Fall of 2017, a picturesque seaside residential district in the village of Rohuneeme in Viimsi. Moscow businessman Maksim Pukhlikov (42) exits Meelis Lao’s (53) BMW. The men say their farewells, and the vehicle drives off.
Opening his front door, Pukhlikov remembers he left a carton of cottage cheese on the kitchen table. He goes to the kitchen and just finishes putting it in the refrigerator when he hears heavy footsteps coming his way from the hallway.
Suddenly, a bald man bursts into the kitchen, pointing a gun at Pukhlikov’s face. The stranger yells that he is an FSB agent. Another man approaches Pukhlikov from behind and delivers a blunt blow to the back of his head. The intruders start beating the businessman as he slumps to the floor. Pukhlikov is relieved of his money and cell phone, he is dragged to the garage and handcuffed to an exerciser. The goons ask him for the PIN code to unlock his phone. Pukhlikov claims he does not remember.
“I’ll shoot you in the knees,” the older, bald man says, brandishing his gun. He seems to be in charge, with the younger man taking orders. He gives Pukhlikov a pistol, leaving on it his fingerprints. Just like in the movies.
The two intruders proceed to beat Pukhlikov with their fists and a baseball bat found in the garage. The victim groans, which is why his mouth is covered with silver duct tape.
The older man takes a picture of the beaten businessman. “A memento,” he says.
Pukhlikov, beaten senseless, is taken to the nursery and cuffed to a bunkbed.
He is kept there until the following evening when a BMW SUV pulls up, driven by an unknown man. The victim is dragged to the car and the driver takes all three men to a farm in faraway Arkma village in Järva County. Pukhlikov is kept there for another five days.
Prologue: failed business opportunity
This criminal tale that seems straight out of the wild 1990s leads back to an Äripäev piece from the spring of 2018 titled “Loit Linnupõld after Latvians’ bankrupt metallurgy plant.”
Linnupõld is the founder of crowdfunding platform Crowdestate, a former banker with a spotless record. The article writes about Linnupõld having teamed up with British steel manufacturers to acquire the bankrupt VV Liepajas Metalurgs plant. It is the second time Linnupõld has shown interest in acquiring the plant.
What about the first time? Linnupõld wanted the factory back in 2017 but ended up in bad company. His partner at the time was infamous Estonian businessman Meelis Lao.
Lao in turn contacted Kristian Kesner, former CEO of bankrupt quick loan provider MiniCredit, business partner and half-brother of Hando Hanschmidt. Kesner’s background is just as colorful as Lao’s: debts and suspicious schemes, cars mysteriously catching fire and statements given in criminal trials.
Kesner organized Lao and Linnupõld to meet with Pukhlikov. The Estonian businessman had wanted the Russian to invest in MiniCredit, while the latter probably guessed the business was to go under (and did) and refused to invest. However, the two men stayed in touch.
In the spring of 2017, Kesner invited Pukhlikov to Estonia to talk about Lao and Linnupõld’s plans to acquire the plant.
The Russian businessman flew to Tallinn. Lao, Linnupõld and Pukhlikov met and discussed the plan. They decided to work together. Because Pukhlikov now had to attend such meetings often, Kesner and Lao helped him find a house for rent in Viimsi.
Buying the plant required millions of euros, and Pukhlikov found British investors willing to put up the money. However, the plan failed at the last minute as the financiers changed their mind. The partners became paranoid of each other and increasingly feared betrayal. Pukhlikov had learned of Lao’s money troubles in the meantime – personal bankruptcy – causing him to lose trust in his Estonian partner. Pukhlikov promised Lao a place in their future business but no longer a stake. It is to be believed Lao’s expectations were different.
Around that time, Pukhlikov met with another key figure in this story Mark Raul Laanela (44). While he has not been in the public eye before, descriptions by witnesses suggest Laanela has several interesting contacts in Russia and Estonia.
