in Canada for six years before being turned in by a girlfriend and brought back to Arizona to be tried in the killing of Konstantin Simberg, 21.
His plea on Friday brings an end to a notorious criminal case that played out in the Phoenix area in the final months of 2001.
Authorities say Drachev and two other men kidnapped Simberg as he talked to a detective on a phone in a Phoenix apartment. The men beat Simberg with brass knuckles, bound him with duct tape and drove him to a stretch of remote desert about 90 miles north of Phoenix.
Once there, the attackers stabbed Simberg, pinned him down with rocks, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire. One man convicted in the killing said he could hear Simberg screaming as the men left the scene. The next day, hunters found Simberg's body near a creek.
Drachev pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated assault. His plea agreement calls for a prison sentence of at least 32 years. He could face several more years in prison on one conviction on which there was no agreed-upon term.
Sentencing is set for Aug. 15.
As part of his plea, one of Drachev's lawyers said her client struck Simberg with brass knuckles and held him against his will, and that one of his accomplices caused Simberg's death.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Jeanne Garcia asked Drachev whether this account was accurate.
"Yes," responded Drachev, a thin man with glasses and a heavy beard.
The saga began with a plot to steal 6,000 vials of human growth hormone from a FedEx truck that was carrying it to a pharmacy. The plan was to have a group of high school students move boxes of the drugs from the truck to another vehicle.
But the theft was bungled at every turn. The FedEx driver refused to cooperate in the heist and delivered the drugs to the pharmacy. The participants then tried to stage a burglary of the business.
Simberg's role in the theft involved renting a U-Haul truck to transport the drugs. He agreed to work as a police informant once law enforcement caught on to the scheme, but he was kidnapped while talking to a detective.
The detective who was on the phone with Simberg at the time heard a scream on the other end of the line, and then the phone went dead.
Police say Drachev and two other men held Simberg captive overnight in the apartment and drove the next morning to patch of desert near the Arizona community of Camp Verde.
Drachev gave Simberg a cigarette and offered him a blindfold, which he declined. Drachev and another man then tried to shoot Simberg, but the gun malfunctioned and didn't fire. The men then set Drachev on fire and left him for dead.
Human growth hormone is best known for being used by athletes and people hoping to delay the effects of aging. Athletes use HGH for a variety of benefits — whether real or perceived — such as increasing speed or improving vision.
The steroid also has legitimate medical purposes, most commonly to treat rare conditions such as a growth defect in children. One of the thieves in the staged burglary sold the stolen HGH to a pharmaceutical supplier.
Two other men, 31-year-old Dennis V. Tsoukanov and 30-year-old Chris Gabriel Andrews, were convicted of murder and kidnapping in Simberg's death. Tsoukanov was sentenced to 13 years in prison, while Andrews was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
Drachev fled the United States and lived as a fugitive in Canada under an alias until his April 2007 arrest at his Toronto apartment.
Police discovered Drachev's whereabouts through his girlfriend, who learned about Simberg's murder through Internet searches after she found out her boyfriend's real name.
Drachev fought extradition for more than three years and finally was returned to Arizona in August 2010.
Five men who were not charged in Simberg's death pleaded guilty to charges arising from the steroid theft plot. One was sentenced to five years in prison, while the other four got probation.
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