Finally, the feds have their guy.
A year after all the other pawns in this criminal enterprise were arrested and carted off to jail – alluring young women from Eastern Europe and the allegedly Russian-mob-affiliated men who were the masterminds behind it – now the last remaining pawn has made what looks to have been a really stupid move on his part: Re-entering the U.S.
Only he’s not a pawn. He just may be their king. In which case, CHECKMATE!
In case you missed it, here’s the story of what a fugitive con man did to get all of them
Mind you – this is only speculation – but some conjecture that Alec Simchuk, as incredulous as it is, somehow thought that the coast was clear and that slipping into the U.S. last week, despite being listed as a fugitive from American justice, would be a cinch.
But might he, as the other conjectured scenario has it, instead have been lured back into the country? Perhaps, in the same way that the feds lured 16 others in his criminal scheme back to Miami last year, before storming the South Beach nightclub where they had converged one evening for what they thought was a birthday party, slapping the cuffs on them all, and stashing them into paddy wagons for a ride to the downtown federal detention center?
Whichever way it happened, Simchuk was rudely greeted with handcuffs and a ride to the same detention center once he walked off an arriving flight at Miami International Airport last Thursday afternoon, the last major figure to be cuffed and stuffed in an audacious criminal scam that involved alluring young women, expensive liquor, very exclusive nightclubs, a trail of pocket-plucked male victims, and – perhaps even? – the Russian mob.
An “international criminal organization,” the FBI called it. The federal indictment listed several men and one woman – most of whom originated from Eastern Europe and have Slavic names but all of whom also had homes scattered throughout South Florida, from Palm Beach to Miami Beach.
They were the owners and operators of a half-dozen private South Beach clubs, using “Bar Girls,” or “B-Girls,” recruited from Eastern Europe, to lure out-of-town businessmen and tourists from legitimate nightclubs to their own clubs, where the victims were then sucked dry of their money by exorbitant price-gouging for the liquor they ordered and sometimes did not order.
“Our local economy depends, in large part, on tourism,” U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer announced after the group’s April 2011 bust. “This scheme preyed on our tourists and gave our tourism industry a black eye. We are pleased to have put this ring out of operation.”
Its organizers brought the B-Girls to the United States and rented apartments for the girls during their stay here.
Some were trained in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states while working at similar clubs operated by the organization. The girls also recruited and trained other B-Girls overseas.
The girls would enter the country through the U.S. visa waiver program, typically obtaining permission to enter the country by submitting an online application to the Department of Homeland Security’s electronic system for travel authorization, which determines the eligibility of visitors desiring to travel to the U.S. under the visa waiver program.
On their applications, the B-Girls lied and declared that they were not entering the country for any criminal or immoral purpose, nor to seek employment.
Once in South Florida, the girls were hired to “hunt” in pairs for victims at legitimate Miami Beach clubs, working between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Suitable victims were sought out on the basis of their appearance and age. The girls’ ideal targets? Wealthy males, preferably tourists or traveling businessman, who would be the least likely to come back into the club after discovering how much had been charged to them. Is he sporting an expensive watch or shoes? Zero in on him, the perfect target.
After introducing themselves, two B-Girls would lure the victim back to one of the organization’s clubs. The clubs were not open to the general public; they operated solely as a front for the fraud. The girls would pretend not to be affiliated with the club, and would either order, or encourage their victim to order, bottles of wine and champagne from another B-Girl posing as the bartender or manager.
The victim would often not be told the price of the alcohol he was ordering, or would be told an incorrect price. The B-Girls would continue to order more bottles, often without the man’s knowledge, and on occasion would surreptitiously pour out the drinks and bottles into plants and ice buckets so that more drinks could be ordered.
The managers and bartenders at the clubs made sure to obtain the victim’s credit card and driver’s license, making copies of them on scanners. Sometimes they would take pictures of the man with the girls at the clubs or record them on surveillance videos.
