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‘A failure of professionalism’ Outside Tula, a missing man turns up dead while local police officers delay his search party with arrests

Source: Meduza
Anton Vaganov / TASS

Like many civic organizations in Russia, the nonprofit search-and-rescue group “Liza Alert” enjoys a sometimes fraught relationship with the state authorities, who are generally accustomed to executing or at least overseeing responses to public concerns. Following last weekend’s tragic death of an elderly man in Russia’s Tula region, Liza Alert and local state officials are now pointing fingers at each other, arguing about whose screwup cost Alexander Sapozhnikov his life.

The nonprofit group “Liza Alert” accused the Tula region’s police department of unprofessionalism after officers arrested one of the group’s volunteers during a search last weekend for a missing elderly man in the town of Begichevsky.

The organization says it was contacted after midnight on January 23 by a man reporting the disappearance of his 70-year-old neighbor, Alexander Sapozhnikov. The caller said Sapozhnikov had left his home earlier that evening to fetch more water from a nearby spring well, but he never returned. After the police reportedly told the neighbor that the matter would need to wait until the next morning, he reached out to Liza Alert, which had a volunteer living nearby who promptly went to Sapozhnikov’s home. The group also started mobilizing other volunteers from around the area.

Representatives for Liza Alert say the police then arrived at Sapozhnikov’s home and promptly arrested the organization’s volunteer and Sapozhnikov’s neighbor. Liza Alert says it learned about the arrests at 12:37 a.m. on January 24. The officers brought both detainees to the local station and subjected them to what Liza Alerts calls “an educational talk about the methods and algorithms of search and rescue.”

While the authorities were busy delivering this lecture, they took “no effective measures” to locate the missing man, say spokespeople for Liza Alert. Eventually, officers escorted the two detainees back to Begichevsky around 4 a.m., by which point other Liza Alert volunteers had arrived and were already searching for Sapozhnikov. In a statement on social media, the group described what happened next:

At 4:55 a.m., our volunteers found Sapozhnikov dead; his body was still warm, the group said. Probably due to failing eyesight, he appears to have taken a wrong turn and lost his way home in the dark, before becoming exhausted and succumbing to the cold. If the search had begun immediately at 12:37 a.m., he might still be alive. We deeply regret that we didn’t reach him in time and we are very sorry that the police failed to treat this search with the necessary professionalism.

Local officials, however, dispute Liza Alert’s version of events, denying that the police failed to respond quickly enough to the report of Sapozhnikov’s disappearance. In a press release on January 26, the Tula region’s Interior Ministry said the man’s neighbor and the Liza Alert volunteer who lived nearby started their search as early as 5 p.m. on January 23 and waited until after midnight to inform the police. When the responding officers arrived at Sapozhnikov’s home, they allegedly found the neighbor and volunteer in a drunken state. “The individuals spoke incoherently and contradicted one another,” said a police spokesperson, explaining that they were then taken into custody on suspicion of illegal activity.

Tula’s authorities also insist that the police “took all necessary measures” in their search for the missing man, whose body was reportedly discovered just 650 feet from his home. The town’s coroner subsequently concluded that Sapozhnikov died several hours before anyone reported his disappearance to the police. “The cause of death was not related to hypothermia, but to cardiovascular disease,” a government spokesperson said.

Text by Alexander Baklanov

Translation by Carol Matlack

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