Trouble strikes immigrant community Belorussian, Ukrainian and Russian émigrés seek understanding in wake of October crime spree
Within the high-ceilinged Missoula district courtroom, Yevgeniy Dyfort's already slight frame seems even more diminutive than it clearly is.
The 20-year-old looks all of 17. The orange Missoula County Jail uniform hangs off his narrow shoulders and thin limbs. Dyfort rises and walks to face Special Master Brenda Desmond, who sits in for District Judge John Larson as she often does on Fridays.
Dyfort is charged with burglary for his alleged part in a non-fatal shooting in the South Hills during the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, October 3. Several other young men have also been arrested. On Friday, October 30, nearly a month after the crime, Dyfort remains seated on the right side of the judge's bench in handcuffs and shackles, smirking at his friends, a group of young men and women sitting in the first rows of the courtroom's public seats.
When Dyfort is called to the bench, his friends grow silent.
Desmond asks the young man born in Belarus, a small republic which was part of the former Soviet empire, if he is fluent in English. "Yes," he answers.
"Do you understand your rights?" Desmond asks.
"Yes," Dyfort answers again.
Dyfort then pleads not guilty to the charge of felony burglary, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Standing in for Dyfort's lawyer, attorney Jana Gobeo next makes a motion to have his bond reduced to $10,000, arguing that he has a stable home in Lolo with his family and a job working construction. Due to the seriousness of the accusations against him (and the fact that he has a 1995 theft conviction), Desmond denies the motion, but recommends Dyfort be screened for pre-trial release.
As Dyfort exits the courtroom, accompanied by an armed officer, he motions to and smiles at his friends once again. They rise at once after he leaves and spill into the hallway, joining a few of the other young men who have been charged with Dyfort in conjunction with the South Hills incident, and who have already bonded out of the county jail.
The group chats easily, appearing relaxed and almost jovial. If you didn't know they'd been charged with an assortment of felonies, you wouldn't be able to tell by looking at them. But the fact remains, many of these youths have been accused of violent crimes-a fact which has provoked resentment in Missoula at large, and also drawn concern from those who are part of the network that interacts with the Eastern European community in town.
According to court documents filed by the Missoula County Attorney's office, at about 11:30 p.m. on Friday, October 2, two young men, Timofyey Pasechnikov, who lives in Portland, and Nikolay Lemeza, a Missoula resident, were driving down Main Street in Missoula when Bogdan Shtyba, a 17-year-old from Spokane, approached the car and asked for a ride.
All three boys reportedly knew each other. They had moved to the Northwest variously from the Ukraine and Belarus less than a decade ago.
The three young men drove further down Main Street, according to court documents, where Yevgeniy Dyfort's brother, Igor, was waiting. As they pulled up, he allegedly began punching Lemeza through an open car window. At that point, says Anatoly Vasilenko-a youth who was arrested but released without being charged-Pasechnikov and Lemeza ran. Either Dyfort or Shtyba grabbed the keys to the car and took them, leaving the vehicle on Main Street where it was found burning early the next morning.
Police say Lemeza and Pasechnikov called 911 to report the incident. Lemeza then fled the scene. Pasechnikov filed a police report at the Missoula station. According to court documents, officer Guy Baker, a member of the Missoula Police Department's gang task force, drove Pasechnikov to Lemeza's sister's home on Foothills Drive in Missoula's South Hills, where they found Lemeza.
Lemeza had just received a threatening phone message from Igor Dyfort, which they played for Baker. The message said, in part, "This is your last fucking warning. If I catch your fucking ass tomorrow, you'll be dead, bitch."
Baker took Lemeza and Pasechnikov, who were clearly shaken, to another residence, but the two returned to the Foothills Drive address around 3 a.m. Pasechnikov later told police he heard several males come to the entrance of the apartment and pound on the door. At the time, he told Lemeza to hide in the laundry room as he waited in a bedroom, where he hid in the dark, a gun in his hand.
When the intruders forced the door open, Pasechnikov started shooting, and hit Yevgeniy Dyfort's other brother, Oleg, and Ivan Souprountchik in the legs. The neighbors called 911, as did Pasechnikov-for the second time in less than 24 hours.
Officers report that when they arrived, they found Pasechnikov shaking so hard he could barely speak. The door was lying on the floor of the apartment.
