Russia presses U.S. on how Bellevue crab king returned home
The crab king is mending at home in the United States, but his plight is still the center of an international diplomatic dispute. The Russian government is demanding answers from Washington, D.C., and from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow about what role — if any — American officials played in Bellevue crab mogul Arkadi Gontmakher's mysterious exodus from Moscow in February.
Seattle Times environment reporter
The crab king is mending at home in the United States, but his plight is still the center of an international diplomatic dispute.
The Russian government demands answers from Washington, D.C., and from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow about what role, if any, American officials played in Bellevue crab mogul Arkadi Gontmakher's mysterious exodus from Moscow in February.
Gontmakher had been awaiting trial in that country on charges connected with the illegal harvest and sale of tens of millions of dollars in Russian king crab. The Russians now maintain the U.S. citizen sneaked out of Russia illegally, perhaps with official help.
A State Department spokesman declined to comment on the case last week.
But earlier this month, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs confronted a high-ranking American diplomat in Moscow and demanded a "comprehensive explanation" about Gontmakher's "unlawful departure," according to statements issued by the Russian government. A similar request was made to the State Department by Russian Embassy officials in D.C.
Gontmakher's saga began in 2007. The high-flying businessman drove a Bentley, lived behind an iron gate in a redbrick Bellevue mansion and ran a fish-import business, Global Fishing, that in one year sold $147 million in king crab to American consumers. Global was the largest single importer of king crab, a popular seafood made even more so by the Discovery Channel's "The Deadliest Catch."
On a Moscow business trip in fall 2007, Gontmakher was yanked from his hotel room and imprisoned. The Russian government alleged he was part of a smuggling ring that sold millions of pounds of crab illegally taken from the waters off the Kamchatka Peninsula.
While the businessman maintained his innocence, Gontmakher also was secretly under criminal investigation by U.S. authorities, who sought to assist Russian prosecutors.
But as his foreign detention dragged into its third year without a trial, his family sought high-profile assistance from the likes of U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. The congressional representatives wrote to the Obama administration, urging American officials to intervene.
Gontmakher was finally tried and acquitted in December, but immediately rearrested and charged with similar crimes.
With his health failing — Gontmakher has a heart condition — American officials earlier this year again petitioned the Russian government, which agreed to release Gontmakher while he awaited his second trial. He was freed to seek medical treatment in Moscow but showed up in the U.S. in mid-February.
His wife and Angelo Calfo, an attorney representing Global Fishing, declined to explain how Gontmakher made it back to the U.S.
"He's feeling protected here, and going through some different medical procedures, and that's really all we want to say," his wife, Lena Gontmakher, said last week.
The Russians maintain Gontmakher signed an agreement that released him from jail pending trial on the condition he would stay in Russia — an option made available only "due to the multiple petitions of the U.S. Embassy and Gontmakher's attorneys referring to his 'critical state' of health."
Gontmakher's departure raises "serious questions about the motives guiding the American side," the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared earlier this month.
That statement came to light last week when it was filed as an exhibit in a lawsuit by a shipping company that claims Gontmakher's business never paid it for delivery of $5.8 million in Russian king crab.
Lawyers in that case want to depose Gontmakher again and ask him about the circumstances of his exit from Russia. They claim it reflects on his character — and raises a question about whether or not he'll be extradited to Russia.
"How did he get out?" asked attorney Dan Harris, whose firm represents Simar Shipping. "Did he get a new passport from the consulate? Did he forge one himself? I don't know. I just know it's not that easy to get out of a country like Russia, so he must have had very serious help."
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.