The victim would then be charged an exorbitant amount for the ordered alcohol – as much as $5,000 for bottles of wine or champagne which cost the club anywhere from $5-$100. The bar managers and bartenders would charge the victim’s credit card, typically one bottle at a time, to prevent “maxing out” the card.
It would be common practice of the managers to charge at least one cent difference for each bottle in order to eliminate the appearance of accidental double charges to the card.
To what extent the victim’s credit card would be fraudulently debited would depend on the victim’s response. Some men were so intoxicated by the drinks forced upon them that they could not stand and were not competent enough to sign the credit card receipts. In that case, the men were propped up by the B-Girls long enough to obtain their signatures on them.
In most cases, the bartender or manager would explain to the victim that he agreed to purchase the liquor and that the bar had surveillance video of him ordering it. Pay the bill, he would be told, or the police will be called and the guest arrested.
If necessary, the bar would call Miami Beach police officers to the scene at which point the victim would pay the bill or face arrest. Because Florida’s Innkeepers Law requires patrons disputing a bill to pay the bill, a police officer would inform the victim that his choices would be to either settle the bill and handle the dispute through the credit card company, or be arrested.
Occasionally, the club conspirators would forge signatures on credit card receipts or run card charges through without authorization.
B-Girls would receive approximately 20% of the bill to be split between the pair of them. Managers, who usually worked in pairs also, would typically receive 10% each.
If a victim challenged the charge with their credit card company, the clubs would provide copies of the signed receipts, driver’s license, and on occasion, photos with the girls as proof that the man was responsible for the charges – all in order to avoid charge-backs against their merchant account.
The Organization Is Infiltrated
In August 2010, an undercover agent – actually, a local cop – was able to infiltrate the organization. He posed as a corrupt cop working off-duty as a bouncer/doorman. He worked from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. at the club.
B-Girl Marina instructed him to keep out customers who were not accompanied by the girls, pretend not to know the B-Girls by checking their IDs whenever they entered the club, and to identify himself as an officer or to contact the police if it was necessary to guarantee that the male victims paid their bills.
The undercover cop won the confidence and trust of the organization’s bosses and B-Girls, who believed he was corrupt and would maintain the façade that the organization was maintaining. Not only did he enforce the Innkeeper’s Law but he provided security for the B-Girls.
Part of his duties would be to drive the girls from their homes to the organization’s clubs and to legitimate bars and clubs in the city to find victims. In this way he was able to witness firsthand the organization’s operations and, in conversations with its members, learn in detail about the fraud and the extent of their involvement in it. He was also able to audio- and video-tape many conversations as well as goings-on at the clubs.
The organization operated at least six Miami Beach clubs:
- Caviar Bar, 643 Washington Ave. (from approximately Feb. to May 2010)
- Stars Lounge, 643 Washington Ave. (from approximately Aug. to Oct. 2010)
- A room at Club Moreno, 1341 Washington Ave. (from approximately Oct. to Dec. 2010)
- Nowhere Bar, 653 Washington Ave. (from approximately Dec. 2010 to mid-Jan. 2011)
- Steel Toast, 758 Washington Ave. (from approximately early Jan. to April 2011)
- Tangia Club, 841 Washington Ave. (from approximately late Jan. to April 2011)
Caviar was operated primarily by Simchuk and Stanislav “Stan” Pavlenko. Listed at that address was a company called Rose Entertainment, incorporated in October 2009.
In February 2010, Miami Beach issued a liquor license to Rose Entertainment, in care of Pavlenko. That month he filed documents for Caviar listing himself as the owner. Rose Entertainment opened an account at Wachovia Bank the following month. Pavlenko opened at least one of the merchant accounts for Caviar Bar.
Rude Awakening: A Painting and a $43,000 Tab
John Bolaris, a former Philadelphia TV weatherman, was one of those defrauded at Caviar.
