Santa Cruz police: Missing L.A. man killed in pot deal gone bad
SANTA CRUZ — Two Santa Cruz men have been arrested and a third is wanted in connection with the kidnapping and killing of a Los Angeles man last heard from on July 20.
Friends last talked to Elias Sorokin, 29, as he drove from Oakland to Santa Cruz. Two days later, people tried to use his credit cards and checks at businesses in Santa Cruz and Watsonville, which prompted local authorities to become involved in his disappearance. His burned-out truck was discovered Tuesday night on Empire Grade Road in Bonny Doon on State Parks property.
Sorokin’s body has not been found, though police believe he was killed before his truck was dumped.
Santa Cruz police Capt. Steve Clark said Kenneth Clamp, 29, and Stewart Skuba, 31, are being held in County Jail. Skuba, who identified himself as a hair stylist, is being held on $1 million bail. Clamp, who identified himself as a construction worker, was arrested early Friday at or near his home at 407 Liberty St. in Santa Cruz and is being held without bail, according to jail reports.
Skuba was first arrested Thursday morning in South County after he fled on foot from a stolen car, according to Watsonville police, who linked evidence on Skuba and in the stolen car to the Sorokin case. He was then turned over to Santa Cruz police, and after questioning was booked on charges of kidnapping with intent to hold for ransom or extortion, robbery and conspiracy to commit a crime with another person. Clamp is being held on a drug-related parole violation and thought to be “peripherally involved,” Clark said. Both will be arraigned on those charges Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning, according to prosecutor Rob Wade from the District Attorney’s Office.
A $1 million arrest warrant has been issued for 29-year-old Adam Hunt of Watsonville, Clark said. He is considered to be dangerous, but it is unknown if he is armed.
Police said the three men are acquaintances and all have criminal records.
Police believe the men had a prearranged meeting to sell a large amount of marijuana and that the deal went sideways at a condominium at 244 Felix St. in Santa Cruz. The FBI and Department of Justice were at the Felix Street location Friday collecting and cataloging evidence.
“We have evidence that pretty strongly leads us to believe it’s a homicide,” Clark said.
Clark declined to say whether they had located a weapon, how they think Sorokin was killed or if they found marijuana.
Sorokin, co-owner of a clothing business called Kucoon in Los Angeles, was on a trip to Northern California when he disappeared.
A man and a woman attempted to use his credit cards at Target in Watsonville July 22, and his cards were also rejected at two other businesses in the same shopping center on Saturday. Watsonville police on Thursday arrested two men suspected of trying to pass the cards, Gerardo Vasquez Rios, 32, and Jose Pedro Galvan, 31, but would not say if they were linked to Sorokin’s disappearance.
On July 24, a woman tried to cash a $4,500 check from Kucoon at Bank of America on River Street in Santa Cruz. Police have identified the woman who tried to cash the check, but she has not been arrested.
Neither Clamp nor Skuba has been charged with murder.
“We’ll wait to apply that charge when we find a body,” Clark said.
Clark said police found evidence while serving a search warrant on the condominium on Felix that led them to believe Sorokin is dead and that he was killed there. He said they believe his 2007 Toyota Tacoma was torched to destroy evidence, but that the effort was unsuccessful.
“We were able to pull evidence from the truck,” Clark said.
On Felix Street on Friday afternoon, FBI agents wearing white jumpsuits removed items through the back door of the condo, the last in a line of tan-colored homes along a driveway. They sorted evidence on folding tables set up in the parking lot of an adjacent apartment complex and loaded items into a waiting evidence van.
The scene — roped off with yellow crime scene tape — was hardly visible from the street and attracted little attention from others in the neighborhood, which largely is composed of apartment complexes and college-age residents.
Santa Cruz police asked the FBI to join the investigation because of their advanced means to collect and process evidence. Kidnapping is also a federal crime, which means the men could be prosecuted federally, though Clark said that is unlikely. FBI agents handling the search declined to comment on the investigation.
Clark said he believes Sorokin was killed soon after he was last heard from and that the motive revolves around the drug deal.
“I think at this point we have a pretty good picture of how the events transpired,” Clark said.
He declined to talk specifically about the marijuana transaction and didn’t know how long Sorokin had been involved in drug trafficking.
“Clearly he was involved in the business to some degree,” Clark said. “You would have to have established some history and some credibility in the business to deal with these quantities.”
When information surfaced earlier in the week that his disappearance may have been related to pot sales, Sorokin’s family and friends expressed shock.
His mother, Anna Oleynik of North Carolina, said she had no idea that he was involved in drug trafficking.
“It also surprises me that a lot of his friends … none of them seemed to know about this,” she said by phone Friday afternoon. “I don’t understand who they were or why he went there and it doesn’t seem like something he would do.”
They have described Sorokin as a warm, caring person who was beloved by many. His mother said he was the light in their lives.
Santa Cruz police have informed Sorokin’s family and met with his father, who came to Santa Cruz from L.A. this week to help with the search, on Friday afternoon.
“I guess there’s still a one in a million chance that he’s injured and still alive out there, but I think not,” said Oleynik, just before she left for a vigil in honor of her son. “I just don’t understand.”
The search for Sorokin’s body continued late Friday.
“We have been looking,” Clark said. “We have sort of set some concentric patterns that we’re looking at right now to try to narrow down possible locations as to where the body might be.”
Police are using a cadaver dogs and also employed the U.S. Coast Guard to search off the coast, though Clark said investigators had no specific information that Sorokin’s body was dumped in the ocean. Officers also searched in the forested area where Sorokin’s pickup was found, but didn’t find any sign of him, Clark said.
Los Angeles police also were investigating the missing person case, and Sorokin’s relatives and friends launched their own search in the area this week. They offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to his safe return, no questions asked. Information about Sorokin’s disappearance was posted on Burning Man Festival blogs and Facebook pages. Friends held a vigil in Los Angeles for him Monday night and have put up fliers in the Santa Cruz area asking for tips.
A contingent of friends came to Santa Cruz this week with search dogs to look for Sorokin after psychics and astrologers told them it’s possible Sorokin was being held against his will by unstable people. At the time, friends said they were worried about his safety and that a psychic told them Sorokin may be in bad health.