When Baker talked to Oleg Dyfort later in the hospital, he told the officer that Lemeza had called them and challenged them to a fight. According to court documents, Vasilenko, Konstantin Kopets, Yevgeniy Dyfort, Igor Dyfort and Shtyba went to the apartment and forced the door open after nobody answered. Oleg said it was dark inside and somebody shot him as he entered the bedroom.
"Nickolay called Oleg to talk," says Tamara Sisa, a high school student and cousin to four of the men involved in the shooting. "They day before Oleg said, 'If you're a real Russian, let's fight without guns.' I feel sorry for both of them."
Police believe Pasechnikov acted in self-defense, and did not charge him. He has since gone back to Portland, says Julie Styskin, executive director of the Refugee Assistance Corps, a group that provides social services for immigrants. The police didn't charge Lemeza either. The Ford Escort he and Pasechnikov had been driving was found Saturday morning, empty and engulfed in flames, burning in downtown Missoula as the first patrons of the Farmers' Market ambled down the street. It was 8:30 a.m.
Such events have fed the rumors of Russian gangs operating in Missoula, a story which continues to take on increasing weight locally. Styskin says she believes some of these same youths were part of a string of car thefts that stretched from Portland to Spokane to Missoula two years ago. But she also denies there is any sort of Russian Mafia in the Garden City.
Many in the Eastern European immigrant community, which includes exiles from Belarus, the Ukraine and parts of Russia, say the trouble's with just a few dozen kids with problems that have been exacerbated by adolescent hormones and alcohol. Styskin expresses concern that the young newcomers will be stigmatized over recent events.
"The Russian community looks at it as being blown out of proportion by the local media," says Styskin. "They're keeping a low profile. They're just hoping it blows over soon."
Most of the immigrants who talked to the Independent for this article agreed it's not easy to be a Belorussian or Ukrainian in Missoula. They're confused with Russians by acquaintances, classmates, the police and even the media. It's understandable, given that sometimes, for brevity's sake, they refer to themselves as Russians-many Americans don't understand the difference anyway, they say.
The younger generation of Eastern Europeans, as reflected partially by the appropriation of urban gangsta paraphernalia-including low-rider cars with tinted windows and handguns-is torn between assimilating and the keeping to their parents' tight knit community.
In Missoula, Belorussians make up the largest group of émigrés from the former Soviet Union. Many of these people come originally from Olshany, a small farming community of about 10,000 people located in a nation next door to the Ukraine, which regained some of its independence with the fall of the Eastern Block.
"While the Hmong have been here 20 years, Russians are still pretty new. They need to figure out who they are and where they stand. There is a lot of distrust, which is a holdover from the Soviet Union," Styskin says. The Hmong came from Asia to the United States in the wake of the Vietnam War.
"The kids come here and they're thrown into American society," she continues. "Nobody really monitors them. They know about the police, but it's not a reality. It's part of figuring out who they are in this country, especially as teenagers."
For all the hysteria surrounding the recent crime-dwarfed in recent weeks by the shooting of Missoula Police Officer Bob Heinle-the story's not a new one. Across the United States, alienated youth from all socio-economic sectors are committing increasingly violent crimes. Missoula has no urban ghettos, but members of the Belorussian and Ukrainian minority population struggle like their big city counterparts not to slip through the cracks.
The problems of acculturation and assimilation could be seen playing out in the courtroom where-for Yevgeniy Dyfort, at least-peer respect seems more valuable than that of the person in the robes on the bench.
Tamara Sisa, an 18-year-old born in Olshany, knows Yevgeniy Dyfort. Sisa knows all of the young men involved in the South Hills shooting.
Sitting in the classroom at Hellgate High School where non-native English speakers polish their speech and receive help with their homework, she talks about what it's like to go to school in the United States.
Sisa says the hardest thing about moving to Montana was learning to speak English, which, four years later, she does well. "I like the schools in Olshany [Belarus] better," she says. "You know everybody, the classes are shorter and the schedule is different every week."
Sisa adds that some of her American classmates have made her uncomfortable. "You notice that some people hate you," she says. "They have fake smiles, but then they turn around and hate you. Some of them say, 'Go back to Russia.'
"But I don't care what they think." Sisa's tough words, though, are betrayed by worried eyes.
Sisa and the three students who spoke with the Independent-two from Belarus and one from Siberia-worry that the way the shooting has been reported has provoked an unnecessary fear of their community. Sisa calls the coverage "90 percent not true," and Russian and Belorussian sources-despite repeated reports in the Missoulian-unanimously agree that there is no feud between families in their community.
