In October 1996, Alex Mishulovich went to Latvia to pick up women.
He planned to lure them from Riga to Chicago with the promise of handsome wages, then put them to work for a pittance as strippers. FBI documents describe Mishulovich, who declined to be interviewed for this article, as "a Russian male, black hair, grey eyes, 5'11" tall, and 185 pounds." He wears glasses with black frames that look like they could be sold as industrial-strength. His face is plump, his hair receding. At the time of his trip to Latvia, he was 36 and living with his mother in a modest ranch house in Lincolnwood. The two had fled the Soviet Union 15 years earlier with the assistance of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an agency that helped tens of thousands of Jews flee Soviet persecution in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Prominent Chicago defense attorney Edward Genson, who cross-examined Mishulovich in 1999, marveled at the contrast between Mishulovich's appearance and his mission in Latvia.
Genson: I mean, I will be real frank with you, you are about as pretty as I am. You? Someone picked you to go to Latvia to pick up beautiful women?
Mishulovich: Well, I don't think I am that ugly...
G: What's your reputation?
M: As a ladies' man.
G: You're a ladies' man?
G: All right. How long have you been a ladies' man?
M: Since I was born.
The evidence supports Mishulovich. He landed five women on that trip whom he forcibly put to work as "exotic dancers." A court reporter who sat through his testimony in the Dirksen Building offers an explanation for his success. "The voice," she says, "does not match the face."
In Riga, Mishulovich had some help. He knew the city a bit, having been there before, and he claimed to have organized-crime connections there who would do his bidding. He also had Latvian beauty Rudite Pede, then 20 years old, blond, blue eyed, and five foot ten, who acted as a sort of assistant recruiting officer. Lastly, social and economic conditions in Latvia had made emigration an attractive option for many. In 1992, a year after Latvia achieved independence from the Soviet Union, the infant mortality rate was nearly three times that of neighboring Finland and the suicide rate was more than twice that of the United States. Mafia-style gangs had achieved significant power; in a five-year period ending in the early 1990s, the homicide rate had increased 75 percent. A 1998 World Bank survey established that some everyday necessities could not be ensured without a bribe, that a third to a half of the transactions with government agencies required an "unofficial payment," that buying government jobs was common, and that half the midlevel public officials who took bribes shared them with their colleagues--an indication that the bribe-taking culture was well entrenched. According to World Bank data, in 1996, when Mishulovich arrived in Riga, the waiting time for installation of a phone line was 6.8 years, there were 7.9 personal computers for every 1,000 residents, and annual per capita income was $2,300 per year.
Mishulovich's recruiting methods were not sophisticated. He'd size up women on the street, most in their late teens and early 20s, and if he thought they'd look good with their clothes off he'd introduce himself. First he'd comment on his target's appearance, saying she looked like a model or a dancer. Then he'd explain that he was the owner of a sophisticated, high-end gentleman's club in Chicago, and that he was looking to hire dancers who could make $60,000 a year, though for the first year half their wages would go to him. Some of the women were told they'd be wearing gowns, others believed they'd be wearing bikinis and two pairs of pantyhose. All were told that there would be no nudity and no touching.
Mishulovich spoke in Russian, something of a handicap in a nation that only recently threw off the Soviet yoke, but he had Pede in tow. She would offer reassurance in Latvian, saying she was Mishulovich's girlfriend, this was a wonderful opportunity, and she would be taking up the offer herself. "He was very convincing," a woman named Agita later testified. "I'd say he was persistent because he walked three blocks down the street with me...just talking, talking, talking." (Agita was a witness in the case of U.S. v. Vadim Gorr, the transcript of which is the source of all testimony cited in this article. In that case, Mishulovich's five recruits were identified solely by their first names in order to spare them further humiliation and embarrassment. The women have thus been difficult to locate. Requests for interviews passed to them through the U.S. attorney's office have been consistently declined.)
Agita was then 20 years old. She was working full-time as a waitress in Riga's Radisson Hotel, earning $300 a month, and was attending the University of Latvia full-time as well. She spoke French, Russian, English, and Latvian, and Mishulovich talked with her three times before she agreed to sign on.
Linda, 22, was also fluent in several languages and attending the university. She was employed as a marketing manager for an international firm and was earning $800 a month, a fine salary by Latvian standards. She brought Mishulovich a third recruit when her roommate Agnessa came along to a follow-up interview. Vika (short for Viktorija) was the youngest of the five. She was 17 and spoke very little English. The tall, blond Tatiana was in her mid-20s and worked in a shop selling leather goods. She spoke no English at all.
Linda recalled that Mishulovich approached her wearing a long black coat, white shirt, and black pants. He had a sort of goatee. "I was suspicious about his looks," she said, "not because of the way he dressed, but because of his shaved head. But even being 21, 22, I was intelligent enough not to judge people by the looks."
Linda played along, not because she was sold on the idea of dancing for Mishulovich but because he was arranging visas for the participants. She knew visas didn't come easy and she thought it would be handy to have one. On October 29, 1996, she and Agnessa met him in a cafe to fill out visa applications. Mishulovich filled in the forms, explaining that they would apply for tourist visas because work visas were rarely granted. In federal court three years later he would say that he gave all five women the same instructions: to tell the consular officers that they were friends of his coming to the United States as tourists, that they intended to stay for only two weeks, and that they had no intention of seeking employment. "Because of the fact that they were extremely attractive," he explained, "I told them to be very low-key, to dress down, to wear no makeup, and to basically act like they were nice and clean girls." He told the women that he had to pay a $600 bribe to someone in the embassy, a fee that would be deducted from their wages in the United States. In court three years later he'd admit no bribe had been paid.
At the time he sat down with Linda and Agnessa, Mishulovich had already secured visas for Agita, Tatiana, and Vika, but he'd aroused the curiosity of U.S. consular officer Robert Tatge in the process. Tatge was taken aback when Mishulovich showed up a second time with two additional women. "He was extremely suspicious of this whole business with the girls," Mishulovich recalled on the witness stand. "So the first question that came out of his mouth was 'Alex, what is going on with these girls? Tell me the truth.' I looked at him and I said, 'Nothing. It is all legitimate. These girls are coming to the States as friends of mine. I am simply doing them a favor.'"
Tatge quizzed Mishulovich about his line of work. Mishulovich told him he had formerly been involved in selling medical supplies and equipment but now owned a small company with two employees called Trades R Us, that the firm had been selling stocks since 1989, and that it now grossed about $800,000 a year. Mishulovich later testified that this was all a complete fabrication. "Mr. Tatge was very, very hesitant and it took me at least ten minutes of conversing with him, using all of my, pardon my French--charm. I said, 'Mr. Tatge, please believe me, I am telling you the truth, truly there is nothing shady about these applications, I am simply doing these girls a tremendous favor. You know how much they want to come to the United States.' He says, 'Yeah, I can certainly understand that part.' And I said, 'I can personally guarantee that they will come back even if I have to personally put them on a plane in Chicago.' And he said, 'I will approve these visas, but remember one thing, Alex. I will never ever approve another visa for you in Riga, Latvia. Don't come back.'" Tatge told the women to return in a few days to pick up their passports and visas, and Mishulovich decided to send the women in on their own. He didn't want to push his luck with a third appearance at the embassy.
