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03.15.10

The Fake Dentist Murder

A bizarre murder probe involving a yanked molar and a corpse has gripped the Pacific Northwest. Winston Ross on the scariest dentist story since Marathon Man.

Tanya Krivolapova filed a complaint last February with the Oregon Board of Dentistry, one of hundreds of such gripes the board receives each year. Most of them involve a billing dispute or a botched filling. But Krivolapova’s claim was different. She alleged that an unlicensed dentist named Victor or Viktor Kozhevnikova pulled a molar from the mouth of her brother, Pavel Krivolapov, and that the jaw became infected, requiring Pavel to be hospitalized. In registering the complaint, Krivolapova asked that she and her brother’s names be kept confidential; she feared retaliation, she said.

The filing seemed outlandish. But it might not be as crazy as it sounds.

Investigators found puzzling evidence: a dentist’s chair, an X-ray machine, the kind of vest patients wear to block radiation, and a man who spoke little English.

Last month, police in the Portland suburb of Gresham responded to a 911 dispatch about a man who had called one of his family members to say he was being held at gunpoint, in the same building where Krivolapova’s brother had his molar yanked.

When the cops got to the scene, they found the body of Viktor Merezhnikov, a 47-year-old immigrant from the former Soviet Union, shot in the abdomen, slumped over in one of a row of chairs, lined up as if in a waiting room.

As the investigators perused the rest of the house, they found more puzzling evidence: a dentist’s chair, an X-ray machine, the kind of vest patients wear to block radiation, a collection of dental tools, medication, and a man who spoke little English. Police identified him as 79-year-old Viktor Gregorevich Gebauer.

Multnomah County prosecutor Chris Ramras filed murder charges against Gebauer. He hasn’t suggested a possible motive. Gebauer told police he shot Merezhnikov after he tried to rob him. He has pleaded not guilty. His trial is set for April 19.

Practicing dentistry without a license is a rare but reoccurring phenomenon, says Paul Kleinstub, chief investigator and dental director at the Oregon Board of Dentistry. It tends to happen in Hispanic, Russian, and Slavic communities where the practitioners may have dental experience but don't have Social Security numbers, which are required for licensing. “They typically work on a cash basis,” Kleinstub said.

Cases that end in murder are rarer still, but authorities are investigating whether this Oregon man of Russian extraction may have used multiple names to carry out an illegal practice, a case that is fascinating people in the Pacific Northwest and stoking fears not seen since Laurence Olivier’s terrifying performance in the hit 1976 movie Marathon Man.

Gebauer’s motives remain unclear, but Kleinstub said he has plenty of reason to believe his fake dentistry outfit has been around for awhile. The first clue was an online comment attached to one of the newspaper stories written about the killing.

It said something about Gebauer being a dentist, Kleinstub said. “All of a sudden, it clicked,” Kleinstub said. “The light went on.”

Back in 2009, board investigator Daryll E. Ross had done some extensive research on Krivolapova’s case.

Ross went to 142 N.E. 192nd Street, and photographed a Range Rover at the property, and ran the plates with the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles. The car was registered to Nadine Victoria Lepesh.

The name “Lepesh” rang a bell. Ross cross-checked it with the dentistry board’s Web site, and found a 10-year-old case, wherein a patient alleged a man named Victor Lepesh was practicing dentistry without a license.

Were the two Victors one and the same? Ross kept digging. He found a dentist in nearby Gresham who had information on an unlicensed Russian practitioner who had treated “at least” one immigrant patient, whose name she couldn’t recall.

Then came an email from another Portland dentist, who said he’d treated a patient named Emiliya Kapatsyna, complaining of severe pain in her lower right mandible.

The dentist who had extracted her tooth: “Dr. Victor.” After seeing a second dentist, who treated her pain, Kapatsyna returned to Dr. Victor’s home. He “scolded her for going to another dentist.”

That wasn’t all. The reporting dentist fielded two more phone calls from a man who called himself “Victor Ayan” and said he had been a practicing dentist in Oregon for more than 20 years, despite no record of a Victor Ayan at the Board of Dentistry. He said he would be sending X-rays for Kapatsyna.

Then came another Gresham woman, reporting that a needy member of her church was requesting help from a man who wanted $1,850 to pull out nearly all of his teeth. The practitioner, who spoke only Russian, worked out of the house on 192nd Street. The assistant who referred him: a woman known only as "Nadia."

Ross had plenty of evidence. But there were logistical problems in going after Viktor. Unlike the state Board of Medical Examiners, the dentistry regulators don’t have policing authority. And while practicing medicine without a license is a felony, working as an unlicensed dentist is only a misdemeanor.

That left Ross with no option but to forward his findings to the Gresham police, for whom the case, like most misdemeanor investigations, was a low priority. Plus, a department spokesman told The Oregonian newspaper, one of the victims had gotten cold feet. (Police didn’t return phone calls from The Daily Beast.)

Nine months later, a man was dead in a makeshift waiting room.

“We had the location, a patient in the hospital and a guy who was willing to cooperate, and nothing happened,” Kleinstub said. “It would seem reasonable that the practice of dentistry without a license would legally be on par with the practice of medicine. Make it a felony.”

Winston Ross is a reporter for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, and a regular contributor to Newsweek.com.