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.
That stirred things up. Soon after, he said he got a “threatening” call from an indicted business associate in Miami on his cellphone.
A month later, while smoking a cigarette outside his mother-in-law’s St. Petersburg apartment, he was accosted by strangers, he testified in his thick Russian accent. “One guy pulled gun on my head and said, ‘Good people from Miami don’t want you to testify. You have beautiful wife. Stay at home.’ Another guy just broke my leg, just squeeze it in one shot.”
After a year as a fugitive, Simchuk was arrested by FBI agents upon his arrival at Miami International Airport in July. He promptly pleaded guilty, agreeing to testify against his alleged partners and associates.
In Simchuk’s plea agreement, he admitted that his organization ran up bogus bills for booze, wine and champagne on the credit cards of blurry-eyed male tourists. All told, the scam cost customers between $400,000 and $1 million, according to the written agreement. The “B-girls” received 20 percent commissions, while Simchuk’s partners pocketed most of the illicit profits.
Standing trial on wire-fraud charges since mid-October are Stanislav Pavlenko, 41; Albert Takhalov, 31; his wife, Kristina Takhalov, 31; and Siavash Zargari, 48, who live in the Aventura and Sunny Isles Beach areas. Longtime Sunny Isles Beach Realtor Isaac Feldman, 51, is the fifth defendant.
Scene of crime
A sixth defendant, Simchuk’s “silent” investment partner, Andrejs Romanovs, is a fugitive in Russia. And a seventh defendant, Mikhail Rasner, a club investor with Albert Takhalov, is not on the docket now because his defense lawyer is currently involved in another trial.
According to the charges, Simchuk and the other defendants operated the alleged ring for a year at the Caviar Bar and the Stars Lounge, both at 643 Washington Ave.; the VIP Lounge and Tangia Club, both at 841 Washington Ave; Nowhere Bar, 653 Washington Ave.; Steel Toast, 758 Washington Ave.; and Club Moreno, 1341 Washington Ave.
Simchuk, who described himself as an international conman during testimony, would be a classic immigrant-made-good story, if he hadn’t done it by doing bad. Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), he traveled to the United States for the first time in 1989 to study English at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn. He was 23. In the mid-1990s, he became a naturalized citizen.
By then, he had started an import-export business. He would buy Toyotas, Hummers and other vehicles with a stolen ID and ship them from Mexico to Finland. He also engaged in insurance fraud, for which he was arrested and charged in Pennsylvania in 2000.
That’s when he headed to South Florida, where he started promoting “Russian Nights” at local discos and opened his own club at the Ramada Inn Hotel in Hollywood.
In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, Simchuk pleaded guilty to the insurance fraud charge and was placed on probation. After failing to get his probation transferred to Miami, he decided to flee the country, heading for Latvia instead of his native Russia because his girlfriend was from Latvia.
It was in Latvia, he says, that he perfected the “B-girl” business model.
In the city of Riga, Simchuk opened his first “striptease bar,” the Cleopatra, drawing his inspiration from Thee Dollhouse in the Sunny Isles Beach area. “It was my dream to have a striptease club, so that’s how I opened up,” he testified last month.
He decided to open another, Foxy Lounge, then two more, La Rouche and Cabaret Miami.
But the Latvian government did not like the strip-club scene, so authorities shut it down.
Simchuk’s clubs were reborn as lounges. “I told the managers, take poles, take poles out,” Simchuk said in one awkwardly funny moment during his testimony.
Prosecutor Michael Thakur thought he heard Simchuk say “take the bottles out.”
“Poles,” Simchuk repeated.
“Poles?” said Thakur.
“Poles,’’ Simchuk said. “... Sorry for my English.”
From that point on, Simchuk said, he was in the business of deploying bar girls.
“The girls from now on are going to go to the disco bars and pick up the customers, bring them to the club ... and make them buy expensive bottles of champagne,” Simchuk said. He said he also made the prices “high” and the lettering on the menu “very little” so the patrons could not read it. Another trick: His bartenders would pour vodka into customers’ beers to make them more drunk.
But by 2008, the Latvian police closed his clubs because so many customers were demanding “charge backs,” or refunds, on their bar bills. An attempt to replicate the clubs in neighboring Estonia fizzled, and he returned to the States.
Simchuk said he opened Caviar Bar with the help of Pavlenko, who ran the credit card operations, and Stars Lounge with the assistance of Albert Takhalov, who also managed the card transactions. His wife, Kristina, worked as a bartender, and Feldman was an investor who had met Simchuk through the Sunny Isles Beach community, home to many Russian immigrants.
Sort of like Hefner
Simchuk said Feldman, a minority investor, liked hanging out with the women because they made him feel like Hugh Hefner.
He imported many of the same bar girls, including Turcina, a 25-year-old Latvian native.
Turcina, who has pleaded guilty, described Simchuk as a menacing boss who would threaten to fire the women at his clubs in Latvia if they didn’t have sex with him. “They were scared to lose the job, so they were sleeping with him,” she said. Turcina also said he exerted that same control and fear over the B-girls here.
In his testimony, Simchuk acknowledged having an insatiable appetite for sex.
Takhalov’s defense attorney, Albert Levin, attacked Simchuk as a habitual liar with connections to the St. Petersburg mob who made up stories in an effort to reduce a potential 20-year prison sentence. Sentencing is pending. Myles Malman, defense attorney for Feldman, pointed out that Simchuk initially told the feds he broke his leg in a slip-and-fall on ice, and only later said it was snapped in an encounter with thugs.
During his testimony, Simchuk was asked if the women were instructed on what to say to lure the men into the clubs.
“They knew already,” Simchuk testified proudly. “They are professional liars.”