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The fourth-ever episode of the long-running "true crime" show Snapped introduces "a twisted tale of sex, betrayal, and cold-blooded murder." Elena Kiejliches, a Russian immigrant, was convicted for the murder of her husband, Boris Kiejliches, in 2002. Elena maintains that she did not kill Boris; she has been incarcerated for the past 21 years and will be up for parole in 2024.
The salacious details of Elena's case—the affair, the money, the manner in which Boris's body was found—made it perfect fodder for New York tabloids and, by extension, Snapped.
Each episode of the show incorporates the same familiar tropes. The dramatic underscore, the cheeky voice-over narration, and the tagline, "And then… she snapped," are all part of the sensationalist—and overtly sexist—formula that has made Snapped a mainstay of the "true crime" genre. Since its premiere in 2004, Snapped has only become more popular, spawning two spin-off shows, and an ardent network of fans, podcasts, and even merchandise. Its success inspired Oxygen to rebrand itself as a "true crime" network in 2017.
But this boom took off a world apart from Elena. She hasn't seen the episode of Snapped for which she was interviewed in 2004, or the episode of a Canadian show called Pretty Dangerous, for which she was interviewed again in 2008. She wasn't aware of the "true crime" podcast episodes about her case, or the clunky dramatic reenactment on a series called Behind Mansion Walls. She didn't know that her case was featured on an episode of another Oxygen show, New York Homicide, in October, or that she was a subject in a book called "Evil Wives."
"What's true in true crime, is that somebody's dead. That's the only truth," Elena told me. "Everything they write, they twist and turn so you don't even recognize yourself. The way they present you, you don't even know who that person is."
"True crime" is tricky territory, a nonfiction genre overlayed with the structures of fiction. As a playwright and dramaturg, I understand that writers must make narrative choices to tell a compelling story; but as a journalist writing about crime and prison, I also question the reflexive way in which those choices are made.
A mutual friend put me in touch with Elena because of her appearance on Snapped. I wasn't so much interested in the details of her case as I was in how the show chose to portray Elena. And I wondered why she would sanction that portrayal with an interview.
I first wrote to Elena in June 2022. When she responded, I asked her to collaborate on this piece. I wasn't investigating her, and given my issues with Snapped, I felt it was important that Elena have some say in how her story was presented—even as I knew that her byline would create its own perception.
"Oh boy, you got yourself a complicated co-writer," Elena wrote back. While she liked the idea of us working together, the logistics of doing so were trickier. We considered exchanging handwritten letters—prison emails offer their own headaches—but it came down to this: Elena is far more comfortable speaking English than writing it, so for the next one and a half years, over dozens of phone calls and five in-person visits, we talked about her family, her upbringing, and why she agreed to be on this fledgling docu-series in the first place.
Elena first invited me to visit her at the Taconic Correctional Facility in upstate New York last July. She sat next to me at one of the round tables in the cafeteria-style visiting room and insisted on serving me my portion of bagged Cheez-Its and fruit snacks on my own Styrofoam plate. She speaks in definitives; her smoky voice has just enough gravel to imply authority. "Putin," she once told me, over a wilting vending machine salad, "is a small-dick man." Elena is rarely short of opinions.
When I tried to ask her questions about her experience being interviewed for Snapped via email, she put "experience" in dismissive quotation marks. When I followed up in person, I said I had seen her episode of Snapped before I reached out, and I wanted to know her story. She just rolled her eyes and sighed.
"You people," she said."You people say 'story.' But it's not a story. It's a life."
After 12 years of seeing false narratives play out about him on The First 48, Demetrius Buckley calls out true crime for what it really is: exploitation that reruns peoples' worst moments for profit.
The words "true crime" conceal the fact that this content is heavily produced, made from a host of competing accounts that coalesce to form what historians call "the dominant narrative." Our brains, unable to process the complexity of real-life events, seek one definitive version of the truth. But dominant narratives often support dominant ideas about race, sexuality, gender, and class. In doing so, they are a lens that can profoundly limit what we see—while reinforcing stereotypes we already hold.
The tone of shows like Snapped, which feature women convicted of murder, creates a comforting buffer against the real-life tragedies at its core. It also reinforces the notion that if you are convicted of a crime, you give up your story for public consumption in whatever format is the most exhilarating.
"I started getting all these creepy letters, like: 'Oh, I saw your case on ID channel with my girlfriend,'" Elena told me. On one of our phone calls, she read to me one from a man who had seen the Behind Mansion Walls episode. "I love women that cheat on their husbands and have sexy, bad boyfriends," he wrote.
"Some people were coming to see me," Elena continued. "I saw one guy. I was just curious. He basically… he thought that I was gonna, you know, snap. That's what he thinks I am."
