How Ján and Martina Died

by Pavla Holcová and Eva Kubániová

The offer was straightforward and financially attractive: Kill a man in return for 50,000 euros in cash and the forgiveness of more than 20,000 euros in debt. Zoltán Andruskó, a Slovak pizzeria operator, quickly accepted – a decision that forever changed both his life and the history of Slovakia.

How Ján and Martina Died Photo: Edin Pasovic, OCCRP

The woman Andruskó said offered the deal was Alena Zsuzsová, an Italian translator and fixer who worked for one of Slovakia’s richest men, Marián Kočner. Sitting together in a car outside her house, Zsuzsová gave Andruskó the details: a name, a couple of photos, and a home address. It was all he needed.

The target was reporter Ján Kuciak. The information about the deal to kill him comes from a Slovak police investigation that was reviewed by OCCRP.

The assignment wasn’t a natural fit for Andruskó. He wasn’t a killer. He was a bald, middle-aged businessman with a pot belly who later said he didn’t really want to kill anyone, mainly because he didn’t know how.

So he asked a friend for help, a former police officer. Tomáš Szabo looked the part of a Hollywood assassin: tall, muscular, and tattooed, with a strong jaw and a shaved head. He was also good with guns and willing to take on the assignment.

He also recruited a resourceful cousin, Miroslav Marček, an athletic former soldier who knew guns and could drive the car. The team was ready.

Any assassination requires surveillance to find the right opportunity. The men visited the home of Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in the southwestern village of Velká Mača, about 60 km from Bratislava, the capital, at least seven times.

This account of their repeated visits to the town and of the assassinations is built on an OCCRP review of police investigative documents, which are partly based on closed-circuit TV footage.

Szabo and Marček first visited Velká Mača in the afternoon of Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, driving a white Peugeot 206.

The house Kuciak and Kušnírová had recently bought and planned to refurbish proved an ideal location for a murder. It was outside the city center, bordered a dense forest, and had a good road to a highway. There were no obvious surveillance cameras on the street.

JanMartina Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Photo: Facebook, OCCRP

Ján and Martina’s Last Day

Neither Ján nor Martina, both 27, had noticed the surveillance or had any idea they were being targeted. The story Ján was working on with OCCRP — an investigation into how the Italian ‘Ndrangheta mafia infiltrated his country — involved dangerous figures, but so far he had simply been requesting public records and doing research online.

No reporter had been killed in Slovakia in recent memory, and as far as his friends and family knew, Ján hadn’t received any physical threats. He had no reason to think his life was in imminent danger.

The couple also had a lot on their minds. Their wedding was coming up in early May, and they were busy with preparations. The last text messages and phone calls they exchanged with their families were about the celebration. Ján had just discussed the labeling of the wine bottles with his mother.

They were also refurbishing and outfitting their new home, visiting pawn shops to pick up items like a vintage ‘60s television set and an old post office table.

The two had met while living in a student apartment in the picturesque city of Nitra in western Slovakia.

Ján proposed to Martina on a trip to Georgia on the last day of January, 2017.

A devoted Christian, she asked her mother for permission to move in with Ján before they were married. Her mother acquiesced, but only after securing a promise from him that his relationship with her daughter was no short-term fling.

Now their lives seemed to be moving forward. Ján was a successful and talented investigative reporter, more an analyst than a storyteller, who loved to dive into corporate documents many of his peers would find mind-numbing. Martina was happily working as an archaeologist.

As the couple planned a quiet night at home on that Wednesday, Feb. 21, Szabo and Marček met at 4:40 p.m., climbed into the Citroen Berlingo, and drove towards Velká Mača, avoiding many of the town’s surveillance cameras. They switched off their personal phones and turned on their burners.

Marček, the former soldier, stopped the car near the football field at 6:28 p.m. Szabo, wearing black, stepped out into the cold evening.

He took his burner phone and Luger. The weapon was fitted with a silencer and loaded with the modified, quieter ammunition. At 6:31 p.m. he headed toward the couple’s house.

