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Richard Baumhammers' Latvian universe

Sunday, May 14, 2000

By Andres Martinez, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

RIGA, Latvia -- In the early hours of April 7, 1999, Richard S. Baumhammers checked into one of Riga's finest hotels, prostitute in tow.

 
Richard S. Baumhammers kept an apartment in this building in Riga, Latvia, to use while visiting his family's native land. (Special to the Post-Gazette) 

He checked out a few hours later, alone. Sometime earlier, his new acquaintance had slinked away with all his cash.

This is one of a few stories about Baumhammers making the rounds in Riga, a testament to one American's lack of success with the local women.

Baumhammers kept a relatively low profile during his extended visits to Riga, so low that among the tight-knit community of expatriates here to exploit the opportunities created by the birth of a market economy -- and to party hard at such Old Town bars as Paddy Whelan and Dickens -- Baumhammers' name and photograph draws mostly a blank.

It's easy to see why Baumhammers, who spent a great deal of time in Riga over the past three years, was smitten with the city.

Despite some Soviet architectural scars, Riga is an enchanting, 800-year-old trading city, proud of its heritage as an old Hanseatic port. Riga stands at the crossroads of history, where Russian, Scandinavian, Germanic and other European cultures meet. It all adds to the charm of the place. Riga is a St. Petersburg, a Stockholm and a Budapest all rolled up into one.

Baumhammers first appears to have spent a significant amount of time in Riga in 1997.

In that year he lived in an apartment on fashionable Kr. Barona Avenue, a mere block away from where his grandparents had lived in the mid-1930s. He acquired his Latvian citizenship, and went about seeking to regain some of the family's properties lost during the Soviet occupation. He made a claim under Latvia's de-nationalization process, but he was too late. Any claim needed to be filed by 1996.

He also had a lot of fun and talked of various business schemes. Riga promised both a never-ending foreign escapade and a second shot at professional success.

The fact that the Department of Citizenship and Immigration has no record of Baumhammers applying for a resident permit -- which he would have had to do as a noncitizen for any stay over 90 days -- also suggests that 1997 was the first year he spent time in Riga.

 
 
Richard S. Baumhammers'
Latvian Universe

Love of freedom, bravery characterize Baumhammers' family history


Latvians deal uneasily with history, independence

   
 

Kristine, a pleasant Latvian woman in her 30s with piercing eyes and a hearty laugh, spent some time with Baumhammers that year.

"He seemed so excited to be in Riga, and wanted to make the most of it," she said over an Aldaris beer. It took some prodding to get her to talk. "I just can't believe someone I knew could have done such a horrible thing," she said after hearing about the details of the Pittsburgh shootings.

Baumhammers met Kristine and some of her friends at a boating party. Baumhammers was with another American with whom he shared the apartment at Kr. Barona.

"Dan and Richard were clearly interested in meeting Latvian girls above all else," said another woman, a striking 27-year-old professional, "and it was clear that Dan would be the more successful of the two."

Baumhammers' eagerness to meet local women became sort of a joke among those in his circle. "We would tease each other about who would get stuck talking to him," says a third woman, who came across him in Riga. None of the women wanted to be identified.

It wasn't that he behaved improperly or showed any signs of mental distress or violence. Nobody can recall Baumhammers ever saying anything particularly interesting.

"Awkward" is a word often used to describe Baumhammers social skills.

"You know how it is, whenever you get eight or 10 people together to go out, there's usually one oddball; and in our case, that was Richard," said George Naruns, a St. Petersburg, Fla., chiropractic neurologist who also spent time with Baumhammers in Riga, and cut him some slack as a fellow Pittsburgher. Naruns grew up in Ben Avon.

"Some nights we'd be out at a nightclub and he'd be with us one night, gone the next, without saying good-bye or anything," Naruns remembers. "But it was nothing extreme, and I never saw any signs of violent behavior from him, certainly nothing like what we read about in France."

Baumhammers was arrested last fall by French police for striking a female bartender. But police in Riga have nothing on Baumhammers in their records. He never ran into any trouble with the law -- nor did he report his victimization at the hands of an untrustworthy prostitute.

Kristine is one of the few people who recalls Baumhammers being talkative. But again, not very interesting.

"We would go out to restaurants and he would talk on and on about foods he liked and stuff, but he didn't seem able to talk about deeper topics," she said. The fact that he loved Asian food now takes on a macabre irony, since two of his victims were gunned down in a Chinese restaurant.

By all accounts, he showed no particular interest in the local political scene. And though he didn't talk much about his business in Riga, Kristine remembers his talking excitedly about obtaining his citizenship.

"I remember this, because I was a little shocked about how easy it was for him, because I know there are a lot of people here who can't get a passport," she explained. "And you know, there was absolutely nothing Latvian about Richard, and he only spoke a few words of the language."

Kristine had no interest in a romantic relationship with Baumhammers, and politely declined his offer to "come up for some coffee" after a couple of their dinners.

But they did play tennis at the resort town of Jurmala, a 20-minute train ride away, and lingered on the beach.

One reason she liked spending time with him -- and this is something he would not have had going for him in Mt. Lebanon, where he lived with his parents -- is that it offered her an opportunity to practice her English. Conversely, she helped him with some of the travails of life in a foreign land.

