MURDER, HE WROTE
By Philip Watson
(British) Esquire, January 2009
After a series of brutal murders in a sleepy Macedonian town, a major manhunt was launched. But in a strange twist, the “Kicevo monster” was said to be the very same local journalist who had been following the gruesome story. After his mysterious death the case never went to trial, but was the mild-mannered family man really the true culprit? Esquire investigates a bizarre case that has divided a nation
Macedonian newspaper report
Words by Vlado Taneski, Nova Makedonija, Monday 19 May 2008
The people of Kicevo live in fear and panic after another butchered body of a woman from the town was found this weekend. The local police, but the citizens too, see the mysterious disappearance and hideous deaths of Zivana Temelkoska and Ljubica Licoska as an act of the same man – a serial killer.
Police sources confirm the existence of a serial murderer in the town based on the fact that the women were tortured and killed in the same way, which eliminates the possibility that this was done by different people.
The Ministry of Interior say they have several suspects, all inhabitants of Kicevo. They were brought in for questioning, but released afterwards. They confirm that, in both murders, there were traces left by the killer that are currently being analysed.
The massacred body of Zivana Temelkoska was found on Friday on a dump close to the football stadium in Kicevo. The body was wrapped in a transparent nylon bag and tied with a telephone cable, which was previously used to strangle the poor woman. The corpse was given to forensic examiners who determined that Temelkoska was severely beaten, mutilated and then strangled. According to the autopsy, she was killed on the same day she disappeared.
“We are talking about a violent death caused in an exceptionally monstrous way,” said police spokesman Ivo Kotevski. “The body of the victim has a large number of external and internal injuries.”
* * * * *
Even in the annals of modern serial killing, the murders of Ljubica Licoska, Zivana Temelkoska and Mitra Siljanoska are particularly gruesome.
Siljanoska went missing from her apartment in Kicevo on 16 November 2004; there were no signs of a forced entry or violent struggle. Nearly two months later, on 12 January 2005, her naked body was found wrapped in plastic in a hole at the base of a steel stanchion that formed part of a new sports centre being built in the town.
Siljanoska’s legs had been tied with telephone cable and she had been placed in an upright position. She was covered with old clothes, rubbish, waste material and heavy stones. A forensic examination established that she had been beaten, raped and strangled with the telephone cord used to bind her legs.
Licoska and Temelkoska, as reported above, were murdered in a very similar way. Licoska, who went missing on 10 November 2007, was found on 3 February the following year. Her body was discovered at a dumping site near a roadside refreshment area in the mountains north of Kicevo, when a truck driver on a toilet stop noticed a hand sticking out from the rubbish as he looked down into the ravine. She had also been raped and strangled, was similarly naked, tied with telephone cable, and wrapped in transparent plastic sheeting.
Temelkoska was abducted on 7 May 2008 and discovered just nine days later. Found on a dumping ground near the town’s football stadium, she was wearing a robe, but was otherwise naked and had been tied and wrapped in a similar manner to the other victims.
Further examination of Temelkoska’s body revealed 13 wounds in her skull. Five of her ribs were broken. Police believed they had been fractured when the killer knelt on her as he strangled her. There was also evidence that she had been sexually assaulted, mutilated and raped. A bottle of aftershave and traces of semen were found inside her vagina, and medical bandages, gauze and cotton wool — even pieces of wood — were stuffed into her anus.
A fourth potential victim is Gorica Pavleska, who went missing from her home on 30 May 2003. Like the other three elderly women, Pavleska worked as a cleaner and lived alone. There was again no evidence of the abduction being forced; no doors were broken or screams overheard. Her body has never been found.
The serial killer was quickly dubbed the “Kicevo monster” and the inhabitants of the former Yugoslav republic were both terrified and gripped by this horrific story. There was one journalist in particular whose reports many followed to keep up with events as they unravelled. Local correspondent Vlado Taneski had, it seemed, unprecedented access to the police investigation, as well as an unerring eye for detail. It was he who first suggested that the murders were by the same man.
Taneski, too, had reported vividly from the trial in 2005 of two men who had been given life sentences for the murder of one of the women, Mitra Siljanoska. Taneski had later interviewed the families of the victims and taken away photographs to publish along with his reports.
And in May 2008, he provided new information on how one of the women might have been kidnapped. In his report, Taneski quoted police sources who confirmed that they were questioning “several suspects”, all of whom lived in Kicevo. Soon after, he reported that the chief suspect had been eliminated: “Several teams of police experts are working day and night, in the field and the laboratory,” he wrote, “to establish the identity of the serial killer.”
