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The Mask of Sanity: On the Trail of a Serial Killer in Macedonia


[clock] 44-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 2009

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He makes a left turn, then a right one. Then left, then right again. Left, right—his car marches through the streets of Kičevo, zigzags, as if descending an endless stairway. “Here he made a left turn, and here he made a right one,” Saša explains to me, but keeps his eyes fixed on the road in front of us, his hands busy on the wheel. 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. Soon the houses of Kičevo disappear behind us, magically transformed into fields of ripe wheat and corn. Yellow, green. Yellow, green. Beyond loom the darker shades of the surrounding mountains, clouds threatening to drench the valley.

We get off the highway at a sun-bleached sign that shows the distance (4 km) to the village of Karbunica. Then Saša makes another sharp turn onto a dirt road and the whole car starts jiggling so violently that my breath escapes in gasps. After a few hundred meters he pulls over and kills the engine. Silence. Dust. Row upon row of bolt-straight cornstalks. Above, the blue pall of the sky. No exit. I unbuckle and jump out of the car. Saša exits the driver’s side.

“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. It has two stories and a red-tiled roof. With its pale pink stucco, it resembles a gingerbread house from some forgotten fairytale. I want to take a bite out of it. Saša leads me into the cornfield. I part the stalks like curtains in front of me, pulling on the occasional tassel. Before we reach the cottage we run into a barbed wire fence. We need to make our way around. In the back we find an opening, wide enough for us to slip through.

The deep shade of the plums and walnuts keeps the yard cool, even at noon. There is a woodshed with a horseshoe hung on the door for good luck. A white aluminum pitcher hangs from a nail in the siding. I walk around the cottage. Another horseshoe. The owner must have been superstitious. I climb the exterior staircase that leads to the bedroom on the second floor. The landing is choked by thick vines creeping up the railing and the makeshift trellis. So this is the place.

Gathering my courage, I try the door. Of course, the police have locked it. The monster is not at home. I try to peer through the little iron-barred window, but I can see nothing, just the reflections of sky and scraps of clouds floating by. Silence. Heat. So this is where the fairytale ends.


 

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. Travelers go through Kičevo—they don’t stop. There’s no reason to. Kičevo remains a minor provincial town like so many, where life runs slowly through the veins, and seventeen years into their independence residents still struggle to make the change. The past has not quite gone away and the future has not yet arrived. Drab apartment buildings painted with faded murals of victorious Communism slump next to cocky, new structures, their freshly poured concrete and red bricks bright in the July sun. The reflections of beat-up Yugos are caught momentarily in the tinted windows of slick Audis. Women in long florid skirts and headscarves stroll next to women in low-cut jeans and rock star shades. Everything is diametrical opposition, dichotomy, double lives. 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. He longed for the idyllic pace of provincial life. Under headlines such as “Pictures from Life” and “Pictures without a Frame,” he wrote long essayistic paeans to the Macedonian countryside, where shepherds and plowmen labored against bucolic backdrops. “The sweat burned in their eyes, their faces were flushed like the faces of young brides,” Taneski wrote, “and their sinewy hands with wide palms resembled oak branches.” His occasional pieces were soaked with metaphors and similes, the spine of his prose cracking under the weight of unrealized literary ambition. 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. There is no trace of a person here haunted by nostalgia for the heaps of polished stone, where once upon a time people lived and died, where days were filled with joy and sorrow, with hard labor and pain, with rituals and revelry, where generations saw the passing of their childhood, their youth. The village square has disappeared. The hearths are cold. There is only the warmth of memory.” Like the eighteenth-century English poet Oliver Goldsmith recalling his own deserted village (“Sweet Auburn! loveliest village on the plain / Where health and plenty cheer’d the laboring swain”), Taneski was a person “haunted by nostalgia,” obsessed by his losses to the point of anguished pleasure.

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.


 

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“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.


 

“We just had a normal childhood,” Ljupcho Taneski, Vlado’s younger brother, tells me when I pay a visit to his home. Ljupcho is in his fifties, but his grizzled stubble and droopy eyes give his face the haggard look of an old man. He and his wife live in subsidized housing—a small, one-story white stucco dwelling at the edge of town, right next to the cemetery. They are both unemployed and rely on welfare; Ljupcho supplements the family income by playing the clarinet at weddings and doing odd jobs. After graduating high school, he left home against his parents’ wishes, and they disinherited him in favor of his older brother who had stayed on—the reason Ljupcho and Vlado had been estranged for thirty years.

Ljupcho turns cagey and vague if I try to delve too deeply into those early years, but this much is known. Vlado Taneski was born in 1952 in the Kičevo area. His father, Trajče Taneski, was a night watchman while his mother, Gorica, worked as a custodian at the local hospital. Both of them, according to neighbors’ statements, were ill-tempered and unforgiving parents. When any of their children misbehaved, the father’s belt would come out. The mother was just as severe; one person described her as “an evil woman.” Ljupcho scoffs at this characterization. “Our parents were strict,” he says, “but whose parents aren’t?”

In the final years of his life, Trajče spent significant time at the family summer cottage, several kilometers away. There he raised goats, grew vegetables, and avoided people as much as possible. He was a loner and something of a misanthrope, extremely protective of his property, surly toward his neighbors. That’s probably why, when he died in his cottage in August 2002, reportedly by hanging himself, no one outside of his immediate family cared much. Neither was the death of Gorica, in December of the same year, mourned by many of Kičevo’s citizens. She went peacefully from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. But none of this had anything to do with Vlado.

“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.

In 1985, Taneski began work for Nova Makedonija as a staff reporter, a position he held until 2003, when the paper underwent a major shake-up. It was a job that came with fairly good pay and lots of official privileges, both before and after 1991, when Macedonia seceded from Yugoslavia to become an independent state. Taneski was given the freedom to write on any topic, though he had to refrain from criticizing the Communist government too openly. Allegations of political opportunism were regularly leveled at Taneski, yet at the time there were very few journalists in the country who could be said to be innocent of such behavior. “He was a good journalist, not bad at all for a reporter from a small town like Kičevo. He was not a cultural moron. There was zero aggression in him. He was an absolutely normal, quiet person,” Ljupcho Popovski, the editor-in-chief of Utrinski Vesnik, remembered.

Several of Taneski’s colleagues, however, voiced more serious concerns. As Saša Dukoski told me, “Vlado was stealing articles. When he didn’t have certain information, he would present his colleagues’ articles as his own. He liked to produce sensations.” Zoran Jovanoski confirmed the plagiarism charges: “We shouldn’t demonize Vlado too much, but, yes, he did on occasion appropriate texts from others.” Saša also claimed that fifteen years ago he and his wife had received death threats on the phone. When he decided to track down the number, he discovered that it was Taneski who had made the call, but he refused to file a complaint with the police. “We thought things would end there,” Saša said.

Whether a fraud or not, Vlado Taneski was generally well respected in the Kičevo community. People trusted him—though, strangely for a small town, his private life remained an enigma. Taneski’s texts were sometimes the only evidence he existed. He talked on the phone to editors in Skopje about his assignments, pitched stories to them once in a while, and even attended special events organized by the newspapers he wrote for, but he mainly kept to himself. He did not drink or smoke. He rarely went out to cafés or restaurants with friends, and even less often invited friends to his house. He had no friends, really. “We played basketball once,” Kiro Kiproski, a reporter for Nova Makedonija, finally managed to recall after a significant pause. He admits that Vlado was an introvert, an oddball, but that was all there was to it. To suspect him of anything worse than stealing an article or two, or giving vent to his rage over the telephone, was unthinkable. Wherever he went to seek information, doors were opened and his questions were readily answered. Who could have imagined that the journalist already knew the answers to the questions he was asking?


 

She leads me up the stairs and into the house. When we talked over the phone a few days earlier, I was left with the impression there was nothing left of her but a voice—wafer-thin and vulnerable like that of a child caught misbehaving—a voice on the verge of disappearance. Now that she is in front of me, her figure seems strikingly full, almost voluptuous in her simple black dress. A woman in her early fifties with hazel eyes and bobbed hair tinged orange by henna, Vesna Taneski, Vlado’s wife of thirty-one years, looks very much like my own mother. When we sit at the table in the living room, she offers me coffee and Turkish Delight. Her voice sounds stronger, less scared. She tells me I remind her of one of her sons.

