Despite much evidence to the contrary, a Ukrainian court ruled in 1998 that Anatoly Onoprienko was mentally competent and could stand trial for 52 murders committed over a period of six years and attributed to the monster labelled ‘The Terminator’. Onoprienko, a 39-year-old former forestry student, sailor and mental hospital outpatient, claimed to have been driven by devils, obeying higher powers and mysterious voices that ordered him to kill over and over again. During a prison interview, he admitted that he felt no remorse for the lives he had so brutally ended – he was ‘like a robot’ and killing people was ‘like ripping up a duvet’.

Anatoly Onoprienko was born in 1959 in the town of Laski in the Zhitomirskaya Oblast. While still’ a child of four, his mother died, leaving him and an older brother in the care of their father. Unable to care for both children, his father left Anatoly in an orphanage when he was seven years old, keeping only his older brother. This hurtful and traumatic experience deeply affected the boy. When, after his arrest, he was questioned about his home life, he could not disguise the anger he still felt at being abandoned and unwanted.

When Onoprienko faced trial, his defense counsel attempted to use this childhood history to explain his apparently heartless and cold-blooded slaughter of whole families, ranging in ages from a three-month-old baby to a 70- year-old. He had known no parental love, his lawyers argued, and naturally felt resentful towards happy family units. It was a specious argument which failed to sway the court, having heard horrendous evidence of the serial killer’s callous cruelty.

The court heard that Onoprienko’s first kill had been a deer in the woods. He recalled how upset it made him, seeing the animal lying there and knowing he had caused its death. He never displayed that sentiment again. During his interrogation, he told stunned officers how he felt nothing as he smashed the head of a young girl as, having killed both her parents in front of her, she prayed for her life. It appeared that, to him, killing was akin to hunting, almost like a game.

In 1989, Onoprienko joined forces with Serhiy Rogozin, whom he had met at his local gym. Their friendship soon grew into a partnership in crime, breaking into remote houses and committing petty theft to supplement their meagre incomes. In June of that year, during a routine robbery, they were disturbed in their work by the owners, a family including five children. Deciding they could not risk leaving witnesses, the callous pair sprayed the entire family with bullets from the guns they had brought with them. Soon after this, Rogozin and Onoprienko went their separate ways. Perhaps Rogozin had not the stomach for mass killing, but Onoprienko continued on his rampage, which resulted in 52 murders and a manhunt on a scale never seen before in the Ukraine, involving 2,000 police and more than 3,000 troops.

Some months after his first murders, Onoprienko approached a parked car with the intention of stealing any valuables inside. Unluckily, there were five sleeping occupants, including an 11-year-old boy. Onoprienko shot them all. He later admitted that there was no pleasure in the murders, he had only intended to steal and had sat in the car with the bodies for some hours, not knowing what to do with them. He described the corpses as ‘ugly and smelly with bad vibes’. Finally, he decided to burn the bodies before fleeing the scene.

Following these murders, Onoprienko lay low for a few years, lodging with a cousin and travelling around Eastern Europe, where police believe he may have been responsible for other murders, but in 1995 he began killing again. It was Christmas Eve and funds were short, so he set out to find a remote house to burgle. Using his sawn-off double-barreled shotgun, he murdered a married couple and their two young sons, stealing wedding rings and clothes before torching the house to destroy any evidence. Just nine days later, another family of four were murdered in their home. Fleeing the burning building, he was seen by a passer-by, whom he also shot dead to avoid leaving a witness.

From then on, he murdered on ‘God’s command’, claiming voices ordered him to hunt people down and slaughter them. His next murders took place on highways. Onoprienko described his boredom one day, until an urge to kill motivated him to stop cars near the Berdyansk-Dnieprovskaya main road and shoot the occupants. Four people died that day. He tried to ignore these urges, he claimed later, but they were too strong and he ‘had to obey’ the dark forces.

More than 40 people were murdered during a three-month rampage, concentrated in the Lvov region, near the border of Poland. His favored modus operandi was selecting remote village houses, rounding up the occupants and killing them at close range with his shotgun. He would ransack the homes, stealing what valuables he could carry, and even pulling out his victims’ gold teeth, before torching the properties and fleeing the murder scenes, killing anyone else who got in his way. He deviated from his usual methods during a robbery in Olevsk in Zhitomirskaya Oblast. This time, he shot the father and son, but hammered the mother and daughter to death. He ordered the girl to show him where the family kept their money, but she refused and was praying to God to save her as he smashed her head with his hammer. He used an axe in his next murders, hacking two young girls to death after shooting their parents. He then chopped a passing neighbor to pieces.

The residents of small villages and hamlets were terrified of this killer, now labelled by the press as ‘The Terminator’, and a massive manhunt began. A security cordon was set up around the two villages of Bratkovichi and Busk, and the army was sent in to help the 2,000-strong police force. But it was a tip-off from the killer’s cousin, Pyotr Onoprienko, that finally led police to ‘The Terminator’. Pyotr had discovered a stash of weapons hidden in Anatoly’s home and feared for the safety of his family when threatened with death if he told anyone about them.

Anatoly Onoprienko was living at this time with his girlfriend, Anna, and her two children in an apartment in Ivana Khristitelya Street, in Yavoriv, Western Ukraine. When police raided it on April 14, 1996, Onoprienko drew a gun but was overpowered before he could pull the trigger. The flat was filled with stolen goods from various murder scenes, 122 items of which were recovered by police on the day they raided it. They also found a shotgun matching the one used in 40 of the murders. Under interrogation, Onoprienko confessed to 52 slayings but repeatedly claimed to have been under the power of some dark force driving him to commit murder. He said he would have been prepared to kill his own son if the voices commanded him to.

His trial began on November 23, 1998, in the city of Zhytomyr, 90 miles west of Kiev. Seated in a metal cage, Onoprienko remained impassive despite screams and taunts from the crowded public area. Defense claims of insanity were rebutted by state prosecutor Yury Ignatuenko, who said the accused was not schizophrenic but that his motives lay purely in his violent nature. He said the cunning killer had found it possible to live a’ double life: that of a loving and doting surrogate father for his girlfriend’s two children, and that of the worst serial killer the Ukraine had ever known.

After it was ruled that Onoprienko was mentally competent to answer charges, the killer remained silent during the hearings but willingly gave interviews to the press from his cell, seeming to enjoy his notoriety and describing his murders in gruesome detail. He showed no remorse as he described wiping out entire families, battering young children to death, even giving his girlfriend a ring he had chopped off the finger of one of his victims just hours earlier. In one interview, he said: ‘To me, killing people is like ripping up a duvet. Women, old people, children, they are all the same. I have never felt sorry for those I killed. No love, no hatred, just blind indifference.’

Onoprienko was found guilty on March 31, 1999, the judge commenting: ‘He doesn’t care about anything – only about himself. He is driven by extreme cruelty.’ He was given the death sentence, though this was later commuted to life imprisonment. From his prison cell, he threatened: ‘If I am ever let out, I will start killing again, but this time it will be worse, ten times worse. The urge is there, I am being groomed by Satan.’

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