Unexpectedly, they weren’t home.

Ján had returned from Bratislava by train as usual, but his car battery had died and Martina had to go pick him up. They got home at about 7:30 p.m. By then it was dark, and the couple settled in to make some tea. Martina planned to call her mother to talk about their project to create a historical narrative of her home village of Gregorovce.

Szabo was waiting nearby. At 8:21 p.m., he entered the yard and walked in the front door, which was never locked. In the kitchen, he saw Martina and shot her once between the eyes. She dropped to the floor.

Ján, who was in the basement, heard the shot and climbed the stairs. Szabo was ready. He fired two bullets into his chest, near his heart, and the young journalist collapsed on the stairs. Szabo stood so close that the barrel of the silencer left burns on his victim’s chest.

At about that time, Martina’s mother called. There was no answer.

Szabo left the house through the back yard and returned to the football field, where he used his burner to call for a pickup. At 8:25 p.m., only four minutes after the murders, Marček collected him by the field and the pair left town.

They drove to Andruskó’s house in Kolarovo to tell him the job was done and to get their money. When Andruskó heard that a woman had also been killed, he said it shouldn’t have happened. It wasn’t part of the plan. Nevertheless, he promised to deliver the money soon.

Ján and Martina’s bodies would lie undiscovered for four days

After two days of being unable to reach her daughter, Martina’s mother became uneasy and phoned Ján’s family to see if they had been in touch. The Kuciaks thought the young couple might simply be busy.

After two more days, Zlata Kušnírová started to panic. She called the Kuciaks again, then the local police.

The officers didn’t seem overly concerned. She remembers one telling her, “You know those young people, they like to drink and have fun.”

At that point, Zlata asked a relative who lived about an hour from the couple to check on them. The Kuciak family decided to do the same, urging Ján’s sister Mária to drive there from her home in Nitra, some 30 minutes away.

About an hour after Zlata’s call to the police, a unit was dispatched to the house. As officers entered the yard, they saw a body through the kitchen window. Fearing a gas leak, they called firefighters and an ambulance.

A few minutes later, Zlata’s family member arrived. Looking through a basement window from the yard, she saw a leg on the stairs, but police wouldn’t let her inside. When she asked an officer whether the couple had been shot, he nodded.

Kuciak's gate The gate to Ján and Martina’s house. The graffiti reads: “Love is stronger than evil.” Photo: Pavla Holcova

The Search for Justice

When word of the murders broke, Slovaks were shocked.

Within days, the biggest protests since the fall of communism broke out across the country. Tens of thousands of citizens demanded an independent investigation and decried the influence of organized crime that Ján had exposed.

The killings filled the news for days, and journalists made daily trips to Velká Mača. Those who worked with Ján most closely received police protection. The offices of Aktuality, the website where he worked, were heavily guarded.

Within months, the government resigned, including Prime Minister Robert Fico, several ministers, the head of police, and the director of the National Criminal Agency’s anti-corruption department.

Andruskó, Szabo, Marček, and Zsuzsová were all arrested and are facing various murder charges. No one else is known to have been charged with orchestrating the crimes.

Andruskó’s attorney could not be reached for comment; Marcek’s said he had no comment, and Zsuzsová and Szabo’s lawyers didn’t respond to inquiries.

The killings remain unfathomable for the Kuciak and Kušnírová families.

Zlata still sometimes goes to the couple’s house just to caress their things.

“Even the last time, when I visited Velká Mača, I took one of Martina’s dirty socks from the laundry,” she said. “I wanted to hold it tight, close to me, to have a piece of Martina with me for at least a little moment.”

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an organization that worked closely with Ján Kuciak, originally produced and published this story. This current version republished by the ECPMF is a curated version of the original. Click here to read the full story in the original website.

Furthermore, this captivating and informative story is part of the OCCPR's series "Unfinished Lives, Unfinished Stories," which aims to continue the investigative work of journalists killed by mafias and corrupt authorities for shedding light on their misdeeds.

Creative Commons LicenseThis article is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
Source information: This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom –