War Crime

As he watched the Iraq war on television, John Komyakevich had no idea he was about to become a casualty of the conflict. The 33-year-old Russian immigrant sat inside Margarita's, a hole-in-the-wall neighborhood pub he managed on Federal Highway in Lake Worth. The clock was approaching 11 p.m. on Sunday,...
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As he watched the Iraq war on television, John Komyakevich had no idea he was about to become a casualty of the conflict.

The 33-year-old Russian immigrant sat inside Margarita's, a hole-in-the-wall neighborhood pub he managed on Federal Highway in Lake Worth. The clock was approaching 11 p.m. on Sunday, March 23, the fourth day of the war. With him in the narrow, dimly lit room were a couple of patrons and Walter Peretto, a soft-spoken, bespectacled bartender. Other than the CNN war coverage, which Komyakevich likened to a drug, everything seemed normal enough.

The trouble had already left the building. Ron Mellor, a 61-year-old former Marine, had walked out in a rage after an argument over the war with Komyakevich. Several American soldiers, some captured and some dead, had been shown on Al Jazeera that day. As a former military man, Mellor was outraged. Komyakevich, an easy-going soccer aficionado, told him it's hard to complain about what happens to your soldiers when you invade somebody else's country.

"John just sat calmly at the bar, looking up at the television and occasionally making a comment," Peretto told me when I visited Margarita's last week. "He rarely looked away from the TV. And Ron was just becoming furious. John never seemed to realize the threat."

When Mellor, who had about nine drinks that day, aggressively approached Komyakevich, the bartender stepped in. "Ron was trying to get around me -- it was like football," recalled Peretto. "It was like I was an offensive lineman. At one point, Ron said, 'Let me get around you, I swear I won't cold-cock him.' And John sat there looking at the TV and talking. I said, 'John, shut up.'"

Eventually, Komyakevich, who didn't have anything to drink that night, instructed Peretto to call the police. Mellor left. Rather than dial 911, the bartender locked the back door. "Ron seemed determined," Peretto said. "I thought he might come back. But a gun? I never thought that was possible. Fists? Oh yeah. Maybe even a knife. But not a gun."

Peretto told me the rest of the story. Ten minutes later, the six-foot-two, gray-haired Mellor returned through the unlocked front door, walked determinedly down the bar toward Komyakevich and lifted his silver-colored Smith and Wesson 9mm pistol.

"John!" Peretto warned.

But it was too late.

"Ron started shooting in a very methodical way," Peretto told me. "It was bang ... bang ... bang ... bang."

The first shot hit the bar but missed Komyakevich, who rose up from his stool to see Mellor coming at him. The second shot seemed to hit the Russian in the stomach. Komyakevich grasped his side and let out a scream of horror and pain, then turned and made a break for the back door. With cold determination, Mellor kept walking and firing the pistol, the bullets piercing Komyakevich's back.

The manager collapsed before he made it to the locked exit. He never had a chance. Mellor stood over him and fired his gun one last time. A chip in the rock tile floor still marks the spot made by the bullet.

Mellor shot seven times, hitting his target with five bullets, according to police.

"After Ron was done, he turned around and he had a smirk on his face, like he was looking for a reaction," Peretto said. "It was like he was fulfilling something, he was defending what he believed in. I felt that he believed he was doing the right thing."

Without a word, Mellor walked out of the bar, climbed into his gray 1989 Cadillac, and drove to the nearby house on J Street where he lived alone. He laid the gun, which still had a bullet in the chamber and eight more in the 18-round magazine, on his television set and calmly called 911. He told the dispatcher that he'd just killed a man "over the war," according to police reports. Lake Worth detectives arrived and, without incident, booked Mellor into the Palm Beach County Jail, where he remains on a first-degree murder charge.

"He was on a mission," Peretto said. "He was a Marine. He was a trained killer and he was on a mission."

The patrons I spoke with during my visit last week described Mellor as a man who would drink and argue incessantly, as if he had a war raging in his very being. They said he had particular scorn for immigrants and liberals.

But Frank Mace, a regular at Margarita's who witnessed the shooting, said he didn't think the shooting had anything to do with Iraq. Having known Mellor for more than a decade, he said it was just a stupid act by an angry drunk. "He did what he did because it was the last bar in town to get kicked out of," Mace angrily told me. "This had nothing to do with the war, but you'll write whatever you want to make up anyway."