Linda, however, was having second thoughts. She testified, "We walked outside the embassy, and Alex wanted to take a look at my and Agnessa's passport. He did. And I asked for my passport back, and he said 'Wait a minute,' and he suddenly became really rude and he totally changed. And I was scared. I saw that strange expression on his face, and I thought, 'Something is not right here.' And I told him that I'm not going to go. I have important work coming up and I have changed my mind....He was shouting and screaming at me. He said that he supposed he was going to get $60,000 from me, and he would have arranged a visa for someone else, and now he's not going to get anybody else over because of me, he's not going to get another visa issued at the embassy, and I better change my mind, otherwise I'm going to be sorry for the rest of my life....He said that he was going to cut up my pretty face so no one is ever going to look at me, and my life was going to change from that point, as well as my family's...
"I asked him if it was possible for me to go later," her testimony continued. "And I thought that I was going to somehow get out of it. He said no, you have to decide now, and you have to go whenever I need you to go....He also said that my friend Agnessa, in case of me not going to the States, she would have to be responsible for my actions, she would have to work twice as hard and make up for my mistake....Agnessa was begging me to go. She was crying, and she said we are going to get out of it somehow." Linda said she would go.
Asked why she didn't call the police at that point, Linda explained, "Being raised and born in Latvia, I have no reason to trust the police over there. Organized crime is so much more powerful. That's just how it is. My family has lots of friends who own their businesses, they pay money to the organized crime, and the police cannot do anything about it. It has been going on for a while."
Mishulovich's account of the confrontation was similar to Linda's, though he denied saying he would cut her face. "I called her a couple of bad names. And I said, 'Remember, Linda, that you are playing with the wrong guy.' I said that you know what happens to people who don't behave. You are in Latvia, don't forget, and you have known of cases where other girls have had problems, where their heads were cut off."
Tatge's decision not to grant Mishulovich any more visas meant that he now had no way to bring his girlfriend Rudite Pede over. Fortune intervened, however, when he went out for a drink and saw an American who could not cover his bar tab. Mishulovich paid it and asked the American, an attorney from California, to do him a favor in return. He'd been a good guy too many times, Mishulovich said, he'd sponsored too many women lately, and now he couldn't get a visa for his girlfriend. So the attorney showed up at the embassy on Halloween 1996 masquerading as Pede's friend and sponsor. Tatge approved the application and Pede was told to come back in a few days to pick up the visa. Afterward, Pede, Mishulovich, and the attorney decided to celebrate with lunch at a nearby seafood restaurant.
Unfortunately for Mishulovich, they ran into Tatge on the street. "I will never forget the look on his face. And he said, 'Alex, you better call me ASAP and show up at the embassy.' And I said, 'Yes sir.'"
Instead, Mishulovich, who'd already dispatched Agita, Vika, and Tatiana, made immediate plans to fly to Chicago with Agnessa and Linda. Pede had no choice but to stay in Riga. Tatge rejected her application and told her it would be futile to apply again.
Mishulovich had instructed Agita, Tatiana, and Vika to dress conservatively for their plane trip to Chicago, wear no makeup, and stick to the cover story. They arrived at O'Hare on October 22, 1996. Customs officials questioned them for several hours and then called in Serguie Tcharouchine, the man who'd arrived to pick them up, and grilled him as well. After Tcharouchine was fingerprinted and photographed, he and the Latvians were sent on their way.
FBI documents describe Tcharouchine as blond, blue eyed, five foot nine, and 160 pounds. After that it gets less certain. The FBI reports that he has two names (he was also known as Vladimer Zuravel), two birthdays (January 13, 1963, and October 25, 1965), and two social security numbers. At the time the women arrived he also had two taxicabs on the go, driven by himself and his roommate, a fellow Russian who played no role in the trafficking scheme and who was rarely in the one-bedroom apartment they rented in Mount Prospect.
Linda and Agnessa arrived in early November, met the other three Latvians for the first time, and became the sixth and seventh residents of the one-bedroom flat. Mishulovich collected the women's passports and tickets, allegedly for safekeeping. Shortly thereafter, Tcharouchine, his roommate, and the five women moved into a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment nearby.
Serguie Tcharouchine is now a fugitive. Alex Mishulovich's account of the trafficking scheme's origins is thus the only one available, and it should be noted that Mishulovich has admitted to lying under oath. On the witness stand, Mishulovich claimed that Tcharouchine was the mastermind, that he presented the idea when the two men bumped into each other in a store that sold stolen goods, and that they sealed the deal over dinner in a Thai restaurant. According to Mishulovich, Tcharouchine had some experience in this line of work, but he wasn't an American citizen, and he allegedly felt that Mishulovich, who was, would be useful as a sponsor for the women's visas. In addition, Mishulovich spoke English well, was a good salesman, and could be quite the ladies' man.
The two partners wanted to get the women dancing as quickly as they could, but they needed forged documents that would pass muster with potential employers. Those documents proved to be harder to obtain than they'd first thought, and Mishulovich became increasingly perturbed as weeks passed and the women earned no money. In the meantime, the women were kept close at hand. Mishulovich later testified that he and Tcharouchine laid down the rules together. "What was said was the following--that the girls were not to leave the apartment on their own. They are only to leave if they are accompanied by him or me. They are not to make phone calls. They are not to associate with any residents in the apartment complex. If there is anything they needed, they should ask for it and it would be provided by Serguie or I. And when the girls started to wonder why this should be implemented...they were told by Serguie that it is for their own safety, that the area we were living in was not very good, and who knows what could possibly happen to attractive young ladies from overseas."
Tcharouchine allowed the women to go to a strip mall about 150 yards from the flat. The mall contained a video store, a nail salon, and a grocery store, and there was a Wendy's across the street. This privilege ended, however, after Vika and Agnessa went to Wendy's one evening and didn't come back promptly. After several hours had passed, Mishulovich and Tcharouchine found Vika and Agnessa having a drink with a man in a pizza parlor about a mile and a half away. They took the women back to the flat, where the other three Latvians had been locked in a bedroom. Linda recalled hearing shouting and screaming, and when it subsided finding Vika with a bloody nose and a black eye.
After that, the women weren't allowed to leave the apartment without Mishulovich or Tcharouchine as an escort. "There was somebody always following us, even to the tanning booth," Linda recalled. "When we were jogging, Serguie was standing on the balcony watching us." There was a phone in the apartment, but Serguie took the handset with him whenever he left. The women were allowed to write letters, but they were dependent upon Mishulovich to mail them, and he usually didn't.
While waiting for the forged documents, Tcharouchine began to tinker with the women's appearance--he thought they'd make more money with a different look. He took Agita to a beauty parlor to change her into a platinum blond, and he bought color treatment at Walgreen's to lighten Tatiana's hair. To teach the women to dance, he and Mishulovich showed them the videos Striptease and Showgirls. They also brought the women to gentlemen's clubs, including one where the women, Agita recalled, "expose themselves to the point where there is nothing more to expose....We were horrified. We never thought we would have to do anything like this and we refused to do it. We told Alex, 'We are not going to do this kind of dancing.' Alex said he didn't care. If we get hired at that club, that is what we will do."