The room is tiny but choked with furniture and cluttered with the bric-a-brac of a lifetime spent collecting. An outsized display cabinet full of plates and cups and saucers takes up half the room. On one of the walls hangs an icon of Saint Demetrius on horseback spearing an infidel through the mouth. A horseshoe hangs on another wall. Carefully arranged on the top of a cupboard are framed family photographs: Vesna with her sons, her sons with their girlfriends or wives, but not a trace of Vlado—his image has been purged from the house. Prominently placed next to the photographs are several books, poetry collections and literary criticism, authored by Zvonko, Vesna’s younger son, who is a promising writer and a lecturer at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. “Excuse the wedding decorations,” she murmurs with some embarrassment, when my eyes fall on the white-and-pink paper garlands taped to one of the doors. “I know they are not very appropriate now, but my other son, Igor, who is in the army, got married a few months ago. It was the happiest day of my life.”

On the table in front of us, Vesna has laid out two folders. One of them contains family photos; the other is bulging with letters and legal documents. She has also brought out a scrapbook, in which Vlado pasted all of his published articles: THE DAY BEGINS WITH NOVA MAKEDONIJA, announces the motto glued to the front cover.

“I don’t want to discuss the most recent events,” she declares before I can even venture a question. “They’re too painful, and perhaps there isn’t much I could tell you that you don’t already know. The police and detectives probably have more information than I do. I deny nothing, but I’d like to see the whole case resolved.” She looks at me searchingly, and I nod in agreement. She proceeds to open the folder with the photographs. “I’d rather talk about these things. I’d like to talk about Vlado before things turned horrible.”

For the next two hours the documentary reel of Taneski’s private life unspools in front of my eyes. There is the black-and-white photo of a child, not older than three, joyfully astride a toy elephant. There he is again: a young soldier in the Yugoslavian army; then posing for the camera with his teammates from some amateur soccer team. A moment of silence at Tito’s grave, circa 1980. Vlado Taneski with his wife and two adolescent sons on the hills above Lake Ohrid. Vlado Taneski receiving a journalism award. Vlado Taneski dancing at his son’s wedding last year, his dark eyes clear and spirited. He is a tall man in relatively good shape, with a receding hairline and short curly hair turning gray around the temples. Impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, pressed, fastidious—a bit of a dandy even.

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.”

Vesna opens the scrapbook to show me Vlado’s articles. They have been diligently cut out from the newspapers, each one given the space of a separate page. “He was very pedantic and organized, almost to a fault. He loved his profession. He couldn’t live without journalism and wanted to be the best journalist in town. The truth was the most important thing for him.” Of all the many organizations he worked for, Taneski felt most attached to Nova Makedonija, but when the paper changed hands in 2003, he was laid off. Within a matter of months of his dismissal, he lost both his parents—and their hefty pensions that had assisted the family. (Vesna rejects the rumor that Vlado’s father hanged himself; she claims he died naturally.) “We struggled a lot to get over the crisis,” Vesna says. She found a job in the capital, Skopje, as an inspector with the Ministry of Education, leaving her husband to live alone in Kičevo. With the money from her new job she supported her sons, especially Zvonko, who had decided to study abroad. She would return home for weekends, or sometimes Vlado would visit her in Skopje.

Vlado seemed to bounce back as he secured freelancing gigs with Utrinski Vesnik, Vreme (Time), and then again with Nova Makedonija. He learned to use a computer. To supplement his income, he revived his technician skills and opened a local dealership of Fonko, a Macedonian company that designs and assembles air-conditioners. He talked about selling the Kičevo family home and the summer cottage and moving to Skopje with Vesna permanently.

I ask Vesna why she and Vlado had remained in the house with his parents for twenty-five years. “His mother took her younger son’s abandonment very hard. Then her daughter, Trajanka, went to work in Skopje. Vlado was the only child in the household left to take care of his parents. So when I married him, we both decided to stay and live with them.” It was difficult, she admits, because Taneski’s parents were authoritarian, hardheaded people of “an older mindset.” They would often get into arguments with Vlado. Those were the only moments Vesna ever saw her husband turn aggressive. “I tried to calm things down when there was a row. I was patient with his parents because of him. He usually bore the brunt.” But there were also times when her husband sided with his parents. “Once I said a bad thing about his mother,” Vesna remembers, “and he refused to speak to me for a week.” After that, she did her best to stay out of family infighting and soon began leading a sheltered, parallel life. By the time she left Kičevo in 2003, she knew little of her husband’s daily life.

