As an investigation into the brutal slaying of a former KGB agent outside his Gold Coast mansion 18 years ago is reopened, the ABC traces two suspects and uncovers new evidence that may finally help solve the enduring mystery.
Shot in the back, leg and buttock, Gennadi Bernovski managed to crawl back inside his Gold Coast home, screaming to his wife Svetlana to call the police.
But the 41-year old Russian immigrant died on the floor in front of his distraught wife before paramedics arrived.
Bernovski’s killing on the night of July 25, 2000 made international headlines and the murder seemed straight out of a John Le Carré spy thriller.
Police would reveal the Russian was a former officer in the feared KGB, while for years media reports would suggest Bernovski was killed by “frogmen” assassins — scuba divers who emerged from the Nerang River under the cover of darkness and shot him as he took out the bins in front of his Benowa Waters home.
Now, police are re-examining the suspects in the case.
Detectives are also looking at key evidence given to ABC Investigations by the former wife of one of the suspects, who now says she does not remember where her husband was on the night of the killing.
The ABC Investigations unit has been given exclusive access to “Operation Point”, the Queensland Police Service’s cold case review.
The ABC has traced two suspects: one to a granny flat in Hobart; another to an apartment in St Petersburg, Russia.
Both men are Russians with one having suspected links to the mafia, according to police.
Theories around the killing range from a Russian mafia hit to a business deal gone sour.
Former business associate living large
Cold case investigation team member Detective Sergeant Cameron Hardham said there was evidence Bernovski had been a senior operative in Russia’s intelligence and security services.
“During the initial investigation police spoke to a lot of people in the Russian community and their information was that he had been involved in the KGB,” Sergeant Hardham said.
“The information was varying as to what levels, but certainly it appears relatively high-ranking.”
Sergeant Hardham said Bernovski had transformed himself into a businessman and was hoping to make money in Australia.
“All his associates were essentially part of the Russian community that he went into business with.”
ABC Investigations has seen Russian and Kazakh passports in Bernovski’s name, as well as military documents from the Soviet era.
In the early days of the original investigation, police questioned a former business associate of Bernovski’s, Oleg Kouzmine, who only days later flew back to Russia.
“[Kouzmine and Bernovski] were business partners for a period of time … the business failed and they lost a significant amount of money, Kouzmine in particular,” Sergeant Hardham said.
Police say Kouzmine’s fingerprints were found on the side gate of Bernovski’s home just days after he had been questioned and had left Australia for Russia.
After months of investigation, police believe there is really just one motive for Bernovski’s murder: money.
Major reward offered for fresh leads
Police also believe money could be a factor in solving the murder.
The Queensland Government last week announced a $250,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for Bernovski’s killing.
“We are relying on the passage of time to free people up … it may inspire them to come forward,” Detective Inspector Marc Hogan said.
Australia has no extradition treaty with Russia, and the Queensland detectives have struggled to penetrate the iron curtain of Australia’s Russian community.
Dealing with Russian law enforcement has also presented challenges.
“We obviously have to engage Interpol to find information and then they engage the Russians and then the information is filtered back,” Sergeant Hardham said.
“We get very limited information back, for reasons I don’t know.”
But the Russian police have told Operation Point detectives that in May 2012 Kouzmine was “sentenced to six years of imprisonment on probation for attempted murder” in St Petersburg, for trying to kill someone with a knife.
However, investigations by the ABC in recent months using contacts in Russia found Kouzmine did not spend any time in jail for the attempted killing.
ABC Investigations has traced him to a run-down apartment building on Prospekt Prosvescheniya in the north of St Petersburg.
His Russian social media reveals he travels abroad frequently, posting holiday snaps in Portugal, Thailand, Italy and the Caribbean.
Wife now ‘can’t remember’ where Kouzmine was that night
During the original investigation and in a recent interview with Sergeant Hardham, Kouzmine’s then-wife, Ludmilla Kouzmina, said her husband was at home with her at the time of the murder in July 2000.
ABC Investigations approached Ms Kouzmina out the front of her Melbourne home and asked her about her original police statement and about her then husband’s movements on the night of the killing.
“I’ve got no idea, I don’t remember,” she replied.
Asked again if he was with her on the night in question, Ms Kouzmina again said she could not remember.
ABC Investigations showed Sergeant Hardham the interview with Ms Kouzmina.
“That’s different to what she’s told us and the original investigators, she indicated that her husband was home for the majority of the night [of the murder],” Sergeant Hardham said.
“If that’s the real version then yeah, he doesn’t have an alibi.”
There are plans for officers to travel to Russia and speak to Oleg Kouzmine, but any trip will have to be arranged through formal channels with Russian authorities.
The ABC also visited a second person of interest, a Russian former associate of Kouzmine, who now lives in Hobart.
Valentin Masnyi shut the door when the ABC went to his granny flat and asked to speak with him.
Queensland police have also travelled to Hobart to speak to Mr Masnyi.
Friend remembers loving father
Gennadi and Svetlana Bernovski settled in Australia in the mid-1990s, setting up a smallgoods business on the Gold Coast with some Russian partners.
“He was a very big man,” said former Gold Coast lawyer Kerry Salinger, who became friends with Bernovski and his family.
“He adored his wife, he adored that little girl of his … he was always kissing that child.
“He was a loving father, and a loving husband, and a good friend to me.”
At the time of the murder Bernovski’s daughter Victoria was six-years-old.
Ms Salinger said the fact he was in the KGB only came out at the funeral.
“I thought he was a shopkeeper, or something like that, I didn’t realise that he was lethal,” Ms Salinger said.
Frogmen theory questioned
Police are reviewing 150 witness statements and 300 pages of telephone records as part of the ongoing murder probe.
They will also interrogate one of the most famous parts of the investigation — the suggestion the killers came in by the canal.
“There’s a witness who was in a car not far from the scene who has seen two males coming from the direction of the scene and through her description, [they were wearing] tight black clothing, or possibly a wetsuit,” Sergeant Hardham said.
“That’s where the frogman theory has come about.”
But after months of re-investigation police have discounted that theory, saying the suspects were not capable of carrying out such an elaborate operation.
“I just don’t think that’s how it would have occurred,” Sergeant Hardham said.
“Obviously it’s based on one person witnessing two people that were potentially wearing wetsuits but it could have just been tight clothing.
“We think that’s probably more likely the case.”
Detective Senior Sergeant Simon Garrett, who has joined the cold case team, worked on the original murder case as a young detective.
“Like any serious crime, and this is as bad as it gets from our perspective, it’s our job to see it through,” he said.
“Even today, the criminality around this investigation, the sheer nature of it, is right up at the top end.”
You can watch this story tonight on 7.30.