Toward the end of November 1996, Mishulovich paid $500 for California driver's licenses and social security cards for the women. Linda became Irene Romansky. Agita became Anita Olsen. The women were tested on the details of their new identities and then Tcharouchine and Mishulovich took them to audition at Skybox, a club in Harvey.
Linda was the first onstage. "I didn't see anybody dancing before me, so I just got on the stage and I danced like I regularly dance," she recalled. "The next girl...danced the same way." After seeing all five, the manager approached Mishulovich. "He came over to me and said, 'Are you sure that these girls ever danced before as strippers?' I said, 'Well, as far as I know, we are just friends trying to help them get a job, but as far as I know, yeah, they danced in LA.' He said, 'Well, it doesn't appear that they have any experience whatsoever as to how to dance in a gentlemen's club.'"
The women were hired anyway. Hired is a term used loosely here. Some strip clubs pay dancers the legal minimum wage, while others pay no wage at all, and Skybox was one of the latter. A dancer's income there came entirely from tips. Women took in money onstage, and offstage they added to that by "hustling" private dances. Agita testified, "Alex says we should never just sit at the bar. We should walk around and talk to guys, ask them, 'Do you want to dance?' Because he had gone into Crazy Horse one time and he was sometimes referring to this little ugly some-kind-of-girl who was working there and all that she did was hustling all night, just asking for dances, and she is walking home with $600 every night."
Agita recalled that Skybox offered three types of private dances. "The first would be bikini, and the second type was topless, and the third type was nude. And it did get even worse than that because topless and nude dances were available as lap dances, which basically means that you are sitting in a guy's lap, more in his crotch area than in his lap.
"I never got naked for strangers before in my life and all of a sudden I was in a situation where I not only had to hustle, meaning talk them into having a dance with me, but actually I have to pretend that I am comfortable with the whole process." She found it helpful to drink on the job. "That is just a way for me to loosen up and sort of just get over it."
Agita said the manager told her she'd just have to learn how to dance "from the other girls." She kept a small book in which she listed her nightly earnings, and it seems to indicate that she was a quick study. The first night she made $158, the second $310, the third $346. At last the money was coming in. She was making in one day what had taken her a month to earn in Latvia.
Some of the other women, however, were not doing so well. Linda, in particular, refused to hustle. She had objected in the car immediately after her Skybox audition. "She said that 'this is not what you told me, Alex, on the streets of Riga, that I am supposed to do,'" Mishulovich recalled on the witness stand. "'You told me that there is going to be no nudity involved, that it is going to be a high-end nightclub and it doesn't appear to be one.' She said that she doesn't feel comfortable at all taking her top off and she doesn't really feel like dancing in that capacity. To which I said, 'Linda, do not act like you're Virgin Mary. You know perfectly well that your job is to be a dancer. There is nothing wrong with taking your top off. You are an attractive, young, good-looking lady who speaks fluent English and you will make a lot of money.' She said, 'Well, I don't know if I can go on with this.'"
Linda proved the most unenthusiastic, and Tatiana also was a poor earner. Mishulovich recalled that Tcharouchine was infuriated. "He told me that I have absolutely no clue what kind of girls to bring from Riga. I told him it is not my fault, it is not like I have ever done it before....And I said, 'Maybe they just need more time, maybe they'll get better, it's not that difficult. It appears to be not the most complicated business in the world to master.' He said, 'I don't know,' and I think he said, 'The girls are lazy on top of that.'"
Mishulovich took half the women's earnings for the first two nights, per the original agreement. On the third night, Agita testified, he told them they weren't making enough money, that he had his expenses to recover--the plane tickets, the alleged bribe to the visa officer, the rent, the hair-dyeing job. "And he searched all our things, our wallets, and he took all the money away, leaving us with $20."
After the first week, the men had a series of conversations with the women about their earnings. "Serguie expressed his total surprise at their inability to dance," Mishulovich testified. "And the girls would respond, 'Look, this is the best we can do. Give us some time, maybe we are able to learn better, it is just a matter of time.' And Serguie told them, well they better get to it real fast, this is a business, this is not a game. They know exactly why they are in Chicago."
The money, however, did not increase, and the nightly evaluations got more threatening. "It was suggested by both of us that if they do not increase their earning potential they can always do other things," Mishulovich testified. "At which point the girls said, 'What do you mean other things?'...Serguie said, 'Well, you can always work as prostitutes.' And the girls were completely startled....And I believe one of the girls started to cry, I don't recall who. And I said, 'Well, if it doesn't work out you can always work for $5 a trick with the Mexicans.'...I also told them if they do not increase their earning potential, harm may come to them and or their families in Riga....I told them that because of my organized-crime connections in Riga, I can always make a phone call and harm may come to their families."
Recalling the specifics of the threats, Agita testified that Mishulovich had threatened to have his friends in the Chechen Mafia in Riga go to her mother's apartment and torture her. "He would describe it in detail," Agita told the court. "Like they would cut off her ears, and then her nose, and then just kill her."
She testified that Mishulovich had boasted of knowing the head of the Chechen Mafia in Riga, a man she identified as Ibriham, and Tatiana told the other women that she had seen the two men together in restaurants in Riga. Agita believed that Mishulovich had been able to get visas for his Chechen friends, who would do his bidding because they were grateful and needed his assistance. The women were certain that if they went to the police they would be deported (they were, after all, working illegally) and Mishulovich would then make sure that harm came to them back in Latvia.
Linda was singled out for threats because her performance was so disappointing. She refused to dance topless, while some of the other women were already dancing nude and making much more money. Mishulovich testified that Linda was coming home with $40 to $50 a night. "He said that he was going to lock me into the basement and make me have sex with Mexicans or he was going to kill me and pour acid over me and no one's ever going to find me," Linda testified. The day after that particular threat she began to dance topless. "I didn't feel good at all. I was constantly drinking before I even could go up the stage and do that. I was drinking on a nightly basis." Her income rose, but not enough for her masters.
"Alex gave me different choices, either to ask my relatives [in the United States] for money or he gave me one more chance, one more day to go to the club and make some more money, and if I didn't my dancing career would be over. And the next day I went to the club, and the money I made was still not enough. And Alex said something to me and I said something back to him and he slammed me into the wall and I passed out. Agita dragged me into the bathroom. I was throwing up and I was unconscious. I guess I had a brain concussion, and I was in bed for about three days. I was not able to even stand up. I was feeling dizzy."
Mishulovich also recalled the incident, though he thought it might have occurred earlier, when Linda had objected to Vika's beating. "I pushed her hard into the wall of the apartment....She hit the back of her head against the wall....She slid down on to the floor and she started to cry....And then she told me that she is not feeling good at all and she went into the bathroom and locked herself into the bathroom for probably three, four hours....I heard her vomiting a couple of times." A doctor was ruled out. "The overriding concern," Mishulovich explained, "was that if she were to be taken to a hospital the whole scheme with the girls would be uncovered by law enforcement....I was very concerned that as it was me who was involved in the visa application process, that I was going to be in big, big trouble, and because of that, which was truly the overriding factor, I decided not to take her to the hospital."
Linda recalled that she returned to Skybox about four days after being slammed into the wall. She danced nude.