Producers of Snapped, which just wrapped its 32nd season, attribute the show's enduring appeal to the quality of its storytelling—"the most compelling characters with the craziest stories… that's just what's baked into the concept of the show from episode one," producer Todd Moss said in 2020.
"True crime" stories discretely shape the way we think of people who commit violent acts—particularly women. Scholars have argued that we frame stories about women's violence in ways that reinforce our ideas, both cultural and personal, about what a woman is, or should be. Women who kill are abnormal; their biological defects make them greedy for more than what they are supposed to have. They are vengeful, sexual deviants; a slave to their uncontrollable desires. Their emotions supersede their natural roles as a loving mother and obedient wife—and they snap.
On Snapped, Elena is described as a "poor little girl from Moscow," who endured a difficult childhood. Elena's own recollections of her upbringing are a bit more complex.
She described her early childhood to me as "beautiful." There were annual trips to the Black Sea and to Kyiv to visit her mother's family. There were wild strawberries that grew in such abundance that picking them felt illicit, given the general scarcity of life in the USSR. This scarcity became more apparent to her as she got older, Elena said.
"My mother loved me, but I don't think she really knew how to run a household," she told me. "She was just a young, beautiful girl from Kyiv; a Jew, who was brought to a different atmosphere, to Moscow. That town was like a different country to her. My father was a good-hearted man, a good person, but he was average. Like go to work, come back, walk the dog, and go to sleep. Watch a little TV."
She continued: "It's very, very rude to say this about your parents who passed away, but in terms of surviving that country and that life, they were basically losers. They were stealing a little here, and stealing a little there—because you really couldn't survive on your paycheck."
But it was never enough, Elena said. "When I got a little older, like around 17, I was bringing them food."
Early on, she told me, it was clear that she would need to hustle to survive. The parallels to her current situation are not lost on her. "My country, or my ex-country, was a big jail. A huge jail, where you weren't supposed to do certain things. And if you did them, you would get punished. But there was no way for people to survive there unless they were going to break the rules."
Elena was in college in Moscow when she met Boris, who was over a decade older. He was working as a bartender at an American-style pizza place. In her interview on Snapped, Elena says she was in awe of him: "I never met a man like this in my life."
The episode introduces Elena as "a beautiful Russian emigre," and Boris as a "wealthy oligarch" and "emerging capitalist." A forensic psychologist comes on screen and explains what it means to be poor and then suddenly, not poor. Such a person, the psychologist says with solemn authority, "might be willing to do more to get what they need."
Boris certainly became wealthy, but this was not always the case. When the two moved to Poland in 1988, Elena told me, they shared a bed so small that Boris held her hand while they slept so she wouldn't fall on the floor. They went into business together, selling electronics in the chaos of the Soviet Union's fall. They immigrated to the U.S. in 1992, when Elena was eight months pregnant with their first child.
For the 5 million people with an incarcerated parent, prison dramas depict everything but the hard realities of blame and closure families face.
At the time of the murder, Boris and Elena were living with their two young children in a wealthy Staten Island neighborhood called Todt Hill. But Boris frequently traveled to Moscow, where he had a lucrative business selling aviation fuel. It was dangerous. A former financial advisor for the family who appears on Snapped claims that eight of Boris's partners had been killed by the Russian mob. But Elena, the narrator intones, "wasn't just worried" about her husband; "she was lonely."
A similar story was presented at Elena's trial. "From the beginning, my lawyers advised me to pursue this lie, like 'I am a little lonely wife because my husband is always leaving me for work, and I just needed attention,'" she said.
One of the prosecutors involved in her case appears on Snapped and describes Elena as "an immoral, cheating gold digger; bored with her overweight husband… ready to move on."
"They rush in and put their American perception on a family that is not American," Elena said.
Before the murder, Elena began having an affair with a 26-year-old Brooklynite named Messiah Justice. In Elena's telling, the relationship itself was less of a problem for Boris than the tens of thousands of dollars she gave to Messiah—particularly when she did not question what the money was for. Boris was angry because he felt Elena was being lied to and making him look bad in the process. But Elena says she identified with Messiah, whose life seemed a never-ending hustle. "Everybody discarded him," she said. "And that's why I helped him."
On April 25, 2000, Boris's body was found in a cardboard barrel in a marsh near the Brooklyn-Queens border. He had been killed a month earlier by a gunshot to the back of his head.
Snapped describes the killing as a "Russian-style divorce."
"I live in the past," Elena told me recently. "Everything after March 2000 is nothing to me."
Elena was arrested and charged with Boris's murder. Messiah was also arrested and charged with hindering prosecution, tampering with evidence, and obstructing governmental administration. Dual accounts of the murder itself—"a classic case of he said/she said," Snapped says—played out at Elena's trial.
