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Former Ballet Director Sentenced In Wife’s Murder Boise Impresario Kuzmichev, Who Claims To Be Victim Of International Conspiracy, Faces 21-Year Minimum For 1995 Slaying

Associated Press

Russian emigre Veniamin “Ben” Kuzmichev, former artistic director for Ballet Idaho, maintained his innocence to the end but Tuesday was sentenced to spend at least 21 years in prison for murdering his wife.

Kuzmichev, 56, was sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder in the September 1995 slaying of his wife of four months. Fourth District Judge Alan Schwartzman said since Kuzmichev refuses to accept his guilt, he must be sentenced as a remorseless killer.

The prosecution asked for life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Wanda Cowger Kuzmichev, 61, was found dead in a brushy field, plastic grocery bags tied around her head and feet. At trial, a major item of evidence was his fingerprint found on the trunk of her car and on the bag around her arms.

But Kuzmichev maintained his innocence.

“I know myself that I am not guilty,” he said in Russian through a translator. “I was never a murderer. I’m against violence in any form.”

Kuzmichev said evidence against him was fabricated because of “police despotism.”

Defense attorney Gus Cahill also attacked the jury’s verdict. “I’m optimistic that he will be vindicated some day, that the true killer will be found,” he said.

But Schwartzman said a jury found Kuzmichev guilty of killing his wife, and that verdict must be accepted. “You have had the full benefit of our system of criminal justice,” he said.

Because Kuzmichev refuses to accept guilt, the judge said, he must sentence him as a remorseless killer, someone who would dump his wife’s body “like some animal carcass off the side of the road.”

To Kuzmichev’s claim that he was the victim of some sort of international conspiracy, the judge called it “a fool’s substitute for rational thought” and “the last bastion of the desperate.”

Two of the victim’s four sons and a friend testified before sentencing, all praising Wanda Kuzmichev as a good mother, faithful church-goer and a cheerful, enthusiastic woman.

“She was the best of best of mothers,” said Timothy Cowger, 43. “We would like to see Ben Kuzmichev spend the rest of his life in prison,” he said.

Mary Kolsky, the victim’s sister-in-law, called the slaying “a planned violent action with no remorse by someone we welcomed into our house.”

“The punishment will never fit the crime because Wanda is gone,” she said, calling Kuzmichev “a betrayer.”

After the sentence was pronounced, son Joe Cowger said, “I’m satisfied with it,” although he was hopeful that Kuzmichev would be ordered to spend the rest of his life in prison because he refused to acknowledge his guilt.

Cahill said Kuzmichev worked professionally in the arts in Ukraine before coming to the United States.

He worked in Twin Falls before Esther Simplot, wife of Idaho industrialist J.R. Simplot, hired him in 1991 as Ballet Idaho’s artistic director 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 was a ballet teacher and choreographer at the Choreographic College in Kiev.

He left Ballet Idaho early in 1994 under fire for erratic behavior, including his disappearance from Boise for nearly a month.

Prosecutor Roger Bourne admitted Kuzmichev had no clear motive for the slaying, but he said it may have been frustration by Kuzmichev, who was working as a security guard at the time of the killing.

Defense attorney Cahill called Kuzmichev “a kind, gentle, educated person” with nothing in his record to indicate violence. “His family and friends are convinced of his innocence,” he said.

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