Agita testified that the women's nights settled into a routine. After their shift at Skybox ended at 2:30 AM, Mishulovich or Tcharouchine would drive them home, and then everyone would congregate in the bedroom shared by Agita, Linda, and Agnessa and the women would hand their earnings to Mishulovich. "After that," Agita recalled, "he would give a speech, we are not making enough money, and it would be more beneficial to him to sell us off as prostitutes for $40,000 and then we would be transferred to South America or South Africa and would be forced to work as prostitutes for $5 a trick. Or, he would kill our parents. Or whatever. After that he would count the money and he would give us $20, $30, $10, whatever it was at the time. He searched our bags constantly."
Agita testified that Vika was usually the highest earner, though she was often drunk by the end of the shift. Vika talked back to Mishulovich during the nightly lecture, and thus the after-work ritual often included the beating of the teenager.
In an effort to make more money, the women were dispatched to different clubs. Linda danced topless at Crazy Horse, at Weed and Kingsbury, and by early January 1997 was earning between $200 and $600 per night, though she said it all went to the men. The rising income didn't have a sedative effect on Mishulovich and Tcharouchine, between whom a certain tension was building. "I think the reason they started fighting was because Alex found out that Serguie has a relationship with Vika, which wasn't allowed," Agita recalled, "and I think Serguie suspected that Alex was taking his money away somehow." One night, the men locked all five women in a closet and began fighting. Agita testified that Tcharouchine beat Mishulovich with a nightstick, breaking his leg.
On January 6, 1997, Agita, Linda, and Tcharouchine visited a Jewel-Osco in Des Plaines. When the women were done shopping they went out to the car. A half hour or more passed, and the women went back inside to see what was taking Tcharouchine so long. They arrived in time to see him ushered out in handcuffs. He'd been caught shoplifting cough medicine and fake eyelashes.
Frightened, Agita and Linda called Mishulovich from a nearby liquor store (they couldn't call from home because Tcharouchine had the phone). Mishulovich feared that the police would come to Tcharouchine's flat and find the women there, so he drove to Mount Prospect, loaded everybody into the car, and moved them into the three-bedroom home he shared with his elderly mother in Lincolnwood. When Tcharouchine left jail a couple of days later he tried to get the women back into his apartment, but Mishulovich insisted that the Lincolnwood arrangement was better because his house had more room than Tcharouchine's flat. At about that time, Agita testified, Mishulovich began to talk about killing his partner.
Thus began a new regime. Because neighbors of Mrs. Mishulovich and her son might have been curious about the sudden appearance of five attractive women, they were, in the son's words, "confined to the house." They left for and came from work by way of the attached garage. Agita and Linda testified that Mrs. Mishulovich monitored the women when her son was away and assigned them chores like cleaning the oven and mopping the floors.
Linda's shift at Crazy Horse started at eight and ended at four. She said that by the time the women had taken turns showering and gotten to bed, it was usually 6 AM. She and Agita shared a couch about as wide as a twin bed. Agnessa slept in the kitchen. "At about ten o'clock in the morning," Linda recalled, "the shouting and screaming at the house started because Alex's mother was constantly having arguments with her son. They were shouting, screaming, slamming doors. We couldn't get any sleep. We had to get up and start cleaning the house, and at about six o'clock we had to start getting ready for work."
Mishulovich admitted to deploying a variety of techniques to control the women. He testified that he slapped and pushed them, and that he pulled Vika's hair because she was drinking too much and messing up his house. He cleaned his 11 guns in the women's presence. "I would disassemble them and dry-fire them in the general direction where the ladies were at....It was designed to let them know who the boss was, that they are dealing with a very serious guy. It was designed to control the women." Linda recalled an occasion when he pressed a knife against her throat during an argument about earning more money. Mishulovich denied that, but he testified that he hit Linda with a stick and ripped a locket off her neck. The locket contained a photo of her mother. "I told her that if she tries to do anything or if she is not going to make more money, she has to understand that I can always use the picture of her mother to be sent to my connections in Riga and they can always use that picture to locate her mother, and she may receive some harm."
Agita testified that when he lounged around the house, Mishulovich's favorite outfit was a loose robe. "We would sometimes watch TV in the living room, so all of us would sit in line on the carpet and he would sit in this little sort of chair behind us, and we could sense some movement behind us and there was this sound of--he was masturbating."
Edward Genson, the attorney who professed astonishment at Mishulovich's ability to pick up beautiful women, also claimed to be baffled by his household habits.
Genson: Did you walk around in the nude in front of these women?
G: Did you masturbate in front of these women?
M: On several occasions.
M: Well, at that time I didn't have sex with anybody for a long time...and I was surrounded by very attractive women, so.
G: You couldn't find a closet or a bathroom or something?
M: You know, I cannot even answer that question.
G: Was your mother home?
M: My mother was always in one room and she would never leave the room.
In early February, Agita and Agnessa were working at the Admiral, at Lawrence and Harding, while Linda, Vika, and Tatiana were at Crazy Horse. Around midnight on February 7, Tcharouchine showed up at the Admiral in an agitated state and claimed that Mishulovich had just tried to kill him. According to Agita, he said he'd gone to a scheduled meeting with his partner in an industrial area and been jumped by two men. He asked Agita and Agnessa to leave with him.
"We said, 'Why? What difference does it make?'" Agita recalled. "And he says if we go with him he will find us a job and we can keep 75 percent of the money we will make." Seventy-five percent sounded a whole lot better than the $20 a night Mishulovich was allowing them to keep. Agita gathered her belongings--a pair of jeans, some boots, some T-shirts, a leather jacket, a box of makeup, and a few outfits for work. In order to avoid a confrontation with Mishulovich, she and Agnessa walked out four hours before the end of their shift. The Admiral's management didn't take well to this turn of events and fired them. The trio stayed in a Motel 6 until February 12, when they moved into an unfurnished studio apartment in the Catherine Courts complex on the far northwest side.
Mishulovich couldn't find the missing women. He tried phoning Agita's mother in Latvia. "He said to my mother that she had to disclose my location, and if she won't, she will be killed," Agita later testified. "The Chechen Mafia guys are going to come over and torture her and kill her." But Agita's mother didn't tell him where her daughter was.
Mishulovich took precautions to protect the rest of his workforce. Linda testified that no one danced for two weeks after Agita and Agnessa bolted. "He told me that he was going to kill Serguie and he's going to do the same with Agita and Agnessa, and in order for the rest of us to believe that he really did that, he's going to cut their ears off and show them to us. And if we ever had something like that on mind, he was going to kill us as well."
But Vika and Linda decided to take the chance. Vika left first, and Linda followed her to Tcharouchine's a short time later. Of the original five, only Tatiana remained with Mishulovich. But he now had one more dancer. Rudite Pede, Mishulovich's Latvian girlfriend, had managed to sneak into the country on February 12, 1997, just four months after her ruse with the American attorney had been discovered by Tatge, the consular officer.
Pede bore a striking resemblance to a friend of hers, Dace Medeniece. She'd fixed her hair in Medeniece's style and had a photo taken that Medeniece then used to apply for a Latvian passport. When it was issued, Mishulovich paid a friend to fly to Riga for a few days and sponsor Medeniece for a visa. Pede flew to Chicago on her friend's passport and quickly began dancing. She gave all of her earnings to Mishulovich. In May, three months after her arrival, they became husband and wife.
