The kidnappers' demands were simple: Pay the ransom and the hostages would be freed.
But prosecutors said the crew of Russian immigrants killed their hostages — even after collecting more than $1 million from some of the victims' relatives.
More than four years after the five bodies were found in a reservoir north of Yosemite National Park, the federal trial of two men accused of orchestrating the crimes started Tuesday with jury selection.
It's a rare case in which federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
"Regardless of whether the ransom money defendants demanded was paid or not, each of the defendants' victims met the same fate," prosecutors said in court documents. "Defendants brutally murdered each one of them."
Iouri Mikhel, 41, and Jurijus Kadamovas, 39, have pleaded not guilty to charges that include conspiracy and hostage-taking resulting in death. A third defendant, Petro Krylov, 33, also denied the allegations and is scheduled for trial in January.
Three other co-conspirators have pleaded guilty to similar charges. One is the Kadamovas' girlfriend, who likely will testify during his trial.
Authorities suspect the ring had links to Russian organized crime, but it appears prosecutors won't raise that issue during trial because no related charges have been filed.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys declined to comment about the case, but the indictment lays out prosecutors' version of how the kidnappings occurred over a frenzied four-month period beginning in late 2001.
The documents allege the crew demanded a total of more than $5.5 million from relatives and associates of the victims, and eventually collected about $1.2 million used to buy expensive cars and make mortgage payments on luxury homes.
Mikhel used $2,500 to put a down payment on two Doberman pinschers to guard his house, prosecutors said.
At trial, prosecutors intend to present tape recordings of ransom calls, the DNA of two victims collected from handcuffs, and a pair of shoes that were matched to a bloody footprint found on a bridge near the New Melones Reservoir.
The scheme began when Mikhel and Kadamovas targeted George Safiev, 37, a wealthy Russian banking mogul who had recently moved to Los Angeles to start Matador Media, a film production company, prosecutors said in court documents.
After several failed abduction attempts, the kidnappers turned their attention to real estate developer Meyer Muscatel, according to the prosecutors.
Mikhel is accused of posing as an investor and luring Muscatel into what was billed as a business meeting in October 2001. Kidnappers killed him after they were unable to get money from his bank accounts, the prosecutors said.
His body was weighted down and dumped over a bridge along the reservoir. It was discovered a few days later with hands bound and a plastic bag over the head.
Prosecutors wrote that Safiev's accountant, Rita Peckler, was abducted and killed two months later when she was unable to lead the crew to Safiev.
The next victim was Alexander Umansky, who owned a car accessory business that once employed Krylov. Umansky was killed after his family paid more than $230,000 for his release, prosecutors allege, adding the crew sought even more money after his death and promised he would be returned alive.
Prosecutors wrote that Safiev was finally snared in early 2002 after his business partner, Nick Kharabadze, was abducted and forced to arrange a meeting with Safiev. Another business associate transferred $960,000 to a bank account that authorities said was controlled by the kidnappers.
Still, Safiev and Kharabadze were killed and dumped into the reservoir after being told they would be left alive at a motel, prosecutors said.
Authorities learned the location of the bodies after arresting a coconspirator who later pleaded guilty to charges related to the case.