Ex-Ballet Director Found Guilty Of Killing Wife Russian Emigre Faces 10 Years To Life In Strangling Death

SUNDAY, FEB. 9, 1997

A Russian emigre and former Ballet Idaho artistic director was convicted on Saturday of strangling his cleaning lady wife and dumping her nude body near his former patron’s home.

Veniamin “Ben” Kuzmichev, 56, was found guilty of second-degree murder for the September 1995 slaying of Wanda Cowger Kuzmichev, 61, his bride of only four months.

The eight-woman, four-man jury deliberated more than 20 hours over three days before returning its verdict at midday Saturday.

Fourth District Judge Alan Schwartzman ruled during the four-week trial that Ada County prosecutors had not presented enough evidence to justify their original first-degree murder charge. That eliminated the possibility of a death sentence, but Kuzmichev still faces 10 years to life in prison at his March 19 sentencing.

Wanda Kuzmichev was reported missing when she did not arrive for work on Sept. 15, 1995. Her decomposed body was found six days later in a brushy field near Bogus Basin Road on Boise’s north side. Plastic grocery bags were tied around her head and feet.

Bogus Basin Road runs below the hilltop mansion of local arts patron Esther Simplot and her billionaire husband, potato magnate J.R. Simplot. Esther Simplot hired Kuzmichev as Ballet Idaho’s artistic director in 1991 after seeing a videotape of his work.

He claimed to have been a dancer with the Shevchenko Academic Theatre in Kiev for 20 years, and later a ballet teacher and choreographer at the Choreographic College in Kiev. But he left Ballet Idaho in early 1994 under fire for erratic behavior, including his disappearance from Boise for nearly a month during which Kuzmichev claimed he was being pursued by a man who looked like Watergate defendant H.R. Haldeman.

Kuzmichev had been divorced in August 1993 from his second wife, 30-year-old Valeriya Kvitko. They have a 10-year-old daughter.

Wanda Cowger was living in a trailer park and working as a cleaning woman when she became Kuzmichev’s third wife in May 1995. He was working as a security guard.

His trial included testimony from 50 witnesses and 80 items of evidence.

Ada County Deputy Prosecutor Roger Bourne told the jury during closing arguments that Wanda Kuzmichev’s midnight blue 1989 Buick LeSabre held all the answers.

A main part of the case against Kuzmichev was his fingerprints on the trunk of her car and on the bag around her legs. Bourne also used charts to list all of the inconsistencies that he said proved Kuzmichev’s guilt.

Defense attorney Gus Cahill challenged the evidence and motives of police investigators who used wire taps to help make their case. They also used testimony from another inmate who said Kuzmichev confessed to the slaying.

“They have built a case predicated on a number of invasions of his freedom,” Cahill said. “Their case raises more questions than they answered, but there is nothing that proves my client killed Wanda.

“They’ve got fingerprints, but they can’t tell you when or how they got there,” Cahill said. “If they can’t show when they were put there, that evidence should not be allowed.”

Bourne defended statements made by inmate Jason Akin, who testified that Kuzmichev said he killed his wife after an argument about moving back to Russia.

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