Vesna stares at the table, gloom weighing on her face. “I went to see him in custody,” she says finally, “and the police told me I shouldn’t waste my money on lawyers, since they had pretty solid evidence against him. When I saw him I asked him if he was guilty or not and he said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I told him I’d forgive him everything if he would just tell me the truth. He swore by his own children he wasn’t guilty. He said, ‘Greet the children for me and tell them I haven’t done anything wrong. One day things will be cleared up.’”


 

3

 

CNN, BBC, El Pais, and Le Parisien swarmed to Kičevo. Television networks and news agencies around the world were abuzz with the strange life and death of Vlado Taneski—a journalist who raped and murdered women closely resembling his late mother, and afterwards wrote articles about his crimes; a serial killer who was arrested by the police but soon after committed suicide in a bucket of water. Not just a monster but the Kičevo monster, by his own description. It was a story Freud would have slipped between Oedipus the King and Hamlet, a worthy sequel to Psycho. Even the English version of Wikipedia made room for Taneski.

After a few days, the international media moved on, but ordinary Macedonians continued to wonder what exactly had happened. Utrinski Vesnik put the question most directly: “Is it possible that around [the family] lived such a killer, who was hiding so skillfully behind the mask of loyal and faithful husband, proud father, gentle son-in-law, and exemplary son?” 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?

The discussions soon took on a political edge. Some journalists sought to portray the whole case as a grand failure of executive and judicial power in Macedonia, or as Ljubomir Kostovski from Utrinski Vesnik succinctly put it, everything was just “another spectacle to prove the effectiveness of the police.” In their enthusiasm to announce to the public that they had arrested a suspect, the Ministry of Interior had jumped the gun with an official statement on TV just a day after Taneski’s arrest, revealing his name, occupation, and the evidence collected against him. It was a premature and irresponsible decision that, according to Kostovski, “suspended the presumption of innocence” before the court could issue an independent verdict. Other serious gaffes had to do with the way evidence was collected from the suspect’s house and cottage without the presence of a witness, accusations that the Ministry of Interior rejected, insisting that the investigation had abided by legal procedures at every step. Questions also arose when Taneski’s military records revealed that his blood type was O positive, rather than the purported B positive on the fateful jersey. Police insisted they had never announced the blood type found at the crime scene, but now they were unwilling to release the results of those tests.

The more time passed, the more contradictory Taneski’s story became in the Macedonian media. He was guilty and was not guilty; he committed suicide and was murdered. Rumors started circulating that he even killed his own parents and had a list of other women he planned to take care of, including his wife. Nothing could be claimed for certain. Arguments became as arcane as medieval Balkan history. If his case were a puzzle, the pieces were easy enough to arrange; the problem was that nobody could agree on what the final picture should show—a monster or another victim.


 

The autopsy of Vlado Taneski’s body revealed death by drowning. His lungs were full of water. His head had remained submerged long after the loss of consciousness. There were no defensive injuries, no outward signs of violence, except for a small bruise on his forehead and the bridge of his nose—perhaps incurred during the initial stage of spasms. According to the spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior, the inspection of the crime scene uncovered no signs of a struggle. Taneski was well-built, and even three strong men like his cellmates would have faced significant challenges in overwhelming Taneski and holding his head in a bucket of water until he died. Surely, they would have cuts, bruises of their own. And what would their motives have been? One of Taneski’s cellmates was arraigned for poisoning a fourteen-year-old girl, but the other two were in custody for voter fraud. They were hardly hardened criminals and were facing only a few months in prison, if they were convicted at all.

Some have suggested that it was not Taneski’s cellmates but government officials who orchestrated his death. That theory, however, also seems unlikely. Aspiring to join the European Union, the new Macedonian government was eager to demonstrate the efficiency of the country’s judicial system, and Taneski’s mysterious and much publicized death was the last thing it needed. The police, also, having worked so hard on the case, and the court, in possession of much relevant evidence, had a genuine interest in seeing him reach trial. His untimely end was seemingly bad news for everyone but Taneski himself, who escaped the embarrassment of a public trial, a life behind bars.

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.


 

Listen to VQR editor Ted Genoways interview author Dimiter Kenarov about “The Mask of Sanity.”

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