The Bulgarian Job

On a warm November day two years ago, a gold, '80s-model Mercedes sedan sped down Northern Avenue, jockeying through the thick lunchtime traffic. The driver, Atanas Ilkov, 18, was hurrying to pick up a friend at a car-repair shop when a police cruiser zoomed up behind him, lights flashing.

As Ilkov steered the sedan into a drugstore parking lot, an unmarked pickup truck pulled in behind the squad car. Seeing a plainclothes officer step out of the pickup and walk up to the Mercedes, the young man must have known this would be no ordinary traffic stop.

The uniformed officers let Detective Tom Britt of the Phoenix Police Department do all the talking.

Britt, a lean, muscular man in his 40s, admonished Ilkov for his poor driving, then held up a document consisting of a few sheets of paper. Britt asked if the document looked familiar.

Ilkov agreed that it did: The document was a copy of the three-page last will and testament of a Bulgarian immigrant who had died recently in Phoenix. The pages were handwritten in a messy scrawl of Cyrillic letters and a few English words, plus an attached translation in English that was signed by Ilkov.

It didn't look it, but the document — which had been filed with the Maricopa County Superior Court as official probate paperwork a month earlier, on October 5, 2005 — was potentially worth about $750,000.

And Britt believed it was as phony as a million-dollar bill.

Standing in the parking lot, Britt explained that the court, having no Bulgarian interpreters, had asked police to track down Ilkov to verify his translation.

The explanation was pure nonsense, but the kid didn't challenge it. Britt asked him if he knew Andrean "Andy" Andreev, the man who had filed the document in court.

"In response to this question, Ilkov seemed nervous and answered very hesitantly that he [did] not know Andrean Andreev," Britt would later write.

Ilkov, who speaks English without an accent, told Britt he had come to the United States from Bulgaria seven years earlier and translates documents written in Bulgarian from time to time.

Britt went on with his ruse, telling Ilkov that the court was concerned with the key part of the will — the part that describes who gets what.

The English translation of the will states clearly that Andreev, a man in his 50s who lives in Phoenix, is to receive the bulk of the estate of the deceased man, Ljuben "Louie" Gadzanov.

Britt, pretending to be ignorant of the foreign language, asked Ilkov to show him the corresponding Bulgarian words in the will. Britt would later write that the teenager looked at the handwritten document for a couple of minutes.

With traffic whooshing by on Dunlap Avenue, Ilkov pointed to some words near the end of the second page and said, "This is where it is."

Britt asked Ilkov if he was certain that this was the part that states: "I give to Andrean P. Andreev all of my personal belongings and real estate property."

Ilkov said he was certain, and he wrote his initials for Britt next to the Bulgarian words.

Britt had asked Ilkov a trick question.

The first page of the will had no match in Ilkov's translation. Only the latter half of his translation, the part that corresponded to the will's second page, was accurate.

No part of the document even implied that Andreev was to get all of Gadzanov's belongings. Any intelligent person could see — by simply comparing the English words, names, and numerals on the will's first page with its alleged English translation — that Ilkov's version didn't match.

The teenager's reactions seemed to Britt another sure sign that this so-called will was nothing but an amateurish forgery, a blatant attempt to lay false claim to a substantial estate.

The detective thanked the young man for his help, warned him about his unsafe driving, and let him go on his way.

Detective Britt hadn't mentioned that he knew Ilkov lived with his mother's boyfriend, Rumen Kocankov, who owned the Mercedes and was also a suspect in the alleged scheme. He hadn't mentioned he had interviewed Andreev and his wife, Ann — and, according to the cop, trapped them in lies.

Britt later reviewed his collection of evidence, which began with the unbelievable coincidence that Ljuben Gadzanov had supposedly drawn up and signed the unofficial-looking will in front of three witnesses late on the night of July 18, 2005 — as if he had known he would die of heart failure the next day.

Signs of a swindle appeared everywhere: The backgrounds and questionable behavior of the people involved, the dash to collect the deceased man's valuables, the convoluted stories, the out-and-out lies.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.