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May 23, 2012Detroit, MI, United StatesHuman Smuggling/Trafficking

Final defendant sentenced in international human trafficking scheme

DETROIT – A former U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Top 10 Most Wanted fugitive was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for crimes related to an international conspiracy to compel women to work in exotic dance clubs in metropolitan Detroit. The sentence comes after an extensive investigation by ICE's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Veniamin Gonikman, 56, who became a fugitive in 2005, was apprehended in January by 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 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.

"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 U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. "The Justice Department is committed to the aggressive prosecution of those who rob individuals of their freedom for financial gain."

"The defendants in this case preyed on young and vulnerable women from a foreign country. These women were brought to America with promises of education and travel, and, instead, forced to work in seedy strip clubs," said Brian M. Moskowitz, special agent in charge of HSI Michigan and Ohio." After more than seven years of unyielding resolve on the part of our special agents and prosecutors, we are able to formally end this horrific chapter in the lives of the victims and allow them to now move on knowing that justice has prevailed."

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 seven-and-a-half years 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; two Ukrainian nationals, Eygeniy Propenko and Alexander Bondarenko, who were convicted of visa fraud to facilitate victims' illegal entry into the United States; and 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, all three of whom pleaded guilty to obstruction-related charges.

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