The remote town of Kicevo in Macedonia was gripped by news reports of a serial killer, but the local journalist on the case seemed to know a little too much
KICEVO IS NOT a place that regularly makes the news. Living out their lives in the shadow of Mount Bistra, the 30,000 or so residents of this Macedonian town rarely attract the interest of the national press - who are based 120km away in the capital, Skopje - let alone make headlines in newspapers around the world.
Vlado Taneski covered what little happened in Kicevo for some of Macedonia's main daily newspapers, and won praise for his reporting from colleagues in the small Balkan state's tight-knit community of journalists.
But such was the rarity of big news in his quiet corner of the country that, at first, even editors who had worked with Taneski for years were sceptical when he offered them a story about a serial killer on the loose in Kicevo.
Taneski suggested that the murder in May this year of Zivana Temelkoska (65) was linked to the killing of Ljubica Licoska (56) in 2007 and Mitra Simjanoska (64) in 2005.
All the women were poor cleaners who lived in the same area of Kicevo, and all were strangled and their bodies tied up in bags that were dumped in different parts of town. Their gruesome fate was also thought to shed light on the disappearance of another elderly cleaner, a 78-year-old who went missing in 2003 and has not been heard of since.
Taneski, a journalist with two decades of experience, conducted his research assiduously.
He visited grieving relatives in their homes to ask about the victims and who may have killed them, and wrote articles containing shocking details of how the women were abducted, beaten and sexually assaulted before being strangled and disposed of.
Unlike those of rival correspondents who began covering the case, Taneski's reports also revealed that the women had been strangled and their bodies tied up with telephone cord, they included intricate speculation about how the killer might have abducted his victims, and pointedly questioned the police handling of the case and their choice of suspects.
Devoid of firm leads, investigators re-read Taneski's stories about the spate of killings that had transfixed Macedonia. Only then did it become clear to them that, accomplished journalist that he was, this man simply knew too much.
Last Saturday, police spokesman Ivo Kotevski read out a statement that would stun Macedonia - and briefly turn the eyes of the world's media on a remote corner of the Balkans.
"Police arrested Vlado Taneski, a 56-year-old man from Kicevo, a town about 120km southwest of the capital, Skopje, as the main suspect in the murder of two elderly women," Kotevski said.
"He is also suspected of being involved in another murder of a woman and [in the disappearance of] a 78-year-old female who is still missing." Investigators said Kotevski had not resisted arrest and had reacted calmly to their questions, neither admitting nor denying that he was the serial killer about whom he had been writing, and about whose crimes he seemed to have such intimate knowledge.
Forensic teams searched his home and his little summer cottage near Kicevo, where they found hardcore pornography and unspecified "biological material" which is believed to have matched DNA recovered from semen found on the bodies of the dead women.
"All the victims were found naked, strangled, wrapped with phone cables and placed in nylon bags hidden in different locations," Kotevski told local journalists, who were appalled to discover that one of their own was the man they had dubbed the "Kicevo Monster".
"The women were sexually and physically abused. For example, the last victim, a 65-year-old female, was found with 13 deep wounds on her skull and multiple rib fractures."
Suddenly, reporters were descending on families whose only previous contact with a journalist came when Taneski visited their house to enquire about their murdered mother or grandmother.
"He came to me and asked for some details about my sister. He came here and asked for my sister's photo," said Cvetanka Licoska, whose sister was killed last year. "He came to our home, we talked, he asked for details," added Zoran Temelkoski, son of Zivana Temelkoska, the last alleged victim of Taneski, who lived in the same area of Kicevo as all the dead women.
"Who could imagine that it would be our neighbour at the end," Temelkoski said.
Taneski's colleagues spoke of a placid, unassuming man, untroubled, it seemed, by inner demons or a propensity for violence.
His wife, from whom Taneski separated after 31 years having raised two children together, told local television that she had enjoyed an "ideal marriage" to the reporter. "He was always quiet and gentle," she said. "The only time I ever saw him get aggressive was when we were living with his parents."
Investigators and reporters, searching for an explanation for Taneski's alleged crimes, quickly focused on his troubled relationship with his mother. She lived nearby and knew all the women and, like them, worked as a cleaner.
Last Monday's Macedonian newspapers were packed with news, analysis and speculation on Taneski's apparent unmasking as the "Kicevo Monster", and on what drove him both to kill and to give himself away in those too-revealing articles on the murders.
As his compatriots were digesting the information, and readers of newspapers and websites around the world were first discovering the bizarre tale, a new development broke.
In an update on the Taneski case, police spokesman Kotevski announced: "He committed suicide. He put his head in a bucket of water. It is unclear how none of his cell mates or guards noticed while he was doing so."
Taneski died less than three days after being arrested and only hours after being delivered to jail to be held in pre-trial custody.
Officials said he had not been considered a suicide risk, but that there was no suspicion that anyone else was involved in his death.
A final note found under the pillow on his prison bunk did nothing to illuminate the mysterious life and death of Vlado Taneski.
It read simply: "I did not commit these murders."