Agita, Linda, Agnessa, and Vika could move about freely under Tcharouchine's regime. Vika and Linda had managed to keep their jobs at Crazy Horse, but Agita and Agnessa had no work and no fake documents to help them land a job. They thought of claiming their passports had been stolen, but discovered that a replacement passport would allow them to fly home but be of no use for finding work. Agita later testified that she feared going home because of Mishulovich's friends in the Mafia. She felt safer in the United States, where she might still be of value to Mishulovich. He still had her passport and fake IDs, and she hoped he'd decide not to hurt someone who might eventually return to his control.
On March 26, Tcharouchine was deported because of the shoplifting. Even though Agita says he'd beaten her, she had mixed feelings about seeing him go. None of the women wanted to go back to Mishulovich.
They discussed their predicament with Vadim Gorr, a friend of Tcharouchine's who'd helped them pack his bags. A stocky, brown-haired, broad-shouldered man of 27, Gorr had fled Russia for the United States and Americanized his name, changing it from Gorokhovski. He supported his wife and daughter by driving a cab, and he'd started a medical supply business. Not long after Agita's arrival in the United States, he'd taken her to a doctor for treatment of a gynecological problem. He'd also helped secure the apartment after Agita and Agnessa fled Mishulovich; when Tcharouchine's lease application was rejected because of his credit history, Gorr signed the lease.
In January and February, Gorr began to drop by the flat on a regular basis. Agita testified that he was involved in trying to find the women fake IDs so they could work, but that Gorr had reservations about their employment. Agita said that Gorr told Mishulovich the women shouldn't work as strippers, and told her she could find work as a house cleaner at $10 an hour.
Agita testified that Gorr took her to dinner one night at a Greek restaurant and then to a "cheap motel." "I told him that I don't want to have sex with him," she told the court, "but he kept going on how good it would be to have somebody he can count on, and he can help me with employment, and Serguie doesn't like me at all, you know, and I could always have somebody to fall back on, and all that." Assistant U.S. attorney Terry Kinney, who questioned Agita in federal court, asked why she didn't leave and walk home. "Where would I walk?" she answered. "I didn't know where I was." Agita testified that they wound up in "one of those rooms where blankets are spotted and they're nasty. We just had sex."
In mid-February 1997, Gorr was vacationing in Cancun with his wife when he met Thomas English, a chiropractor from Green Bay who volunteered to look for work for the women at strip clubs in Wisconsin. On April 2, six days after Tcharouchine was deported, Agita and Agnessa moved into English's house trailer. They auditioned for jobs at Beansnappers in Appleton, which Agita described as "a totally nude dance club with a lot of exposing of private parts." Agnessa was hired; Agita, who was struggling with her weight, was not. After about two weeks Agnessa lost her job; in that part of Wisconsin, dancers rotated from one club to another, and other club owners weren't so willing to hire someone who had no documentation. The two women then worked briefly as waitresses using English's daughter's social security number.
Agnessa and Agita returned by bus to Chicago in early May, about the time that Gorr negotiated a deal with Mishulovich. Under this arrangement, Gorr and Mishulovich would each get 25 percent of the dancers' earnings and the women would keep the rest, though they'd have to spend some of it for their living expenses. After they'd paid Mishulovich the $30,000 he said they owed him, they could have their passports and do whatever they wanted.
On May 9 the women went to work at the Skybox, where they'd begun their dancing careers six months earlier. After a few days Gorr lowered his portion of the take from 25 percent to a flat $50 a night. Gorr initially asked for no payment for driving them to work, though it was a considerable trek as he lived in Lake Zurich. After a few days, however, he began to charge for the rides. According to Agita's testimony, the fee began at $5 apiece per ride and rose by $5 increments at least once a week, reaching a high of $35. When some of the women began working at the Dollhouse in Stone Park, he charged them less as it was not so long a ride. Mishulovich would turn up at the end of the women's shift to collect his cash, which was sometimes simply passed from Gorr's car to his.
At that point, love and the police changed the landscape. Though he pretended to Mishulovich that he was keeping them cloistered, Gorr allowed the women to go out on dates. Dr. Mac Scott, a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology and frequent patron of the Skybox, gave Agita his pager number on May 24, and about a week later she called him and asked him to dinner at Gibson's. Their second date was at Jilly's, a Rush Street piano bar. While waiting for Scott by the front window, Agita had the misfortune of being spotted by Mishulovich, who happened to be cruising down the street. He did nothing then, but she testified that he fined her $500 for the offense.
At about the same time that Agita met Scott, Linda took up with Chris Wright. Wright, then a British citizen, was in the initial stages of getting a divorce. He sold cars at Northside Ford, and he'd met Linda when he'd gone to the Skybox for a friend's bachelor party. Within a short period the two were spending nights together after Linda's shift ended and conspiring with Gorr to hide the relationship from Mishulovich.
Not long after meeting Wright, Linda began dancing at the Dollhouse, a club she preferred because it was higher class and she danced topless there, not nude. One night in late May, Mishulovich, who was waiting in the Dollhouse parking lot to collect his share of the nightly earnings, saw Linda get into Wright's car instead of Gorr's van. He was enraged. "I said to the guy, 'Look, who gave you the right to pick up the girl? Why is she sitting in your vehicle? What do you intend to do with Linda?' He said, 'I know about you guys, I know what you are all about, you don't scare me. I know the whole story. She is coming with me tonight.' And I said, 'No, she is not leaving with you. She is leaving with Vadim and the rest of the girls.' He said no. I realized that it wasn't going the way I thought it was going to go. And I said, 'What is it that you want?'"
Wright acted cool and unintimidated. Unknown to Mishulovich, he was carrying a gun. By coincidence, several police cars were nearby, and they may have helped Mishulovich decide that this was not a situation he could resolve by threat or violence. He chose to do business. Wright and Mishulovich have pretty much the same recollection of how that began: Mishulovich suggested that if Wright bought Linda's passport, he could do whatever he wanted with "the Baltic whore." He could "cut her, suck her, fuck her, or throw her in the river." Mishulovich suggested that they meet at some other time and talk "like normal people" about it.
While this went on, Gorr was standing by. According to Wright, Gorr told Linda that the other women would suffer if she did not go with them. Tearfully, Linda got into the van, and Wright, Gorr, and Mishulovich agreed to talk soon about her passport.
During those negotiations, Mishulovich dropped his price from $15,000 to $7,500. Wright eventually got the passport for $6,000, then told Mishulovich, who still wanted more, "to go to hell."
Mishulovich and Gorr had good reason to divest themselves of the documents and the women--they feared the police were on to the operation. When Mishulovich was out one day, his mother called and told him that a policeman was at the door. He advised her to hide Tatiana in the basement. FBI agent Michael Brown, who later investigated Mishulovich, believes that the officer knocking on the door probably was from the Chicago Police Department. According to Brown, consular officer Robert Tatge in Riga had set the law enforcement bureaucracy in motion, and when word reached the Chicago police that something might be amiss, an officer drove out to Lincolnwood. Brown says the investigation languished on a back burner after that initial trip, but Mishulovich didn't know that.