During the evening of March 28, 2010, he was approached at the Delano Hotel by two B-Girls, Marina and Anna. The federal prosecutors’ affidavit describes what happened
JB drink some wine with the females then was given one shot of alcohol and became woozy. His fuzzy recollection was of people physically holding him up at an unknown location and having him sign something three times. He awoke the next day in his hotel room with an unknown painting and missing cash and items. [He] received a voice mail at his hotel room from [Marina] who said the females inadvertently took his sunglasses. [She] confirmed [he] purchased the painting the previous night but agreed to meet him to return property they claim was unintentionally taken. The females took him to the Caviar Bar where he again became woozy after some drinks and found himself later back in his hotel. [He] learned a few days later that his American Express credit card had been charged illegally without his authorization – five times on March 28 for a total of $16,517.37 and 7 times on March 29 for a total of $27,194.88. Each charge was for approximately $2,000-$4,000 and most were for one bottle of alcohol. [He] was also charged $2,480 in one transaction for a painting. [He] disputed the charges with his credit card company.
The affidavit then states that Pavlenko had provided to the credit card company photos of Bolaris embracing the girls inside Caviar, plus copies of his driver’s license.
Bolaris, according to the affidavit, continued to dispute the charges –
…noting that he does not carry his driver’s license when he goes out and believes it was taken from his hotel room and that he was drugged by the females.
Almost exactly one year later, in March 2011, B-Girl Anna, in a conversation with the undercover cop, said that she and Marina were the B-Girls who had defrauded Bolaris, adding that they even sold him a painting from the wall of the club.
All in all, Bolaris was scammed out of nearly $43,000 during his South Beach misadventure. He recently told his story on ABC’s 20/20 to a national audience.
“They came across very cutesy, and very sincere, and very nice, like the girls next door,” Bolaris related. “This wasn’t a hooker-type thing.”
Another Caviar victim, referred to in the government filing by the initials R.M., was a visitor from Minnesota. He was at the Delano when two B-Girls approached him and stole him away to Caviar.
There, one of them, Marina, ordered a bottle of champagne. He had one glass, then was presented a bill of $507 and refused to pay. Eventually, he buckled and agreed to pay $85 for his glass and signed a receipt for that amount. The manager made a copy of the R.M.’s credit card and driver’s license. Later, R.M. discovered that he had been charged both $85 and $507. He never signed for nor authorized the latter charge.
Shut Down One Club, Move on to Others
Caviar closed in May 2010, largely because American Express closed its merchant accounts with the club and because of the large volume of charge-backs from victims claiming unauthorized and fraudulent activity on their cards.
But that wasn’t the end to the organization’s criminal activity, not by a long shot.
Its ringleaders, and their B-Girls, simply moved on to other clubs, perpetrating their high-end pickpocketing at Stars Lounge, Club Moreno, Nowhere Bar, Steel Toast, and Tangier Club, one of whose corporate officers was Siavash “Sammy” Zargari. The undercover agent witnessed this criminal activity at all of them.
The B-Girls were not shy about divulging details of some of their illegal shenanigans to the undercover:
- Marina confided that it was difficult to run the business with only a handful of B-Girls present.
- Victorija said that she and another B-Girl made $400 each for one night when a customer bought three bottles of wine and a bottle of champagne.
- Victorija also said she had worked for Simchuk for four years. Police raided his clubs in Estonia. Simchuk, according to her, brought only the best girls from Estonia to Miami.
- Julija said she was mad at Simchuk because he still owed her and Marina money from the last time the two worked in Miami.
- A B-Girl not charged in this case said that the girls were afraid to work the Miami Beach clubs because “the prices of the bottles are so significantly increased that it is too obvious,” according to the affidavit. She said that a bottle that would go for $2,000 in a European club would go for $7,000 in South Beach. Star Lounge was selling bottles for $300 that they were buying at a CVS pharmacy for just $6. The girls were also afraid because so many of the credit cards were being declined.
- Anastassia U. said that because Simchuk was having trouble getting new girls into the U.S., he wanted her, Irina, and Valeria to remain in the country longer. The girls were unhappy with his treatment of them, but felt they had to stay because he would buy their plane tickets home and hold on to them.
