Like an addictive soap opera, the federal trial of a South Beach ring accused of directing a gaggle of girls to swindle tourists at Russian-style clubs zigged and zagged for more than 10 weeks.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Miami jury said it is close to delivering verdicts on four men charged with fleecing hundreds of thousands of dollars from dozens of male visitors by racking up bogus bills for champagne, vodka and caviar on their credit cards.
Jurors told U.S. District Judge Robert Scola that they had reached decisions on 39 of 40 counts. The judge directed them to keep trying on the final count, and sent them back to the jury room.
The jury, which began deliberations Thursday afternoon, heard testimony from an admitted Russian mobster who organized the Miami Beach club racket; a few “bar girls” who seduced the customers at swank hotels like the Delano and lured them back to the private bars; a former Fox TV weatherman who was taken for $43,000 over two nights; and an undercover Miami Beach police officer who posed as a dirty cop and worked as a bouncer for the clubs while recording the illicit activity.
The Philadelphia TV weatherman, John Bolaris, described the so-called B-girls in his testimony as “very cutesy, like the girls next door ... the kind of girls you’d like to marry.” He was so sloshed that a pair of the beguiling girls snookered him into buying a modernistic painting of a woman that hung on the wall at the Caviar Bar on Washington Avenue. The price tag: $2,480.
And if all that weren’t enough, the four defendants took the witness stand to fight the fraud charges, which is highly unusual during a trial.
The puppet master behind the alleged scam: Alec “Oleg” Simchuk, 46, a naturalized U.S. citizen who along with others illegally brought the bar girls from Russia and the Baltic states, where he had developed his original business model before replicating it in Miami Beach. Simchuk pleaded guilty to fraud and testified in October about his partners and associates.
In 2010, 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 about the outlandish bar tabs.
Last year, a total of 18 defendants were charged in the fraud conspiracy. Twelve defendants, mostly women, have since pleaded guilty. Almost all have already served short prison sentences.
Standing trial since mid-October: Stanislav Pavlenko, 41; Albert Takhalov, 31; Siavash Zargari, 48, who live in the Aventura and Sunny Isles Beach areas. Longtime Sunny Isles Beach Realtor Isaac Feldman, 51, is the fourth defendant. If convicted of wire fraud, each faces up to 20 years in prison.
A fifth defendant, Kristina Takhalov, who worked as a bartender, pleaded guilty during the trial to a few wire-fraud charges, rather than go through with the final stages of the proceeding.
A sixth defendant, Simchuk’s “silent” investment partner, Andrejs Romanovs, is a fugitive in Russia. And the seventh defendant, Mikhail Rasner, a club investor with Albert Takhalov, was not on the docket because his defense lawyer was involved in another trial at the same time.
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.
Before the FBI rounded up the ring in April 2011, Simchuk had already left for Latvia (later detouring to Russia), 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 his 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 phony 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.