Once, Kristine was called upon to help Baumhammers rescue his card when it was devoured by an ATM machine; another time, she helped him pick up a parcel at the post office.

"But really, we had little in common and he stopped calling sometime late in 1997, I believe," she said.

She believes Baumhammers was the first person in his family to visit Latvia after its independence. Coming seven years after that historical watershed, this was not the impassioned pilgrimage of someone who had held a vigil for his captive motherland, but more of a delayed reaction -- so delayed he could no longer file a proper claim for family properties lost in the Soviet era.

Several people told the Post-Gazette that Baumhammers was bitter about his parents' failure to place greater priority on preserving their Latvian heritage. Baumhammers had only distant relatives still in the country, on his mother's side of the family. Records at a hotel in Old Town show that Baumhammers' mother, Inese, spent almost a week in Riga last July, though it is unclear whether her son was in Latvia at the time.

Friends were mystified as to how Baumhammers supported himself. He came and went as he pleased and never seemed to want for anything. Then there is the matter of treating himself to hired companionship, and throwing in a night at a posh hotel, too, when he already had a place to stay.

Simply by virtue of being an American in Latvia, a country where annual per capita income has yet to reach $5,000, you could be somebody -- by spreading dollars around, if nothing else.

When he first arrived in Riga, Baumhammers must have thought he could make it big. He talked of getting a job at a prestigious accounting firm or of teaching law at the university.

At the American Chamber of Commerce's May luncheon, Raymond L. Slaidins, a Latvian-American corporate lawyer, recalled interviewing Baumhammers for a job several years ago. Slaidins recalled the name upon hearing of the shootings in Pittsburgh. But Baumhammers seemed not to have made much of an impression; Slaidins could not recall anything specific about him. And he never saw him again.

J.C. Cole, the chamber's president and a real estate investor in Riga, makes it his business to know Americans who come through town, and he draws a blank. So did the other attendees to the luncheon.

It may not be surprising that Baumhammers didn't socialize with this foreign elite; they would have been a reminder of his life back home, perhaps even of his professional failure. Most of these expats are sent to Latvia by companies; they don't just show up looking for a job. These are people who wouldn't quite know what to make of a straggler.

Baumhammers was not well known among returned emigres, who form a more integrated pseudo-expat establishment in Riga. When Latvia regained its independence a decade ago, people poured back in from the vast diaspora in North America and Australia. Second-generation Latvians were eager to help rebuild a new society from the ground floor, or simply to make a quick buck. The Latvian government offered them citizenship and wooed them for their Western know-how.

Though there are many talented individuals who fall under the category, the honeymoon between Latvia and all its departed children could not last. The expectations were too high on both sides.

"You had on the one hand people coming in hoping to find the Latvia of timeless folk songs, with flowers in their hair, who soon discovered this was not their idealized promised land," said Sandra Medearis, editor of the The Baltic Times. "On the other hand, it soon dawned on the Latvians that maybe their returning countrymen were not necessarily those who had made it big in America or Australia."

Among non-Latvians, Medearis has seen some stragglers come for any number of reasons.

"You have no idea how many calls I get from men in places like Nebraska telling me that they are lonely and asking whether they can find a nice Latvian woman if they come over," she said with a good-natured chuckle. That explains the list of marriage agencies in Riga's tourist brochures. None of them had heard of Baumhammers.

Having difficulty fitting into the either truly foreign crowd or the truly committed returned emigres, Baumhammers kept mostly to himself. To the extent that he socialized, he seems to have felt most comfortable spending time with native Latvians, and a few passing Latvian-Americans.

He reportedly taught some English classes and had a number of entrepreneurial projects in mind. Professional photographer Karen Oganyan, who met Baumhammers once over a drink last year at one of Riga's inviting outdoor cafes, remembers him talking about building middle-class housing. But it is unclear whether this was anything more than an idea; he never registered a business in Latvia.

Andrejs Sprogis remembers running into Baumhammers at nightclubs in 1998. His assessment: "The guy was totally unremarkable in every way. He would just sit there watching people, maybe talking a little, but he was never up or down, always the same, never even drunk," said Sprogis, who is the furniture business.

Sprogis also remembers that Baumhammers had sought the number of an escort.

"It's one thing for an old man, but it's really pathetic for a young guy from the States to have to turn to prostitutes," he said.

He could not recall Baumhammers ever being violent.

"The Richard I knew was anything but violent or racist, though he was a little weird in his own Teddy-bearish way," said a Latvian-American who also spent time with Baumhammers in Riga. "What happened was an incredible shock."

Only George Naruns saw, at least via e-mail, signs of paranoia.

Naruns was back in the U.S. in late 1997 when he heard from mutual friends that Baumhammers, who was still in Riga, had mentioned that he was being watched, by Naruns among others. In a subsequent e-mail exchange, when Naruns chided him for saying such things, Baumhammers typed: "How much are they paying you?"

Thinking Baumhammers had to be kidding, Naruns asked him just what he did that deserved to be watched. Baumhammers seriously replied something about traveling to a lot of different places.

"At this point I told him if he really believed that I was watching him, then he should get help for his paranoia."


Free-lance writer Nil Ushakov contributed to this report.



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