During the height of the tourist season two years ago, a Philadelphia TV weatherman flew down to Miami Beach for a little fun in the sun.
At the Delano Hotel, John Bolaris was approached by a couple of the Beach’s finest “bar girls.” The sexy duo said they were visiting from Estonia. They ordered rounds of shots, wine and champagne while pecking him on the cheek.
Then they lured the liquored-up Bolaris to a Russian-style nightclub called Caviar Bar on Washington Avenue. Over the next two nights, he signed American Express charge slips for more than $43,000, picking up the tab for extravagantly overpriced Dom Perignon, Beluga caviar and other items, including $2,480 for a modernistic painting of a woman that had been hanging in the bar.
Bolaris’ tale of woe and regret and others like it are coming out in Miami federal court during the trial of five business associates accused of being the puppet masters behind South Beach’s “B-girl” scene, as it is known.
Among the witnesses: B-girl Marina Turcina, who said Bolaris was so smashed he was vomiting on the way back to the Fontainebleau, where he’d been staying.
“He smelled really bad,’’ she said.
But the marquee witness is no Estonian temptress. He is bald, burly Alec Simchuk, an admitted Russian mobster straight out of central casting who is the acknowledged leader of the alleged racket.
Simchuk, who once lived in a Hallandale Beach penthouse but is now cooperating with the feds from a cell at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami, brought Turcina and other women to Florida from Russia and the Baltic States to work in his shady South Beach clubs.
After pleading guilty to wire fraud conspiracy and visa violations, he is testifying for the prosecution against the five defendants, among them a Sunny Isles Beach real-estate broker who once ran for the City Commission.
They’re accused of operating a string of Washington Avenue clubs that deployed “B-girls” to fancy hotels like the Delano, where they cunningly fleeced customers.
The women would target male tourists showing tell-tale signs of wealth, such as expensive watches or shoes. (They referred to cheap customers as “condoms.”) If they had a hot prospect, they would text message bartenders back at their clubs to get the place ready.
They would pour their own drinks into flower vases while the guys guzzled theirs, becoming progressively plastered. That made it easier to persuade them to order still more bottles without noticing the exorbitant prices.
“He was just signing them without looking at them,” Turcina said of Bolaris, who is expected to testify.
Miami Beach police and the FBI launched an undercover investigation into the B-girl network after Bolaris and other customers complained to their credit card companies after the fact about the outrageous bar tabs. As part of the investigation, agents and cops recorded the women in action.
To pull off the arrests, the FBI staged a party at one of the clubs for the B-girls and their managers. A Miami Beach officer who had infiltrated the ring as a “dirty cop” and worked as a bouncer invited many of the suspects to the soiree of stone crabs and Russian vodka at Tangia Club on Washington Avenue.
Life on the run
Eleven defendants, mostly women, have since pleaded guilty and served short prison sentences. Simchuk, 46, left for Latvia (later detouring to Russia) before the FBI rounded up his ring, but he eventually grew tired of life on the lam. In March of this year, he made up his mind to return to Miami, disclosing his plan to a fellow fugitive in Russia.