Peretto quietly disagreed.

"This was a political assassination," the bartender said bluntly. "There is no question about it. The really sad thing is that Ron became, in that moment, exactly like Saddam Hussein."

If Mellor was a man of war, Komyakevich was the opposite, a man who loved peace, hated violence, and abhorred guns. Everyone I met at Margarita's, without fail, told me he was a good-hearted person. He often cheerfully bought the house a round of Russian vodkas. He'd been in America for 12 years and married a Russian woman here named Marina. He worked a series of jobs before recently landing the post at Margarita's, which is Russian-owned.

The media gave scant attention to the slaying. Both the Palm Beach Post and the Sun-Sentinel ran 300-word stories inside their local sections. The coverage was so superficial that both papers misspelled Komyakevich's name as "Conykevich" (the error was first made in police reports). The only reporter who has looked at the case in any depth is Yury Slobodenyuk, a freelance journalist in Miami who knew Komyakevich. But his work has been only for a Rus- sian audience. Slobodenyuk told me that he found a terrible irony in his friend's death.

"When the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan in 1979, I opposed it," he said. "But because I had a family, I had to keep silent about it. I would have been put in prison. Why do you think we like this country? Because of freedom, freedom of speech. We knew we were protected by the Constitution of the United States, which we respect and love. Unfortunately, this cost John his life. Somebody took both judgment and execution into his own hands, all in ten minutes."

Sitting at the end of the bar the night I visited Margarita's was Serge Maguaire, a 44-year-old Frenchman. Like many of his countrymen, Maguaire opposes this war, but he's far from a pacifist. From 1977 to 1982, he was a commando in the French military. His father served in Vietnam. He said he supported the first Gulf War so strongly that he considered re-enlisting. But the new Iraq war is different.

"The French see what can happen out of this war," he said in his thick accent. "They know it will be misery all over the world because of this. Sometimes we laugh at it. We know our wine will survive all of this."

Maguaire, who works as head waiter at the Palm Beach restaurant Café Cellini, heard the news of Komyakevich's death the day after it happened. "I kept cool and just talked to my wife about it," he recalled. "Then I collapsed. I just fell down. I was shocked. A hate crime had happened in my neighborhood. My best friend was shot. He touched my soul within the first few hours, the first few days, of meeting him. His inside reality was like mine."

Another Komyakevich comrade, James Keiffer, told me that the murder has changed him. "After what happened, I don't talk to people about politics or religion," said Keiffer, a 40-year-old maintenance man. His eyes watered up. "And it's hard to talk about him, because I always end up crying. You have to understand, John had a good heart. He was just a good guy. I disagreed with him about some political stuff, but it didn't mean anything. We were still good friends. I've been devastated."

Keiffer, a kindly and unassuming man, was spared the trauma of witnessing the murder -- he left the bar that night before it happened. He said he felt badly for Mellor, but wasn't all that surprised that the man exploded in violence: "He could argue about anything -- no matter what it was, he would argue about it."

Keiffer said he supports the war, especially since some of his relatives will likely be deployed to Iraq. "Saddam has been torturing his own people for 20 years," he said.

Peretto interjected: "I'm not saying you're wrong, I'm just saying that you are watching corporate news. There's a whole lot more going on with this war than a lot of people know."

Soon thereafter, Peretto poured a round of Stolichnaya vodka shots -- filled to the trembling brim -- for those in the bar. I joined in the toast, which was led by Keiffer: "Here's to John. Good soul, good friend."

A woman named Amy drank the shot and then quietly wept.

Toward the end of the night, another patron, Gary Flowers, walked in and learned for the first time what had happened. "Oh my God, I can't believe this," Flowers said, putting his head down on the bar. "He treated me like gold every time I came in here."

Then Flowers, with tears in his eyes, said he wished that the United States would just blow up all of Baghdad. That way, it would end the war and save Americans from turmoil and death. "Kill them all," he said. "They need the big one like Nagasaki or Hiroshima. Kill them all."

I asked Flowers if he really wanted to kill millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of innocent children.

"No," he said. "As a matter of fact, I didn't even want Bush to start this thing. I was against it. But now that it's started, we have to finish it. I didn't want any of this to happen at all."

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