Tania Gabrielson, who moved to the United States from Kiev in 1989, works as a tutor in Hellgate's English as a Second Language program. She remembers Yevgeniy Dyfort when she worked with him in the bilingual program at Washington Middle School. "I taught him for a year when he was 13," Gabrielson says. "I remember his bright eyes and great sense of humor. I remember how much he loved his sister.
"He was asked to write a descriptive essay about someone, and he chose his sister. I was amazed by how sentimental and sensitive it was. He has stayed in my memory as a 13-year-old with a crooked smile."
That memory is a long way away from how he looked in the courtroom on October 30-skinny, nervous, attempting to impress his friends in the face of impending peril. It's clear that the difference in perceptions has not escaped Gabrielson, who expressed disappointment at seeing Dyfort in handcuffs on the evening news.
Gabrielson says learning the language and nuances of a new culture is challenging for immigrant kids. "The urge to express yourself can be frustrating. If someone is yelling at you to speak English, you feel the urge to rebel and you don't care about the consequences.
"The teens come here and they're very self-conscious about language, especially if they're leaders by personality, because they can't find support in school. They sometimes start disliking school. I can relate to their interest in visiting other cities because it's thrilling to drive, and many say there is nothing to do in Missoula. There are Russian stores in other cities, where they buy candy, music, movies and books," Gabrielson says.
Stepan Chinikaylo, a Refugee Assistance Corps employee, agrees that the language barrier is a major difficulty immigrants face. "It's hard for kids, because in some ways it's extra responsibility for them. Many parents use kids as the translators, and because kids sometimes do the parents' jobs, the parents lose authority," he says.
Styskin points to generational differences and the language barrier as adding to the difficulties the refugee teens face. "The boys are at an age where they have to prove themselves. It's a big facade to cover insecurity. They don't feel comfortable here. They don't speak the language, they have a low income family. In a group they have power."
That sort of acceptance, Styskin realizes, may not bode well for the future of the young men associated with the recent crimes. Officer Mike Brady, who handled the investigation of the incident, says the youths involved have been in trouble before. Sheriff's Detective Rick Newlon told the Missoulian that he had encountered most of the young men in the past while investigating the series of car thefts, which Styskin also discussed.
Records also indicate that in September 1997, Bogdan Shtyba-who joined the other boys in breaking into Lemeza's sister's apartment on Foothills Drive-was previously arrested and charged with felony robbery, theft, two counts of felony assault, obstructing a peace officer, carrying a concealed weapon and possession of an intoxicating substance.
Shtyba is currently on probation and awaiting trial for the latest burglary charge. Three others involved in the alleged burglary have criminal records.
Styskin acknowledges that some of the same kids who were a part of the shooting were involved in past car thefts, but says that to her knowledge it's no longer going on. "I think they were stealing cars in Washington and Oregon and stripping them here," she says. "There are huge Russian communities in Spokane, Seattle and Portland, so there are always kids coming through town to visit.
"People think it's a gang, but it's just kids."
Styskin says it's very important for the kids to visit each other because they gave up so many friends when they moved to the United States, often leaving everything behind.
Ironically, it was religious persecution that prompted many families to emigrate, but some of the older youth no longer seem to have much use for the church.
For the most part, the Belorussians, as well as some of those who have come to this country from the Ukraine, are members of the Russian Pentecostal Church. For decades, the communist Soviet government worked to restrict religious freedom, a practice which began thawing when perestroika eased restrictions and allowed limited emigration in the late 1980s.
For the conclusion to this week's Feature, please pick up a copy of the Missoula Independent at one of more than 500 locations around Western Montana.
Yevgeniy Dyfort, 20, sits in Missoula District Court on Friday, October 30. Born in Belarus, Dyfort is one of a group of Eastern European youths who have recently had trouble with the law in Missoula. He's been charged with burglary.
Photo by Loren Moulton
Born in Olshany, a small farming community in Belarus, Tamara Sisa says one of the hardest things about adjusting to life in America is learning English and dealing with being ostracized by her peers.
Photo by Dan Engler
Oleg Dyfort, Yevgeniy's brother, appeared in court in October. He's on crutches because he was shot by a young man named Timofyey Pasechnikov after allegedly breaking into an apartment in the South Hills. The shooting was ruled self-defense on Pasechnikov's part.
Photo by Dan Engler
Julie Styskin, the executive director of the Refugee Assistance Corps, works with immigrants from Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine. She worries that the press has created an unnecessary stigma by fixating on the ethnicity of the young men involved in the South Hills shooting.
Photo by Loren Moulton