One defense lawyer quipped that they’re about to become “G-Girls,” as in guilty.
When the feds busted a syndicate of Russian-speaking nightclub owners and their so-called Bar Girls, it seemed like just another titillating tale from South Beach.
But the April bust showed that the FBI is taking the Eastern European mob a lot more seriously these days than the Italian Mafia. La Cosa Nostra is no longer the bureau’s Public Enemy No. 1 when it comes to organized crime in South Florida.
“Eurasian organized crime is our No. 1 priority,” said FBI supervisory special agent Rick Brodsky of the Miami office.
|Alex Simchuk is a suspect|
at large in a South Beach
nightclub ring roundup
Sunny Isles Beach, where some of the reputed mobsters live, has so many immigrants from the former Soviet Union that it has earned the nickname “Little Moscow.’’ The high-rise coastal cities of Hollywood and Hallandale Beach also are home to many Russian-speaking nationals.
The alleged B-Girl scam was hardly the first time the Eastern European mob struck South Florida. In February, 13 South Florida members and associates of an alleged Armenian crime organization were charged with extortion and other offenses as part of a series of indictments against more than 100 suspects from Miami to Los Angeles.
The main extortion charge accused ringleader Aram Khranyan, 41, of Sunny Isles Beach, and others of threatening “physical violence” against a man if he did not pay a $12,000 debt to a member of Khranyan’s organization.
Despite the nationwide publicity, it didn’t quite measure up to the B-Girl scam for sheer amusement.
Consider this tale:
Brett Daniels, a professional magician, had just finished his February show at the Gulfstream Casino when he and a few colleagues headed down to South Beach.
At Mango’s, a lively tourist spot on Ocean Drive, he met an attractive woman clad in a short leopard-skin dress and her sidekick, who wasn’t as pretty. After showing them a few magic tricks, one of the girls told Daniels it was her birthday and proposed taking him to a private club a few blocks away to drink Russian vodka.
Four or five shots later -- he can’t remember exactly -- Daniels found himself fighting over an incomprehensible $1,368 credit card tab with the owner of the Tangia club on Washington Avenue. “Pay your bill or you’re going to jail,” the bouncer told him.
What Daniels didn’t know at the time was that he had been scammed by the Eastern European mob, according to the FBI.
At the helm of the alleged South Beach club racket: Alec Simchuk, 44, of Hallandale, who is now a fugitive. Simchuck and others in his network -- including Albert Takhalov, 29, of Aventura -- brought in longtime Sunny Isles real estate broker Isaac Feldman as an investor in Stars Lounge on Washington Avenue.
Feldman, who lost his bid for a city commission seat last year, plans to fight the charges, including conspiracy to commit wire fraud. His attorney, Myles Malman, said his client was a “minority investor” in the Stars Lounge, which was controlled by Simchuk and Takhalov.
“He was hardly ever there and he didn’t supervise or control the women,” said Malman, a former federal prosecutor. “He did not operate or run this club. The notion that the Russian mob is involved in this club is far fetched and the ultimate stretch.”
Malman then added: “My client lost everything.”
That may be so, but for a while, Simchuk’s organization ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in bogus bills for booze, wine and champagne on the credit cards of bedazzled male tourists, prosecutors charge. All together, the B-Girls, who received 20 percent commissions for bringing in customers, ripped off about 90 patrons, mostly tourists or businessmen with telltale signs of wealth, such as expensive watches or shoes, authorities say.
One victim from Philadelphia, who was approached by two B-Girls at the swank Delano Hotel, complained he was taken for $43,000 at Caviar Beach on Washington Avenue. His American Express bill included dozens of charges for booze. Another victim was charged $5,000 for a bottle of champagne.
Authorities say the case is a sign of the mob from the former Soviet Union reaching deeper into South Florida to commit “any type of fraud you can think of,” said Brodsky, in charge of the Miami FBI’s organized crime squad. Their stocks in trade: credit card fraud, cybercrime, human trafficking, prostitution, drugs, extortion and arms smuggling.
Brodsky said the Eastern European mob is very different from La Cosa Nostra, known for its “made men,” “wise guys,” and “good fellas.”
He held up Simchuk, the alleged leader in the B-Girl case, as a classic example. Simchuk, 44, is accused of smuggling sexy B-Girls from his Baltic State clubs back home to work in private, leased venues along Washington Avenue. Brodsky said Simchuk works for a “thief in law” in his homeland who acts like a “general,” controls underworld enterprises, and resolves disputes, including using threats and violence.
A thief-in-law, known as a “Vor" in Russian, arose in Stalin’s forced labor camps of political prisoners and criminals. The term now refers to a high-ranking member of a criminal syndicate from Russia or the former Soviet Union.
“The challenge [to law enforcement] is the hierarchy is overseas and has greater access to political protection,” Brodsky said.
According to court records, Simchuk and five other Eastern European men operated the alleged racket for a year at Caviar Bar, 643 Washington Ave.; Stars Lounge, 643 Washington Ave.; Nowhere Bar, 653 Washington Ave.; Steel Toast, 758 Washington Ave.; Tangia Club, 841 Washington Ave.; and Club Moreno, 1341 Washington Ave.
Today, Caviar, Stars and Tangia are not open for business. Steele Toast plans to reopen as an actual nightclub, Havana Nights, this weekend. Club Moreno is a scooter shop.
As for Nowhere Bar, it is still operating. General manager Vladislav Salaridze said his business never conducted illegal activity. “No, no, no, we are a legitimate business. We do bar mitzvahs, weddings, parties for celebrities and comedy shows," he said. “But we always were getting mixed up with Caviar [Bar] because we both have Russian owners."
According to court records, Simchuk and the others leased the private clubs, obtained credit-card merchant accounts, flew in B-Girls from Eastern Europe or the Baltic States with 90-day visas, rented apartments for them, and sent them out to hotels like the Delano, Clevelander and others along Ocean Drive to seduce male visitors into coming to their private clubs.
An FBI agent who led the investigation said they went “hunting” in pairs, worked between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., lured “wealthy males” back to the clubs and ordered multiple bottles of booze without telling the victims the price.
“The clubs are not open to the public, and operate solely as a front for fraud,” FBI agent Alexander V. Tiguy wrote in an April affidavit.
The goal was to jack up the bills, and squeeze the customers to sign off on their credit card slips -- no easy task.
“Some victims are so intoxicated by the drinks forced upon them by the B-Girls that they cannot stand and are not competent enough to sign credit card receipts,” Tiguy wrote in the affidavit. “Those victims are propped up by the B-Girls long enough to obtain signatures.”
In most instances, the bartender or manager explained to the victims that they agreed to purchase the alcohol, that the bar had surveillance video of them, and demanded that they pay or the police would be called to arrest them.
On several occasions, the bouncer or Miami Beach police officers would inform the victim about the state’s Innkeeper Law, which requires patrons disputing a charge to challenge the bill with their credit card company -- or risk getting arrested.
At several of the clubs, an undercover Miami Beach police officer was working as the bouncer to obtain evidence for the investigation.
Daniels, the magician, said he felt like he had no choice but to pay his bill after he called police and club Tangia’s bouncer told him he would be going to jail. The bouncer was an undercover cop, but he did not know that at the time.
“They had my driver’s license and credit card,” recalled Daniels, 50, who turned to the FBI. “I couldn’t do anything.”