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Human Smuggling/Trafficking
09/13/2011

Final defendant pleads guilty in human trafficking scheme

DETROIT — A final defendant pleaded guilty Tuesday to crimes related to an international conspiracy to compel women to work in exotic dance clubs in the Detroit-area. The investigation was conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Veniamin Gonikman, 56, who became a fugitive in 2005, was apprehended in in January by ICE HSI special agents after being deported from Ukraine. He is the ninth and final member of the charged conspiracy to be convicted.

According to the investigation, between September 2001 and February 2005, Gonikman, together with his son, Aleksandr Maksimenko, a U.S. citizen, and Michael Aronov, a Lithuanian national, operated Beauty Search, Inc., a business that brokered and managed Eastern European women who performed in exotic dance clubs in the Detroit-area. The three men recruited a number of these women in Ukraine, facilitated their illegal entry into the United States, and then harbored them for commercial advantage and private financial gain. In 2001, Gonikman facilitated the smuggling into the United States of two young Eastern European women from Ukraine, through Mexico, into the United States, and ultimately to Detroit, where the women were compelled to serve as exotic dancers.

"This conviction closes the door on a human trafficking organization responsible for wreaking havoc on the lives of women who came to the United States in pursuit of the American dream," said Brian M. Moskowitz, special agent in charge of ICE HSI in Michigan and Ohio. "Unfortunately, we know there are still traffickers out there looking to exploit the most vulnerable among us. Cases like this one serve to strengthen our resolve to protect and defend those who may not be able to evade or escape the grip of this form of modern day slavery."

"Human trafficking is the equivalent of modern day slavery. It deprives the victims of their freedom and dignity and it has no place in our country," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. "The Justice Department is committed to the aggressive prosecution of those who rob individuals of their freedom for financial gain."

The lead defendants in this case, Maksimenko and Aronov, pleaded guilty in 2006 to forced labor, immigration, and money laundering charges. Maksimenko was sentenced to 14 years in prison and ordered to pay $1,570,450 in restitution to the victims. Aronov was sentenced to 90 months in prison and ordered to pay $1,000,000 in restitution.

Six other defendants were also convicted in 2006 for their respective roles in the conspiracy, including:

  • Duay Jado, a Greek national, who was sentenced to four years in prison for setting a victim's car on fire to retaliate for her escape and to intimidate the other victims;
  • Ukrainian nationals Eygeniy Propenko and Alexander Bondarenko were convicted of visa fraud to facilitate victims' illegal entry into the United States;
  • Anna Gonikman-Starchenko, a Ukrainian national formerly married to defendant Gonikman;
  • Niki Papoutsaki, a Greek national formerly married to defendant Maksimenko; and
  • Valentina Maksimenko, a naturalized U.S. citizen also formerly married to defendant Gonikman.

Gonikman-Starchenko, Papoutsaki and Maksimenko pleaded guilty to obstruction-related charges.

The case was investigated by ICE HSI, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, and the State Department.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Chutkow and Trial Attorney Benjamin J. Hawk of the Civil Rights Division's Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit.

Peter Ziedas, assistant U.S. attorney, is handling the asset forfeiture part of the case.