Lao and Laanela talked to Pukhlikov often as they were also trying to involve him in a cryptocurrency business. On the day of the kidnapping, Laanela went to Pukhlikov’s for tea. What the businessman didn’t know was that his guest secretly unlocked the back door during that meeting.
Lao invited Pukhlikov for dinner to a Viimsi spa hotel restaurant the same night, November 8. The men talked business: cryptocurrency, metal etc. Lao showed no signs of resentment.
Pukhlikov did not know the aim of the meeting was to get him out of the house, and while he was chatting with Lao in the restaurant, 58-year-old Viktor Tiulikov and 28-year-old Ildar Iakubov entered his home.
“Chinese torture method”
Having reached the farm in Järva County, the kidnappers take Pukhlikov to a second-floor bedroom where he is handcuffed to the wall. Tiulikov stays behind to talk to the victim and even offers him some vodka. The rough man asks to be referred to as San Sanõts. The evening passes in a surprisingly friendly atmosphere.
Next morning, the kidnappers tie Pukhlikov to a chair. “Do you know of Chinese torture?” Tiulikov asks. He talks about how people were punished in China by hitting the soles of their feet a hundred times with bamboo sticks so they couldn’t walk anymore.
Tiulikov and Iakubov proceed to treat Pukhlikov to the same practice, only they use bats. The businessman begs the thugs not the break his legs. It would also inconvenience the kidnappers.
After the beating, the goons start demanding money. The deal is simple. Pukhlikov is told to come up with a million euros – half now, half after he is released. Pukhlikov is told to call his acquaintances.
That is how it goes for another three days – Pukhlikov calling his wealthy friends and asking for money, Tiulikov and Iakubov beating him. Finally, the ransom comes down from a million euros to €100,000.
The kidnappers soon realize that raising that kind of cash over the phone is difficult. It is decided in the morning of November 13 to release the businessman so he can go and get the money. Tiulikov reminds Pukhlikov of his fingerprints on the gun. “We will organize serious charges,” he threatens.
The businessman is taken to the Tallinn Bus Station and gets on a bus to Riga. Pukhlikov does not get off the bus in Riga but continues to Vilnius. That is where his lawyer works. The Russian tells his lawyer everything and authorities in Estonia soon receive a long and thorough report of criminal offense.
A few weeks later, Pukhlikov is sent a photograph of a street sign in a Moscow suburb where his mother lives.
“We are loathe to take extreme measures, but you are forcing our hand. Our agreement still stands. San Sanõts,” a message accompanying the photograph reads.
Who pulled the strings?
The police started interrogating witnesses after receiving the report. It took a year. Tiulikov was arrested in early 2019, with Laanela, Lao and a fourth person – Siim Kossar (28) who drove Pukhlikov and the kidnappers and organized their stay at the farm – picked up in spring. Iakubov is still on the run and has been declared an international fugitive.
Who organized the kidnapping and why? Even though Lao could have wanted to get back at Pukhlikov for a failed business opportunity, the prosecution believes Laanela was behind the kidnapping. He is the one who invited Tiulikov and Iakubov from Russia – the former is the godfather of Laanela’s child. The prosecution feels Lao only aided and abetted.
The criminal case is solved on August 21 in agreement process, with Tiulikov the only participant sent to prison as a result. He is handed a one-year prison sentence and five years on parole. Kossar is ordered to do 728 hours of community service, while Laanela gets a five-year conditional sentence.
Based on a deal Lao cuts with the Public Prosecutor’s Office, his eight-month sentence is replaced with 238 hours of community service.
It is the first major slip for Meelis Lao who has long been described as a leading figure in the Estonian underground in the 1990s. Before this August, Lao was last punished in 1998.
A few hundred hours of community service do not seem to bother Lao as he is seen attending the premiere of Estonian movie “Kohtunik” at the T1 Mall of Tallinn on September 4. Lao is in good spirits and wearing his usual blue suit.
As if nothing had ever happened.