Vlado Taneski was a quiet, unassuming yet sociable 56-year-old father of two who had been married for 31 years. He and his family were respectable and respected members of the Kicevo community. His wife, Vesna, had qualified as the first female lawyer in the town, his eldest son Zvonko was a leading academic, linguist and poet in Slovakia, and his second son Igor was serving as a doctor in the Macedonian army. They were a hard-working and tight-knit family who largely kept themselves to themselves.
This story, however, put Taneski in the limelight. His revealing and incisive reports were read avidly by both the town’s citizens and police. After all, there was something unusual about this particular serial killer – although the Macedonian police believed the method of kidnapping, abuse and murder showed a high level of planning and organisation, the victims were discarded in illegal dumping grounds unlikely to conceal them for long.
“Whether it was three weeks or three years after they were murdered, the killer wanted the bodies to be found,” says police spokesman Ivo Kotevski.
However, last June, the police and their colleagues from the violent crime unit in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, believed they had finally found their man. Having conducted a detailed investigation over four months involving psychological profiling, forensic analysis, DNA testing, and interviews with hundreds of men, they were certain that they had finally tracked down the Kicevo monster.
At around four o’clock on a Friday afternoon, dozens of police officers surrounded an inconspicuous house in a quiet residential suburb of Kicevo. Shaded by tall fir trees and high overflowing bushes, and secluded by half-drawn metal window shutters and heavy net curtains, the modern two-storey house is easy to walk past without quite realising it is there. It was the home of Vlado Taneski. None of his newspaper reports revealed that he had long been a police suspect.
Taneski put up no resistance and was quickly taken away to the local police station for questioning. The next day, after DNA evidence was produced, matching his blood sample to semen found in one of the victims, he was charged with murder. The reporter had become the story; the crime writer was now a putative serial killer.
The revelation read like a shocking yet ingenious denouement to a crime novel. “It’s the perfect story for the public and media,” says Erol Rizov, executive director of Utrinski Vesnik (Morning Post), a paper for which Taneski had worked for five years. “The journalist kills at night and the next morning he reports on his killings.”
Yet the story was not over — there were more shocking twists to come in this extraordinary case.
Vlado Taneski went before a judge the day after he was arrested and was ordered to be held in custody for 30 days. That evening he was transferred to a prison in Tetovo, a town 70km north of Kicevo; he arrived at 8.40pm on Saturday 21 June. Local judge Ajrula Idrizi confirms, during an interview in his office in Tetovo, that Taneski “was admitted to the prison in good health”.
Such a high-profile prisoner, accused of such serious crimes, would be treated with careful attention in a British prison. There is enormous potential for harm – both self-inflicted and exacted by other prisoners – for a man who is accused of rape, torture and murder. If that prisoner is thought to be a serial killer who has stirred considerable public panic and outrage, that danger is even greater.
Because of overcrowding, however, Taneski could not be given a cell to himself; he shared one with three others. Two of the prisoners, 22-year-old Nusret Ademi and 28-year-old Albert Iljazi, were accused of “irregularities” surrounding the parliamentary elections at the beginning of June. The third, 49-year-old Izair Farizi, was facing trial for the poisoning and murder of a 14-year-old girl.
According to Tetovo prison governor Nuriman Tefiki, on the following day (Sunday), Taneski looked healthy and showed no signs of depression or a tendency to suicide. He was also said to be communicating well with his fellow cellmates.
“He ate all his meals and acted normally,” Nuriman Tefiki later told reporters. “The only thing he didn’t do was take the opportunity for a short walk in the prison yard. What happened later remains a mystery.”
Vlado Taneski was found dead by prison guards at 1.50am on Monday morning, after the alarm had been raised by one of his cellmates. He was lying in the cell bathroom having apparently drowned in a small, dirty bucket of water.
“Due to shortages, the prison had no supply of water during the day,” says Judge Idrizi, explaining the presence of the bucket. “Prisoners were given bottles of drinking water and plastic buckets of tap water for washing.” According to prison authorities, Taneski’s cellmates later explained that they had been asleep. One awoke, however, when he heard the sound of running water (the stoppages weren’t in force during the night). Noticing Taneski wasn’t in his bunk bed, he went to the bathroom and found him unconscious.
The guards tried to bring him round, but their efforts failed. A doctor arrived shortly afterwards. He too could not resuscitate the suspect. Less than 30 hours after entering Tetovo prison, Vlado Taneski was pronounced dead.
The police and prison authorities concluded that Taneski had taken his own life. Talking to reporters later that day, Ivo Kotevski was unequivocal: “He [Taneski] committed suicide. He put his head in a pail full of water. He ended [his life] like in a horror movie.” At 5pm that afternoon, Taneski’s wife Vesna received an official telegram confirming his “suicide”.
Two handwritten notes were found that graphologists later verified were written by Taneski. One note on his body directed the authorities to a second, which was hidden under the pillow on his bed. It read: “I am proud of my family and I love them very much. I have not done any of the things I am accused of. I did not commit these murders.”
* * * * *
Vlado Taneski was born and raised in Kicevo, a town of 30,000 people in western Macedonia. Dominated by the peaks of nearby Mount Bistra, the town is slow and sleepy; the main road from Skopje to the lakeside resort of Ohrid passes by, but travellers rarely stop here.
Taneski’s family were ethnic Macedonians. His father, Trayan, had fought in the Second World War and worked in a timber factory for most of his life; his mother, Gorica, was a cleaner at the local hospital. Vlado is survived by an elder sister, Trayanka, and a younger brother, Ljupco. He lived his entire life in the house in which he was arrested.
Vlado discovered an aptitude for journalism in his twenties. He started out working for the local radio station, but was soon filing stories on a freelance basis for Nova Makedonija (New Macedonia), the leading state-owned newspaper.
“Journalism was something he couldn’t live without,” says Vesna, showing me the scrapbooks of articles kept by her late husband and photographs of Taneski receiving awards for his reporting. “If he was given an assignment, he would drop everything. Whenever he was working, he would rub his hands together and be so happy. Vlado was in love with journalism.”
Even though Vesna shows me photographs of Vlado receiving a number of awards for his reporting for Nova Makedonija in the early 1990s, opinions about the quality of his work vary.
“He was one of the paper’s worst correspondents – his reports often didn’t satisfy the basic journalistic structure or standards,” says Victor Cvetanovski, a senior journalist at Utrinski Vesnik, who edited Taneski’s copy and knew him for more than 20 years. “He was also unproductive and uncommunicative, especially in more recent times.”
“As a journalist, he was okay – I’ve seen better, I’ve seen worse,” says Ognen Cancarevic, a reporter at Nova Makedonija who collaborated with Taneski on his crime reports and edited his copy over a four-year period. “The quality of his articles was medium.”
Despite this, Vesna says her husband was a courageous reporter. “His copy did not spare anyone in power, authority or influence, or anyone who was guilty of crime or corruption. At one time I was told that if my husband continued to write about a certain company in the way he had, harm would come to my family and that my children would be killed. His courage actually scared me.”
“He was generally shy, humble and unobtrusive,” says Kiro Kiproski, a close friend and fellow correspondent for Utrinski Vesnik who knew Taneski for 20 years. “I never felt there was any aggression, anger or inhumanity within him. Vlado just seemed completely normal. When I heard that he was accused of being the serial killer, it was as if lightning had struck me.”
In 2004, Vesna was offered a promotion by the Ministry of Education to the position of a university inspector based in Skopje. She bought a small apartment in the capital and the couple made plans to move there permanently. Weekends were spent together in either Kicevo or Skopje.
“It’s been reported that we had separated as husband and wife, but the exact opposite is true,” Vesna tells Esquire. “Vlado was very supportive of my move and said that he couldn’t wait to join me. He wanted me to pursue and achieve the life I wanted. He had a very progressive attitude, especially for a small town like Kicevo. People were envious of us.”
* * * * *
The case against Vlado Taneski, as far as the Macedonian police are concerned, is conclusive and incontrovertible. In an analysis carried out by the Institute for Court Medicine in Skopje, a direct DNA match was found between the blood sample given by Vlado Taneski and semen found in Zivana Temelkoska’s vagina.
“The results are absolutely categorical; it was a 100 per cent match,” says Ivo Kotevski. “It’s unfortunate for us that, because the suspect died, the case will never go to trial and our evidence cannot be presented in court.”
Kotevski says he has received unofficial confirmation from the Institute for Court Medicine that Taneski’s DNA also matched some biological traces (but not semen) found inside Ljubica Licoska’s vagina. In addition, he confirmed that a DNA analysis has been carried out on semen found inside Mitra Siljanoska’s.