When Mishulovich told Agita that she'd be going home in June, she immediately called Scott. She recalled telling him, "I am not in a shape to go back home right now because I had come to the United States with all the excitement of making some kind of money and succeeding in some way and I'd have to go back home with just nothing, barely with the clothes I have on. You know I have spent all this time here and all I have seen are terror, threats, dancing, and basically no money. Whatever money I had saved I would have to spend on the ticket to get back home." Mishulovich had told her the ticket would cost her $600.
Scott agreed to help her buy her passport. Acting on advice from Chris Wright, Agita negotiated a price of $4,000, which she paid the two Russians with Scott's money on July 5.
Vika, Agnessa, and Tatiana weren't so lucky. They were summarily put on planes. Mishulovich described Vika's departure as follows: "I said, 'Viktorija, this is the day and the time. You must go back.' Mr. Gorr said, 'Viktorija, pick up your clothing, pack your stuff. You go back to Riga.' Viktorija said, 'I'm not going. Nobody told me I'm going.'...I said, 'Ten minutes to get your stuff together.' She proceeded to cry....She laid on the floor, and she said, 'I'm not going anywhere. You have to drag me out of this apartment.' At which point I told Viktorija, 'Viktorija, this is not necessary. There is no excuse. You have to get up, get your stuff together. Wipe your face, clean yourself. You're going to the airport.' She refused. She got up, but she refused. At which point I approached Viktorija and I pinched her on her behind. We got all her stuff together. I carried one of the suitcases. He carried another suitcase. We proceeded downstairs into the parking lot, got into the car, and drove her to the airport."
Gorr found himself out of the exotic dancer business. He made plans to open a restaurant in Algonquin. Rudite Pede still danced, but otherwise Mishulovich was existing on small commissions from his days as an insurance salesman. He wanted to get more women. In September, he and Gorr began plotting to import Dace Medeniece, the woman who'd loaned her passport to Pede. Medeniece entered the U.S. three months later using a new Latvian passport, having claimed that her old one had been lost. She went to work shortly after her arrival.
On September 30, 1997, Gorr and Mishulovich flew to Minsk, Belarus, to recruit more dancers. Mishulovich gave the same basic pitch he'd given in Riga a year earlier, though this time he promised that the women would return home after three to six months. In order to make the women's masquerade as tourists more believable, Mishulovich took his "five or six" prospects to a travel agency that prepared fraudulent documents, papers that would make the women seem to have well-paying jobs and assets in Minsk. Mishulovich said that the documents cost $400 to $500 for each woman.
On October 21, 1997, Mishulovich and Gorr, pretending to be strangers to each other, arrived at the U.S. embassy, each with a woman in tow. Consular officer Patricia Guy told Mishulovich to sit down--she wanted to speak only to the applicant. After a few minutes of conversation, Guy denied the application. The same thing happened to the woman Gorr was escorting.
An angry Mishulovich demanded an explanation. Guy said the applicant hadn't demonstrated economic ties to Belarus strong enough to bring her back home. "I said, 'That's not good enough. I need to speak to somebody else.' She said, 'This conversation is over.' Then I went back, sat down, and I motioned to Mr. Gorr and I said, 'Look, it appears to be a problem. They're not willing to issue any visas.' I go back to the window, and I knock on the window. The clerk comes out and she says, 'You have to leave.' I said, 'No.' She says, 'Well, we're going to have to call the marines.'"
Mishulovich recalled that guards cleared the room of the other people applying for visas and Gorr told their two women to leave as well. "About five minutes later a gentlemen dressed in a marine uniform came down to talk to us. He says, 'Gentlemen, I recommend for you to leave the premises voluntarily. This is not a good idea to argue. I understand you may have a problem, but this is not the way to go about it. Return back to your city, and then you can go through the proper channels.'...I said, 'Well, we're not going to leave. We're going to stay here until we get our visas.' He says, 'Well, I'm giving you this last chance.' At which point I said, 'No, we're not going anywhere.'"
Mishulovich testified that he and Gorr left after a second marine arrived, threatened to arrest them, and advised them to take their protest to the deputy chief of mission, John Boris. The two entrepreneurs met with Boris a few days later, to no avail.
At about the same time that Mishulovich and Gorr were recruiting new women, the old ones began to stir things up. Linda and Agita had flown home to Riga at the end of the summer, both with plans of coming back to Chicago. Agita hoped to get a student visa, and Dr. Scott had agreed to sponsor her. Linda's plan was for Chris Wright to apply for a fiancee visa for her after his divorce went through and he'd become a U.S. citizen himself.
When Agita walked into the U.S. embassy and submitted her application for a student visa, she was confronted by Robert Tatge, the consular officer who'd been so suspicious the year before. She told him what had happened in Chicago. He told her that if she cooperated with the American government he'd do his best to help her get the visa despite the fraud she'd committed on her last application. Agita went home and composed a lengthy statement. Linda later did the same. Both were interviewed by the FBI and subsequently testified before a federal grand jury in Chicago.
In December 1998 a grand jury indicted Mishulovich, Gorr, and Tcharouchine for visa fraud, conspiracy, and holding women in a condition of involuntary servitude. Rudite Pede, Mishulovich's Latvian wife, was charged with visa fraud and conspiracy, as was Dace Medeniece. Pede pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine months in prison and two years' probation. Since her release, she's worked as an exotic dancer and a model. A source close to the Mishulovich defense team says that Pede and her husband are now estranged--"and that is putting it kindly."
Dace Medeniece, who'd lent her Latvian passport to Pede, pleaded guilty to visa fraud and conspiracy. She was given three years' probation and agreed to be deported as soon as criminal proceedings against her coconspirators were completed.
Serguie Tcharouchine was a fugitive and remains one. Alex Mishulovich pleaded guilty to all charges and agreed to testify against Vadim Gorr.
Gorr's trial opened on December 7, 1999. He had little hope of beating the visa fraud charges--both because of the confrontation in the embassy in Minsk (the marines were scheduled to testify against him) and because he'd helped bring Medeniece into the country on a tourist visa (he'd forged an invitation from his mother that was traced to his fax machine). The involuntary servitude charges, however, were a different matter. It might be obvious that Mishulovich had forced the women to work, but it was not so clear that Gorr had.
Assistant U.S. attorneys Terry Kinney and Marsha McClellan depicted Gorr to the jury as someone who'd committed overt acts to further a conspiracy, and they explained that the overt acts themselves did not have to be illegal. Thus, by driving the women to work or to O'Hare for their return to Riga, Gorr allegedly furthered a conspiracy. On the basis of testimony from Agita, Linda, and Mishulovich, the prosecutors argued that Gorr had been the silent partner of Mishulovich and Tcharouchine. According to this testimony, Gorr had talked about trying to get back money he'd lent Tcharouchine by taking over his business assets, namely the women. The women put the loan amount at $10,000, Mishulovich at $15,000; but there was no canceled check, promissory note, or withdrawal or deposit slip to back up the story.