- In November 2010, Valeria, Irina, and Anastassia U. told the undercover that they planned to return to Europe to work at Simchuk’s new club in Prague.
- Anna said that she personally recruited other B-Girls to work at the clubs and confided that in the short time she had worked for the organization, she had made nearly $4,000. In this line of business, she said, it is better to be open for only a few months, “then close and switch locations as that is what they would do with clubs overseas, staying open a maximum of six months,” according to the affidavit. She also admitted that the Tangier Club was on its final credit card terminal and once it was used up, they would have to find another location.
- That same month, Agnese told the undercover that she used to work for Simchuk at Caviar and taught other B-Girls how to work the fraud. Simchuk tried to get her to work at Stars Lounge but she declined, eventually agreeing to work at Tangia instead.
- Victorija said that an “unnamed co-conspirator” (according to the affidavit) was the one with “all the money as he pays for the B-Girls’ [plane] tickets and rents the club at Steel Toast.”
Curvy Hips and Loose Lips
The girls were not the only ones with loose lips; the organization’s bosses were caught on tape as well:
- Simchuk told the B-Girls that whoever made the most money would be granted the privilege of operating at Stars, which was considered a more desirable location than other clubs.
- The undercover heard Stars co-owner Albert Takhalov, co-owner Issac Feldman, and others discussing using Star’s credit card terminals. Takhalov told Feldman to instruct the girls that subsequent credit card charges should be a cent less than the previous charge.
- On one occasion, Takhalov represented himself as the manager or owner of Stars during an inspection by city fire marshals.
- Takhalov, who had told the undercover that he worked in the banking and credit card processing industries and managed the credit card data processing for the organization, was witnessed installing and fixing credit card terminals at some of the clubs.
- Svetlana Coghlan, the lone woman among the club bosses, told the undercover that Feldman recruited her initially to keep the books at Stars.
- Feldman asked the undercover if he could run background checks on the B-Girls to ensure none had prior histories of prostitution, saying he preferred the undercover cop – not the city or its police department – to run the checks.
- Simchuk, Feldman, and Takhalov urged their undercover/bouncer to find a fellow officer to work his nights off, one who was “trustworthy.”
- Takhalov and Fady Kaldas were once overheard discussing Tangia. We need more girls, they agreed, especially girls with more experience.
- Kaldas was overheard at Tangia saying that he wanted to charge additional bottles to a guest’s platinum American Express card.
- He was confronted by a victim who claimed the B-Girl he was with worked for the club; Kaldas denied it.
- Zargari once told the undercover that he wanted a man who was disputing his bill arrested.
- Zargari once ripped a cell phone away from a club guest, saying he would use it as evidence against the man with his credit card company.
- The undercover overheard Takhalov and Zargari at Tangia, laughing about how they gave customers shots of vodka to get them drunk while the girls only get water. Be careful not to mix it up, they told B-Girl Kristina.
And then, of course, there were the victims. The FBI identified at least 88 who were defrauded by the criminals. These are the case summaries of some:
- In August 2010, a German national was picked up by Julija and another B-Girl and taken to Stars where he bought a bottle of wine and was charged $151. While closing out his tab he was given three shots of vodka. He could not remember anything after that. The undercover saw him fall down and try to leave the club, but a B-Girl coaxed him back in. The German’s credit card would eventually be charged four times for a grand total of nearly $3,900, leaving him only $50 on his card limit.
- In September 2010, a New Jersey man was at the Clevelander with friends when two women approached him claiming to be from Denmark. The women brought them to Stars. Valeria placed wine on the group’s table that he had not ordered and the girls poured drinks and persuaded the man to drink some. Excusing himself, he retreated to a restroom, then asked for the check when he returned. What he got was a bill for $388. He tried to negotiate it to a lower price, but Valeria, his waitress, refused. After he refused to pay, a Miami Beach cop arrived and took him to police headquarters where he was interviewed. His credit card account showed a pending charge of $388 from Stars, which he disputed as unauthorized.