Several months after information on the first DNA match with Temelkoska was released and Vlado Taneski was arrested, it is unclear why these two further analyses have not been made public. In September, the Macedonian media reported that the investigation is to be officially closed, because the country’s criminal law does not permit prosecution of a person who is deceased.
Kotevski claims a detailed and rigorous process of elimination was followed by both the Kicevo and Skopje police forces, although it would appear that the police followed a basic form of psychological profiling. “We knew we were looking for a man between 15 and 60 who was physically strong enough to strangle the victims and who, because there was no evidence of a struggle, either knew them or could easily get in touch with them,” he says.
Kotevski says that 250 men were interviewed. Fifteen gave blood samples and three chief suspects emerged. All were put under surveillance – one of them was Vlado Taneski. “From 2004 onwards, for most of the week Vlado Taneski was living alone,” he says. “Not only was it easy for him as a journalist to make contact with these women, but he knew every one of them.”
The rest of the case against Taneski is more circumstantial and speculative. “There are two things that bother me most,” says Ognen Cancarevic, a fellow reporter at Nova Makedonija. “Firstly, Vlado never told me or any of his colleagues that he was a suspect. That’s the first thing I would have done. His editors may have been able to help him by making calls to the authorities and protesting his innocence.
“He was a very conscientious correspondent on all aspects of life in Kicevo, and we must have spoken around 20 times on the phone after he was first taken in for questioning, but he said nothing. He kept quiet.”
The police say Taneski also refused to answer any questions after he was arrested; Kotevski says he simply replied, “I don’t know, I don’t remember”. “If he was innocent, why did he not speak up and make his case,” says Cancarevic. “He didn’t even ask for a lawyer.”
Journalists and academics who have gone back over his reports on the murders have found something particularly suspicious and sinister. In one report for Nova Makedonija, Taneski wrote that “according to her friends and relatives”, Zivana Temelkoska had been taken away in a car, while out buying groceries at a nearby store, “by two unidentified men who told her that her son had been hurt in a car accident”. Neither the police nor journalists have been able to corroborate Taneski’s report.
“It looks to me as if he wanted to divert the police investigation away from him by including unattributed sources in stories,” says Ivo Kotevski.
“Taneski didn’t have a source for much of the information in his reports,” says Dr Mimoza Ristova, a science professor at the Saint Cyril & Saint Methodius University in Skopje, who has an interest in both forensics and the Taneski case. “The only source he had was himself.”
* * * * *
The case for Vlado Taneski’s innocence can be made on many grounds. Even though police conducted comprehensive searches of his house, summer cottage and car, no other forensic evidence linking him to the murders was uncovered.
At present, the only evidence the police have made public is the DNA match between Taneski and Temelkoska. Assuming the lab analysis is accurate (in Macedonia, where there seems little confidence in state institutions, Taneski’s supporters argue this is a big assumption), those protesting Taneski’s innocence must advance a major conspiracy theory: that someone in authority both knew who the real killer was and switched samples to frame Taneski.
If this theory seems far-fetched, the trial for the murder of Mitra Siljanoska has made many think again. It is a case that proves that coercion, withholding of evidence, wrongful conviction and miscarriages of justice are very much part of the Macedonian criminal system.
At the trial in 2005, Ante Risteski and Igor Mirceski were found guilty of killing both Siljanoska and an elderly man named Radoslav Bozinoski. In court, the Kicevo police presented confessions from the two men. Risteski and Mirceski admitted to the violent torture and murder of Bozinoski, and could give detailed accounts of their crime, but they strongly denied killing Siljanoska.
Risteski claimed he had been working away from Kicevo on the day she was abducted and that the police had beaten and coerced the confession out of the two men. When the murders of Licoska and Temelkoska came to light this year – killings that were almost identical to that of Siljanoska – a judge ordered a review of the case against Risteski and Mirceski, who were both still languishing in prison at the time of the abductions.
The re-examination revealed that vital DNA analysis, which would have shown the men did not murder Siljanoska, was suppressed. While responsibility for withholding the evidence is yet to be established, Ivo Kotevski says an internal police investigation has proved that the Kicevo police passed on the analysis to the appropriate authorities, including the public prosecutor.
