3 charged in probe targeting international prostitution ring
SANTA ANA, Calif. – A Los Angeles man, along with his current wife and ex-wife, face federal charges following a 10-month probe that allegedly revealed they recruited women in Eastern Europe and arranged for them to come to the Los Angeles area to work as prostitutes.
Mher "Mike" Hakopyan, 38; his current wife, Natalya Muravyeva, 31; and his ex-wife, Alla Kassianova, 43, are accused in a federal complaint of conspiracy to transport in furtherance of prostitution. According to the case affidavit, the defendants operated a large-scale prostitution enterprise that brought women, primarily from Eastern Europe, to Southern California to work in the sex trade. Hakopyan and Muravyeva were arrested by special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and detectives from the Santa Monica Police Department Monday. Kassianova is still being sought at this time and investigators believe she may be out of the country.
The charges are the culmination of a joint probe by HSI and the Santa Monica Police Department. The two agencies received substantial assistance with the investigation from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California.
"The Department of Justice is committed to protecting vulnerable victims from ruthless profiteers," said U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr. "International prostitution rings like the one alleged in this case span jurisdictions and have a direct negative impact on both the women involved and also on our local communities. That is why partnerships with local law enforcement agencies, like the Santa Monica Police Department, are vital to our continued success in investigating and in prosecuting this criminal behavior."
According to the case affidavit, the defendants used recruiters in Eastern Europe to identify women who were potentially interested in working for the criminal organization. The defendants then allegedly purchased the women plane tickets and coached them how to enter the United States through the Visa Waiver Program.
Once the women arrived in the Los Angeles area, it is alleged the defendants helped them find housing and arranged for them to be professionally photographed. The provocative pictures were subsequently posted on various websites the defendants used to promote the ring's services, including eros-guide.com, cityvibe.com and thatmall.com. The case affidavit references 14 women definitively identified by special agents during the investigation whom the defendants either brought to the U.S. or attempted to bring to the U.S. to work as prostitutes.
"Criminal ventures like this degrade the quality of life in our neighborhoods, as well as the women involved," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of HSI Los Angeles. "HSI will continue to work closely with federal prosecutors and our law enforcement partners to attack and dismantle these types of enterprises that prey on the vulnerable and often bring other criminal activity into our area."
"If the allegations in this case prove true, the defendants' actions were reprehensible," said Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks. "I am quite pleased that our detectives' collaborative work with the federal authorities resulted in the service of warrants and the apprehension of predators who think nothing of taking advantage of a vulnerable segment of our community."
During Monday's enforcement action, special agents executed search warrants at a Los Angeles residence and two area apartments that are suspected of serving as brothels for the ring.
The probe began in September 2011 after CBP officers intercepted two Latvian women at Los Angeles International Airport who were attempting to enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program. When questioned by CBP officers about the purpose of their trip, the women's stories included many inconsistencies. Subsequently, a query of DHS databases indicated the women's travel reservations had been made by defendant Hakopyan. The women were ultimately refused entry and returned to Moscow.
"This case demonstrates the keen instincts and high level of vigilance of CBP officers at LAX for the detection and disruption of foreign criminal ventures in the United States," said Todd C. Owen, CBP director of Field Operations in Los Angeles. "These arrests highlight the spirit of cooperation and collaboration between our federal agencies, as well as with our local law enforcement partners."
Hakopyan and Muravyeva made their initial appearance in federal court in Santa Ana Monday afternoon. Both were ordered held without bail. If convicted of the current charge contained in the criminal complaint, the defendants each face a maximum penalty of five years in prison.