- In October 2010, a Texas man was at the Delano with two friends. Two girls – one of them identified as Irina – approached him claiming they were from Finland. After encouraging him to drink, they took him to Stars. He felt more drunk than usual, then was served up a bill for over $3,000. He refused to sign and the cops were called. They told him it was a civil matter and he had to pay, then could dispute the charges later. He ended up in a taxi but could not remember how he got back to the hotel because he blacked out. Charges of $1045.09, $1045.09, and $1045.08 showed up on his credit card statement.
- In February 2011, two roommates were in town on vacation. One night, while they were at the Clevelander, Anastassia U. and Valeria met them and escorted them to the Tangia. The girls ordered champagne; one of the men asked for the price of the bottle. “799” he was told. His friend, asking for clarification several times, asked if that meant $7.99. Kristina, their bartender, confirmed it. Out came a debit card and driver’s license. When one of them tried to buy a second bottle, he was informed that his debit card had been declined; the tab had come to $1,097. But I thought you told us it was “7.99,” he told Kristina before demanding to see the manager. The manager agreed to drop the bill to $915. Anastassia rubbed the man’s back to console him while Valeria ordered his friend to just sign the receipt or else he would be arrested.
- Also that month, another man met Anastassia U. and Anastassia M. at Club Mokai. The ladies suggested they go to another place they knew: Tangia. He remembered leaving the club as the dawn began to break the following morning, and barely remembered getting home. Upon awakening, he discovered two credit card receipts in his wallet for nearly $5,000. His credit card company later informed him that the club attempted to charge him $16,000 but was declined.
- A week later, another man met some B-Girls who brought him to Steel Toast where he noticed that, oddly, there were no other customers in the club. He ordered a beer, then went to the restroom. Upon his return, the girls presented a bottle of champagne that they insisted he open for them. He refused, saying he did not drink champagne, but finally relented. Almost immediately, Julija told him he would have to pay $700 for the bottle. He refused and tried to leave. She called for a club bouncer to stop him. The bouncer choked him to the point where he began to lose consciousness, according to the affidavit. When police arrived, the man forked over his credit card to the bartender to avoid arrest. The bar attempted to charge $1,000 to the man’s card but was declined. Ultimately, the club charged $300. The man believed that nearly $1,400 and a cell phone were stolen from him while he was unconscious.
- In March 2011, a man was a hotel bar in the city when he was approached by B-Girl Agnese. She took him to Tangier where he ordered a beer and she ordered a glass of wine. She then forced the glass into his hand. His tab then came to $374, including $286 for the bottle of wine. In addition, he was hit with a $52 charge for a hookah pipe which no one had ordered. Disputing the charges, the man requested police. The undercover showed up. The man gave in and signed two credit card slips, then disputed the charges the next day.
“Rude, Stupid American”
In October 2010, a second undercover agent – posing as a victim – met Irina and Valeria at the Blue Door bar at the Delano. Irina urged him to come with them to Stars Lounge. He ordered one bottle, danced with the girls, then observed them pour out the champagne he had ordered into buckets. Two more bottles were brought out, which he had not ordered. The affidavit elaborates –
When it came time for the bill, which totaled $3,135.24 between three receipts, [he] refused to pay for the last two bottles. An argument ensued with the server. [Irina] told [him] that he was acting like a rude, stupid American. [He] accused both of them of being employees of the bar. [Valeria] denied it saying she had only been there once.
The undercover agreed to pay for one bottle but refused to pay for the unordered bottles. Police were called and he was “arrested” – as had been prearranged with the police.
His credit card was charged for all three bills and his name had been forged on at least one of the receipts.
“They’ll Knock You Out”
While working for the organization, the undercover cop who doubled as the bouncer would periodically witness the girls getting paid, with envelopes containing money.
One night in March 2011, while working at Tangia, he told Anna he had a headache. Retrieving a bottle of Tylenol PM next to the register, she gave it to him but warned him the pills would put him to sleep.
While at Steel Toast, he noticed a bottle of natural herbal sleep aid next to the register there. He told Julija he was having trouble sleeping; could she give him one of the pills? Yes, she replied, but don’t take too many because they’ll knock you out.
