Gone in a Flash
The same could be said of Svetlana Aronov, 44, ever since she took her parents' cocker spaniel for a walk and vanished from a busy New York City street in broad daylight. At first, police had precious few clues to work with: The Aronovs seemed a perfectly happy couple with two wonderful children and two thriving careers, his as a doctor and hers as a dealer in rare books and lithographs. But once investigators started digging, the perfect couple came undone; it was reported that Svetlana had had an affair with a Manhattan lawyer and that her husband had been unfaithful too. And while New York City police have not officially announced any suspects, someone with knowledge of the investigation has now told PEOPLE that there is at least a strong working theory of what happened. Police suspect that Alexander Aronov, 45, owed money to the Russian mafia, which then pressured him to open a medical office in Brooklyn to run phony insurance scams. When Alexander refused, mobsters somehow lured his wife into a car and, police believe, murdered her to send a message.
Alexander, who police say is not considered a suspect, insists he has "absolutely zero connection" to the Russian mob and says the theory about his wife's disappearance "is such a total lie. There is not even a grain of truth." But the police source says Aronov is "denying it because he's scared." More conventional theories, such as a kidnapping, are even harder to believe. "I doubt anyone is going to be abducted off the street at that time of day in that area," says NYPD Lt. James O'Keefe, commander of the detective squad in charge of the investigation. Nor do police suspect the lawyer who was allegedly involved with Svetlana of wrongdoing. And no one who knows Sveta, as she is called, believes she would have simply walked away from her life. "She is devoted to her husband and daughters," says her friend Victoria Zubkina. "Her family is her No. 1 priority."
Zubkina and other friends also agree that, despite bumps in their marriage, things were lately going well for the Aronovs, who met at a party in St. Petersburg in the former Soviet Union in 1976. "There was an attraction from the first sight," says Alexander, then a medical student (Sveta was majoring in English at a teacher's college). They married in 1978 and two years later had a daughter, Polina, now 22. After Alexander finished his medical studies in Italy, they settled in New York City, where in 1998 he started his own internal medicine practice.
The couple seemed to live an idyllic life. They bought a second home in the Hamptons, took weekend ski trips and entertained frequently. But Olga Dolgicer concedes that Alexander "did slip a few times; he had affairs." Dolgicer says that about two years after their daughter Veronica was born in 1994, Sveta began suspecting her husband of seeing another woman. It was then, adds Dolgicer, that Sveta began seeing an attorney she had consulted about her business. "She sort of did it to show 'I can do this also,'" says Dolgicer. Both Alexander and Sveta ended their relationships and, say friends, became a stronger couple.
Early on March 3, Sveta drove Veronica to school on Manhattan's Upper East Side and dropped Alexander off at a subway station. Around noon she phoned her husband. "She reminded me to come home as soon as I finished," says Alexander. That evening he was to watch Veronica while Sveta picked up her father, who was returning from a trip to Russia.
She never made it. Carrying only a cell phone and house keys and with her parents' cocker spaniel Bim in tow, Sveta was seen leaving her apartment around 2:30 p.m. That night Alexander came home to find Sveta's father waiting in the lobby—she had failed to pick him up. Alexander went to the building's garage and saw their Jeep Cherokee still parked there. He reported Sveta missing around 10 p.m.
In the weeks that followed, her friends and family distributed fliers, created a Web site and offered a $25,000 reward. Polina, who works in the fashion industry, has helped take care of her little sister in their mother's absence. As for Veronica, "She keeps telling us, 'When Mommy comes back we're going to have a huge party,'" says Victoria Zubkina, "'and we'll invite all the policemen.'"
Alexander Aronov can only dream of such a day. He also knows there is a good chance the mystery of his wife's disappearance will not be solved by the time their 25th wedding anniversary rolls around next month. "We are hopeful," he says solemnly. "Not everybody is, but we are."
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