When I asked Elena if she regrets her appearance on Snapped, she said no.
"It's water under the bridge. It's over," she said. "I regret staying in the United States. I regret going on trial. I regret a lot of things, you know? I regret that I ever got to know that person, Messiah Justice. I regret more serious things. This is just an addition to other big regrets I have."
The filming of Snapped occurred at a pivotal moment in Elena's life. She had already been convicted and sentenced for Boris's murder, but she was still in court, fighting for visitation rights to see her children.
"Snapped contacted me, but I didn't know the show was called Snapped," Elena told me. This is plausible, given that Elena is featured in the show's first season. "I promise you, if I had known it, I would not have agreed to participate." She met the producers when they visited to arrange her interview with the staff at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the maximum-security prison where she was incarcerated at the time. "They just explained to me that they were gonna be asking questions and dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. And I said alright. Let's go."
The interviewer asked a lot of questions, she told me. "All the time they were asking questions. And we were talking for some time, I think it was definitely more than an hour." But that was it. "It was a one-day shoot," she said. "A one-day affair."
Producers she had met and worked with "never brought me the tape, or arranged a screening even though they knew that Bedford didn't have cable TV," she told me.
Her two young children—who will be called Max and Reagan in this article—were living in Florida with Boris's brother, whom I'll call Roman.
According to court documents, Roman had refused to let the children speak to their mother in prison, and Elena had filed a petition for telephone contact and visitation rights. Hearings for this trial began in 2003.
When Snapped asked Elena if she wanted anyone to appear on the show to speak in her defense, she offered her attorneys and a woman named Jeanette Baskin. Baskin was the court-appointed supervisor who sat in on Elena's weekend visits with Max and Reagan after she was arrested and during the murder trial—a period of about two years.
As of 2023, Baskin and Elena had been out of touch for about a decade, but I found her contact information and reached out over email. Baskin was hesitant to be interviewed, worried, she said, that dredging up memories of the case in print might harm Elena's now adult children.
I had been talking to Elena for over a year, I told her, but I wanted to see her through someone else's eyes. Baskin still seemed to have reservations—we only spoke over email—but she had more to say than I expected.
"Elena had very large plans for her children and education was very important to her," Baskin wrote. "She took the kids to the best restaurants, taught them to rollerblade, ride bikes, and eat Chinese food with chopsticks."
"I would honestly say that her children were the high point in her life and she wanted them to have everything," she wrote, adding of Messiah: "Elena made a huge mistake by bringing that criminal into their lives."
Baskin said that she spent 12 hours each weekend with Elena and her children and was required to file detailed reports for the court. "I sent reports to the court and it was not what the LG [Roman, the children's legal guardian] hoped for, as my reports were that she was a good mother, she knew when her kids were sad and they would easily tell her why; or if they were feeling ill, she would respond to their needs like there was nothing else going on in her life. She would smile, sing, play with, do homework, feed, shop. All the things a parent would do."
Baskin said she was disturbed by the zealousness with which Roman pursued cutting Elena out of the children's lives. In an extremely unusual twist, Baskin filed for custody of Elena's children herself. When I asked her why she did it, she said she wanted the court to know that there was more going on behind the scenes. "I never did anything like that before or since," Baskin wrote to me.
A Black mother exposes the greed and hypocrisy of the system that keeps her behind bars. "Though my children have grown up to be extraordinary young men, in society's eyes, they will always be statistics. We are much more than society's labels."
When I told Baskin that I was writing about Snapped, she said she didn't have a problem with the show.
"I found Snapped to be even-handed as they did not condemn her, and they chose people who were pro and unknown as to how they felt about her," she wrote. It was another "true crime" show featuring Elena's story that Baskin found "disgusting."
That show, Pretty Dangerous, aired in 2008. In it, her asides are interspersed with old photos of her in bikinis and clips of femme fatales from old movies. As the credits roll, two cops involved in her case laugh at Elena's defense; one says sarcastically, "Yeah, I guess we made a mistake."
Ultimately, Elena's petition to remain in contact with her children was denied. She has not seen or heard from them since 2004, but in the right mood, she will talk about them.
"Reagan was absolutely in love with music and dancing and everything. Max was very athletic," she told me of her children. "He swam. He swam perfectly. I took him to swimming classes because we had a pool inside the house. I was afraid that something could happen to him. By the way, I was doing it while I was pregnant with Reagan. We swam, both—I mean three of us! Reagan in my stomach, and me and Max."
"You know how sometimes children sit and fall asleep to programs? Look for something to watch? There was a chance that they would see me. That's all I was thinking," she said of why she had agreed to appear on Snapped. "What I cared about was that they would know that I still exist."