On another occasion, Anna gave him capsules believed to be tranquilizers. She, others in the organization had previously told him, had drugged victims in the past.
In January 2011, Takhalov told the undercover that he had five girls scheduled to fly into the country two days later – Valeria, Irina, the two Anastassias, and a fifth B-Girl not charged by federal prosecutors.
Can you get an ICE agent to assist us in getting the girls through Customs? Takhalov asked him, thinking his bouncer/cop had a good relationship with ICE. I need these girls admitted to the United States, Takhalov told him. We lose a significant amount of money when the girls are not admitted into the country.
Two months later, Takhalov said he would provide the undercover bribe money to get the girls through Customs. Two Estonian girls from Valeria’s crew and 3 Latvian girls from Anna’s crew would be arriving in another week.
Two days after this, Kaldas spoke with the undercover at Tangia. They discussed a bribe payment to the ICE agent. The money, Kaldas said, would be provided the following week.
The following week, joined by Kaldas and Zargani, Takhalov and the undercover met at Tangia. Takhalov pulled his bouncer aside, slipped $1,000 to him, and thanked him.
The FBI expended a reported $1 million and 13 months investigating the group before staging an audacious raid on the night of April 5, 2011.
The undercover cop who had infiltrated the organization months before and posed as its bouncer invited the suspects to attend his “birthday party” at Tangia. Though Simchuk and several of his B-Girls had since returned to their native countries, this time it was the cop doing the luring and the bosses and B-Girls who would be the targeted “victims.” All except Simchuk returned to Miami.
Fully armed, the FBI raided Tangia that night, as the unsuspecting partiers were inside. Agents arrested 16: five male bosses, one female accountant, and 10 B-Girls. News footage of the bust showed young women, decked out in their sexy clubgirl finery and high heels, being escorted out of the club, one by one, hands locked behind their backs, and into a waiting paddy wagon on Washington Ave. for their pending appointments the next day in front of a man likely sporting an expensive watch and shoes: the federal judge arraigning them.
But missing from the bunch that night was Simchuk, who remained the organization’s sole fugitive from justice. Until last week when he stepped from a plane at M.I.A. and, without incident, into the clutches of FBI and Homeland Security agents.
That afternoon, almost 16 months after the Club Tangia raid, the last trick was played, the last con was carried out, and the organization’s ringleader, at long last, himself fell prey – not to B-Girls, but to G-Men.
THE SCHEME’S ORGANIZERS & INVESTORS
(all, except Simchuk, arrested April 5, 2011)
Svetlana Coghlan, 42, of Hollywood (released April 7, 2011)
Isaac Feldman, 51, of Sunny Isles Beach (released April 7, 2011)
Fady Kaldas, 37, of Palm Beach Gardens (in detention; slated to be released Dec. 24, 2012)
Stanislav Pavlenko, 41, of Sunny Isles Beach (released April 8, 2011)
Alec Simchuk, 45, of Hallandale and Riga, Latvia (arrested July 26; in custody)
Albert Takhalov, 30, of Aventura (released April 8, 2011)
Siavash Zargari, 48, of Miami Beach (released April 21, 2011)
(all arrested April 5, 2011)
Victorija Artemjeva, 23, of Latvia (released July 27, 2011)
Irina Domkova, 23, of Estonia (released Sept. 8, 2011)
Anna Kilimatova, 26, of Latvia (released Nov. 1, 2011)
Valeria Matsova, 23, of Estonia (released Nov. 29, 2011)
Anastassia Mikrukova, 25, of Estonia (released May 7, 2012)
Agnese Rudaka, 24, of Latvia (released July 22, 2011)
Kristina Takhalov, 30, of Miami Beach (released April 7, 2011)
Marina Turcina, 25, of Latvia (released Nov. 1, 2011)
Anastassia Usakova, 26, of Estonia (released Sept. 8, 2011)
Julija Vinogradova, 23, of Latvia (released Sept. 14, 2011)