Kotevski also denies that the police or anyone in authority would have framed Taneski, perhaps because, as a reporter, he had discovered some official wrongdoing or had made a dangerous enemy. He also refutes the allegation that the police, especially the violent crime unit sent from Skopje, were under severe pressure to make a conviction.
“I don’t know of any case of a journalist being set-up for murder, and I don’t think our Ministry of Interior has the courage to do it,” says Ognen Cancarevic. “A journalist is a person with a certain amount of power and influence. If you were going to set somebody up you’d choose someone who was, say, homeless, or a convicted criminal; somebody in a much weaker position.”
There is also some doubt as to the blood type of the murderer. It has been reported in the Macedonian media that the Kicevo police were looking for a serial killer with blood type B+. Reports suggest that this is how the original list of 250 suspects was established. Vesna Taneski shows me her husband’s army medical card from 1972, which states that Vlado’s blood group was O+. Ivo Kotevski denies that the police were ever looking for men with a specific blood group, and says the confusion is a creation of the media.
Taneski’s detailed and informative reports might also be explained, Vesna argues, by the fact that he was simply a very good reporter. “Vlado had a source in every Kicevo organisation and institution,” she says. “He always did everything in his power to write the most credible and correct reports he could.”
It’s true that Taneski does not fit the classic profile of a serial killer. He did not have any problems as a child and did not come from an unstable family. There were no acts of theft, arson, wilful destruction or obsessive lying, for example, or extreme cruelty to animals or other children. There was no introversion or solitariness. He was not physically or sexually abused. Early reports of a fractious relationship with his mother are, Vesna says, entirely false.
“Vlado created a warm, happy and unified family home and never seemed to enter into a conflict with anyone,” says friend and colleague Kiro Kiproski. “I simply cannot believe he is the serial killer, and I will only be convinced by evidence verified in court. Even Zivana Temelkoska’s son, Zoran, does not believe that Vlado murdered his mother.”
Vesna Taneski saw her husband for the last time in Kicevo police station on Saturday morning. “I told him that we had been married for a long time, had been through good and bad together, and that I wanted him to tell me the truth about the crimes he was being accused of. I told him I would forgive him for anything that he’d done, and that I just wanted to know who I had lived with for 31 years.
“He looked at me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I haven’t done anything or killed anyone. One day everything will come to light.’ Those were his last words to me.”
* * * * *
“This is the hardest story I’ve worked on in 15 years as a journalist,” says Daniela Trpcevska, the editor of the law and crime section of Utrinski Vesnik. Trpcevska was Taneski’s editor on the reports he wrote on the murders in Kicevo.
“It’s not just that he was my colleague,” she continues. “I have spoken to hundreds of people about the case and I don’t know who to believe, what is the truth, or even what to think anymore.
“Sometimes I think maybe he really did it. Maybe he killed those poor women and he had some awful desire or need to write about it. But then again he didn’t seem like he could harm anyone, let alone be a serial killer. It’s too complicated; I’m really confused.”
After spending many weeks working on the story, it is a confusion I understand and share. Although I started out thinking it was most likely that Vlado Taneski was the Kicevo serial killer, I am now nowhere near as sure. If there is any consensus, it is only that Taneski seems unlikely to have committed suicide.
Following his death, Taneski’s body was transferred to the Institute for Court Medicine for an autopsy and forensic examination. Bruises were found on his body that led – a month after his passing – to Ljupco Simoski, a prosecutor in Tetovo, calling for an investigation to be opened into his death. That investigation is ongoing. The bucket and its contents were also sent for examination; according to Ivo Kotevski, no sedatives, poisons or chemicals were found in the water.
“Look, everyone knows he was murdered in that cell,” says Naim, a trader I get talking to in Kicevo market. “It would be easier to drink the water in that bucket than to drown in it. But whether anyone will be able to prove it, or catch the person who drowned him, is another matter. You can only see the fishes if the water is clear. But – here in Macedonia – the water is not clear.”
Vesna Taneski says her family is angry because “the state institutions and a great deal of the public have lynched a man who is innocent, whose guilt is yet to be proven.”
Daniela Trpcevska agrees. “People talk about Vlado Taneski as a murderer and serial killer, but he cannot speak,” she says. “We have an old saying in Macedonia that ‘every miracle lasts for only three days’, and everyone, the police included, thought this story would go away just as quickly. But it’s a mystery that will be told all over the world, and the world will look to us for answers. We have to find the truth. We have to finish the story.”
© 2023 Philip Watson