As if he saw it coming, a federal judge warned he would not tolerate any outburst while the verdicts were read for four men accused of directing a bunch of “bar girls” to seduce and swindle customers at Russian-style clubs in South Beach.
But as soon as the Miami jury found three of the defendants guilty— and the judge ordered them immediately into custody Thursday — the mothers, wives and daughters started wailing.
U.S. District Judge Robert Scola called in federal marshals to escort the defendants out, while court security officers tried to control the situation.
“Let me hug my mom,” Albert Takhalov told one of the security officers, who tried to separate the mother, who wouldn’t let go.
And so the trial of the so-called B-girls came to a tearful end. The jury convicted Takhalov, Stanislav Pavlenko and Isaac Feldman of conspiring to fleece hundreds of thousands of dollars from dozens of male patrons by racking up bogus bills for champagne, vodka and caviar on their credit cards at the defendants’ seven Miami Beach clubs.
A fourth defendant, Siavash Zargari, who did business with Takhalov at a Washington Avenue lounge, was acquitted. “I feel good,” the South Beach resident said outside the courtroom with his attorney, Bruce Fleisher. “Justice is right.”
The jury reached its unanimous guilty verdicts on a variety of conspiracy, wire fraud and money-laundering charges after deliberating for five days following an 11-week trial that zigged and zagged with tales about Miami Beach’s underground bar scene. The panel also issued acquittals on numerous wire fraud offenses involving credit transactions, and cleared Takhalov of bribing a U.S. immigration official to bring the bar girls from Eastern Europe.
Still, Scola ordered the three convicted men into custody until their sentencings because he found that they gave testimony that “I don’t believe was honest.’’
The 12-person jury heard testimony from an admitted Russian mobster who organized the Miami Beach club racket; a few bar girls who lured male customers from swank hotels like the Delano 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 puppet master behind the scam: Alec “Oleg” Simchuk, 46, a Russian native and naturalized U.S. citizen who testified in October about his partners and associates.
Simchuk, an admitted Russian mafioso who pleaded guilty before trial, testified that he modeled the South Beach clubs after his former bars in Latvia and Estonia. He said he illegally brought many of the same young women who had worked for him there to South Florida.
The undercover officer, Luis King, was caught on his own tape describing “American black girls” as “pigs, pigs, pigs, pigs” in a late-night chat with a bar girl at the Steel Toast lounge. The sensational evidence may not have been relevant, but it worried prosecutors Richard Gregorie and Michael Thakur because of its potential impact on the racially mixed jury.
The four defendants took the witness stand to fight the fraud charges, which is highly unusual during a trial. It backfired for all but Zargari. His testimony ended up serving two purposes, as he deftly demonstrated his innocence while blaming Takhalov for contaminating their lounge, Tangia Club, with bar girls and credit-card fraud.
“I was scammed by Takhalov and set up by the FBI,” he said after his acquittal.
In 2010, Miami Beach police and the FBI launched an undercover investigation into the “B-girl” network after 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 October: Pavlenko, 41, Takhalov, 31, Zargari, 48, and Feldman, 51, who live in the Aventura, Sunny Isles Beach and Miami Beach areas.
Pavlenko’s lawyer, Roderick Vereen, said he would seek a new trial, alleging that the weatherman lied during his testimony.
Takhalov’s attorney, Albert Levin, said he was “disappointed” in the jury’s verdicts. “Although my client was acquitted on most of the charges, we couldn’t call this a victory.’’
Feldman’s attorney, Myles Malman, expressed the same sentiment, saying his client was a “good and decent man” who was a minority investor in one of Simchuk’s clubs, Stars Lounge. “He was tricked into an investment by a con man whose testimony was one of the most unbelievable I have heard in my 40 years of practicing law,” Malman said.
The three defendants found guilty now face up to 20 years each in prison, though the punishment is likely to be substantially less because of the relatively small losses incurred by their nearly 90 victims. The losses came to between $400,000 and $1 million, with most of the profits going to Simchuk and the other investors and 20 percent to the bar girls.
A fifth defendant, Kristina Takhalov, who worked as a bartender, pleaded guilty during the trial to a few wire-fraud charges.
On Thursday, she was red-faced from crying after the guilty verdicts were read for Albert Takhalov, her husband.