Someone who commits involuntary servitude forces another person to work by threats, force, or physical restraint, and prosecutors Kinney and McClellan argued that Gorr was guilty because the women knew they had to do his bidding to avoid the clutches of Mishulovich--whom McClellan referred to as "the lunatic in Lincolnwood." Kinney argued that the women were particularly vulnerable--two of them had little or no knowledge of English, and all were young, without passports, and without reason to trust the police, given where they'd come from. In the prosecution's view, Gorr had pressured Agita to have sex with him by taking advantage of her dependent status, a classic example of an indentured servant being forced to do something she didn't want to do because of a climate of fear established by the perpetrator. Agita had broken into tears as she'd recounted the incident on the witness stand. She'd remained dry-eyed throughout her discussion of the seemingly far greater nightmare of life under Mishulovich and Tcharouchine.
Edward Genson, who was Gorr's attorney, presented a starkly different view. He portrayed his client as someone who'd rescued the women from a bad situation, stepping in when Tcharouchine was deported so the women would not have to go back to Mishulovich. "The young ladies," he argued, "picked Vadim." If he'd been a silent partner to Mishulovich since the beginning, as the prosecution alleged, why had he urged Mishulovich not to put the women to work as strippers? Why would he prefer his high-earning dancers to work as low-wage house cleaners? Why would he voluntarily lower his percentage of their nightly earnings, agreeing to a flat fee of $50 instead of 25 percent? In Riga, the women had agreed to work for 50 percent of their nightly earnings. Under Gorr they'd done better than that. Under Gorr, there had been no threats, no guns, no knives, no talk of prostitution.
Genson argued that whether the women felt Gorr had charged too much for some of the rides he gave them to work was immaterial; he was charged with involuntary servitude, not with gouging taxi fares. Whether he'd slept with Agita in January was also irrelevant, Genson argued, as in January Gorr was simply a guy visiting pretty women at the apartment they shared with his friend Serguie. Gorr wasn't driving anyone to clubs at that point, and there was no testimony that Gorr had taken any money from the women, except for rent, until May 13.
Finally, there was the question of the "involuntary" part of the servitude charges. At some point Agita appeared to have embraced the profession. She testified that after agreeing to cooperate with Tatge in the investigation of the trafficking scheme, she'd been issued a student visa and had enrolled at DePaul, where she studied computer science. But though her visa prevented her from working until she'd spent two semesters at school, and though she'd promised Tatge she wouldn't work until she legally could, she broke that promise as soon as she returned to the United States in December 1997. Testifying in December 1999, she reluctantly admitted she'd been dancing at Scarlett's on South Clinton for two years.
Linda had also voluntarily gone back to stripping. She testified that when she reentered the United States in December 1998 she went to work at the Dollhouse. She portrayed the exotic dancing as a temporary job, but Genson produced employment records that indicated she'd danced for eight months. "He [Gorr] didn't make anybody work," Genson argued. "These ladies wanted to work. They just didn't want to give up any money, and I don't blame them."
Prosecutors argued that the issue was one of choice. With no men to oversee them, the women danced when they wanted to and no one held their passports. But the women's admissions called their character into question, and not for the only time at trial. Genson introduced photographs of a New Year's Eve party the women had attended at a friend's house in Indianapolis, photos provided him by the prosecution. The women had posed provocatively, one (according to the court reporter) with a banana.
Genson also had a field day with the government's star witness, Alex Mishulovich. Genson: "In any event, sir, you have been a scammer all your life, haven't you, sir?" Mishulovich: "Correct."
Mishulovich testified that in order to open a business as a commodities trader, he'd paid someone to take the licensing exam for him. He admitted that he'd lied under oath on previous occasions. He admitted that he'd filed a series of fraudulent insurance claims, that he'd gotten doctors to lie for him about his alleged injuries in those claims, and that he'd failed to pay taxes on the settlements. He confessed that he'd submitted fictional tax returns in a suit against the city in order to demonstrate that his alleged injury had had a dire effect on his earning power. On the fraudulent returns he'd claimed income of $183,491 in 1990 and $137,971 in 1991; his actual returns for those years showed income of $4,584 and $8,048.
He said that he'd forced Pede to claim a false injury in an auto accident, and that he'd submitted a phony list of assets to apply for a car loan in his mother's name. He said that the Toyota Camry he drove was listed in her name but she had no idea she was the owner. He admitted that he'd falsely claimed to own a travel agency in order to get discounts on plane fares. For someone who reported so little income to the IRS, he seemed remarkably well traveled. He said that in the 1990s he'd been to Jamaica, Hong Kong, Thailand, Cuba (three times), Russia ("once or twice"), and Latvia ("two or three times").
When he'd agreed to plead guilty and testify for the government he promised to tell the truth about the trafficking scheme. Genson got him to admit to a series of lies he told instead. As he'd stood to have about two years added to his sentence if he were found to be a leader or organizer of the scheme, he had good reason to understate his role and overstate Gorr's. Under Genson's cross-examination, Mishulovich admitted that his initial accounts of the scheme had done just that.
On December 22, 1999, the jury found Gorr guilty of visa fraud but not guilty of conspiracy and involuntary servitude. During the trial Genson had ridiculed Mishulovich's claim of a connection to the Chechen Mafia, pointing out that Mishulovich was Jewish and the Chechens were Muslims. No doubt Mishulovich was happy to have a chance to agree that the claim was fictitious. Apparently the jurors were not convinced. At the end of their deliberations, the foreman sent out a note saying that some were concerned about reprisals.
Around the time that Mishulovich and Gorr were arrested, the Department of Justice began to focus on patterns in various worker-abuse cases, patterns that paralleled accounts of a growing problem in human trafficking in Europe. Human trafficking is distinguished from alien smuggling in that smugglers are providing clandestine transportation to clients who usually know what they're buying, and once those clients have reached their destination the relationship is usually over. Traffickers, on the other hand, typically engage in deception, fraud, and even kidnapping, and their interest is in ongoing relationships. A trafficker's goal is not just to get people across a border but to put them to work there--in conditions of forced labor that sometimes come remarkably close to slavery. This labor typically takes place on farms, in sweatshops, in restaurants, in households employing nannies or maids, and in the sex industry. Traffickers may act as employers or sell their clients to others.
To assess the extent of the problem in the United States, the Clinton administration turned to the CIA. The CIA's 70-page report, International Trafficking in Women to the United States: A Contemporary Manifestation of Slavery and Organized Crime, was written by Amy O'Neill Richard and completed in November 1999, about a month before Gorr's trial. The monograph reached the press in April 2000. In defining trafficking for readers unfamiliar with the concept, Richard cited the Mishulovich case and three others. She estimated that traffickers brought 45,000 to 50,000 women and children to the United States each year, an estimate that shocked many in Congress.
The victims, Richard said, came mostly from Southeast Asia, Latin America, the states of the former Soviet Union, and central and eastern Europe. While Richard thought that the trafficking industry in Europe was run by large criminal organizations, she concluded that operations in the United States were not so centralized, that freelance criminals, small crime rings, and loose criminal networks dominated. She hastened to add, however, that she could reach only tentative conclusions about the level of organized-crime involvement here "as the subject has received little attention from law enforcement. U.S. law enforcement officers readily admit they do not know to what degree large international organized-crime syndicates are engaged in this industry. Asian and Russian organized-crime groups are clearly present in the U.S. and involved in alien smuggling and/or prostitution, among other illicit activities. Some experts state that these large criminal syndicates are also involved in trafficking in women, and they will become even more immersed in trafficking to the U.S. given the industry's extensive profits."
Those profits, Richard wrote, "can be staggering....Thai traffickers who incarcerated Thai women and men in a sweatshop in El Monte, California, are estimated to have made $8 million dollars over about six years. Thai traffickers who enslaved Thai women in a New York brothel made $1.5 million over roughly a year and three months....A Mexican crime family that forced deaf Mexicans to peddle trinkets [in New York] made roughly $8 million over four and a half years. In another trafficking case involving Mexicans, traffickers made some $2.5 million over two years by forcing Mexican women and girls into prostitution. The traffickers charged a client $22 for 15 minutes of sexual activity with a woman. Ten dollars of this amount went to the house and the remainder towards paying off her $2,000 to $3,000 debt."
Among the industry's attractions for investors was the limp response of law enforcement. Richard pointed out that the failure of the various city, state, and national bureaucracies to share information was part of the problem, as was their tendency to focus on victims of the crime as perpetrators of visa fraud, a view that resulted in the deportation of the evidence against traffickers. To illustrate her point, she cited a 1996 trafficking case involving Russian and Ukrainian women who'd answered ads to be au pairs, salesclerks, and waitresses, but were forced to provide sexual services and live in a massage parlor in Bethesda, Maryland. "The Russian-American massage parlor owner was fined. He entered a plea bargain and charges were dropped with the restriction that he would not operate a business again in Montgomery County. The women, who had not been paid any salary and were charged $150 for their housing, were deported or left the U.S. voluntarily."
With the House and Senate focusing on the problem, Francis Miko of the Congressional Research Service produced a second report that was dated May 10, 2000, and has been updated periodically since. Miko concluded that human trafficking for prostitution and forced labor was one of the fastest growing areas of international criminal activity. "Trafficking is now considered the third largest source of profits for organized crime," he wrote, "behind only drugs and guns, generating billions annually."
Miko cited many reasons for the rapid growth of the industry, among them the weakening of law enforcement in postcommunist societies; the high demand for women and children for the sex industry, sweatshop labor, and domestic workers; the large continuing income and tax-free profits flowing from these victims at very low risk; the treatment of victims as criminals; the fear of victims to testify against traffickers; the lack of support, health care, and access to justice that victims experienced; the apathy of governments; the subordination of women in many societies and the lack of economic and educational opportunity for them; the selling of daughters by desperate families; and the hardships caused by the collapse of communism and the wars in the Balkans.
The latest version of Miko's report puts the number of victims brought to the United States at 50,000, most coming from Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union. About half "are forced into sweatshop labor and domestic servitude. The rest are forced into prostitution and the sex industry, or in the case of young children, kidnapped and sold for adoption. While many victims come willingly, they are not aware of the terms and conditions they will face." Once the victims have been put to work, many can be controlled without a Mishulovich-like show of force. Heavy debt and fear of deportation can keep them in their place: if sent back to the old country, they would have no means to pay off their debt. And so dire might their prospects be back home that prostitution in the United States seems the better option. In an investigative series published last year, Newsday reported just such an attitude among a dozen Korean prostitutes working in Queens.
In this light, the behavior of Agita and Linda--first resisting sexual labor and then embracing it--seems not so peculiar. They were making $50 to $75 an hour and being paid in cash. (Agita testified that she had filed no tax returns on her dancing income.) People in many professions have difficulty giving up lucrative jobs that they hate, though those jobs may exact a significant psychological toll. (FBI Agent Michael Brown, who interviewed all five of the Latvian recruits during his investigation, said in a recent interview that one of the women had considered suicide and another had attempted it.) The complicity of the victims in trafficking cases, however, makes prosecution of the traffickers more difficult.
Informed by Miko's report, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in October 2000. The act increased maximum penalties for traffickers, required restitution payments to victims, and created new felony offenses to address slavery and peonage, sex trafficking in children, and the confiscation of victims' passports. Where previously victims could look forward only to deportation, the new law created a "T visa" category so they could stay in the United States to help with the prosecution of perpetrators. Holders of T visas are permitted to work and to collect certain public assistance benefits available to refugees, and after three years they may apply for permanent residency.
The passage of a law, however, does not alter a landscape overnight. It took the INS 15 months to establish regulations for a T visa, and these didn't take effect until March 4. Applicants must demonstrate that they would suffer "extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm" if deported. Ordinary hardship will not do. As of early June, 50 applications were pending but no visas had yet been granted.
The prosecution of a trafficking case can involve multiple bureaucracies--the INS, the FBI, customs agents, the State Department, local police, and officials of foreign governments--and as might be expected, federal courts have not been flooded with cases. As federal courts do not keep statute-specific statistics, there is no telling how many indictments or convictions have resulted from the new legislation. In early June, a Justice Department spokesman reported that federal prosecutors have opened 103 investigations into trafficking and/or involuntary servitude since the legislation was enacted.
Though the prosecution of Gorr and Mishulovich came to an end in December 1999, various legal arguments delayed their sentencing for two years. Mishulovich remained in jail, while Gorr, free on bond, made his living as a limousine driver, his restaurant having failed.
On December 19, 2001, Gorr appeared before Judge Joan Gottschall dressed in a suit and tie and knowing she would be sending him to prison. He had not testified at trial, and when offered the chance to speak he proved to be a man of few words. He apologized and said he wanted to get on with his life. The judge sentenced him to 21 months in prison and imposed $5,200 in fines. He is now in the federal penitentiary in Waseca, Minnesota. He did not respond to a request for an interview.
Mishulovich was sentenced on February 13, 2002. He'd pleaded guilty to the involuntary servitude and visa fraud charges, but he resisted the notion that he was a leader or organizer of the scheme, and this was the point he wanted to make to the judge. He spoke for 15 minutes without notes in a voice that didn't suit his face, his orange prison-issue jumpsuit, and his blue gym shoes. He came across as intelligent, sincere, and well-spoken, and the longer he spoke the easier it became to understand how Robert Tatge had issued him tourist visas for five attractive young women.
He apologized to the women, blaming his behavior on alcohol. He apologized to the judge, saying that his conduct "was never intended, it was not done on purpose, there was no evil intent behind it." He said he'd come to the United States as a refugee and tried to live a normal life, though he was "not perfect," and was not an evil person, but someone who'd made serious mistakes. Seemingly oblivious to the long list of crimes he'd admitted to on the witness stand, he claimed he had not been given three strikes, that this was in fact his first. "I am shell-shocked," he said, "that I am being called a leader and organizer." He presented himself as someone whom Serguie Tcharouchine and Vadim Gorr needed but who was peripheral to their scheme. If it had been his scheme, he said, he'd have worked alone.
Judge Gottschall, however, resisted the Russian's charms. She didn't put up with the revisionist version of the evidence presented by Mishulovich's attorney, James Marcus, who hadn't represented Mishulovich at trial and who was unfamiliar with his testimony. "That is certainly not the impression any sane person would have got at this trial....Frankly, I think this is nonsense," said the judge. But neither did she display sympathy for the women; they were criminal participants, she said, having agreed at the outset to commit visa fraud. She pointed out that at trial the women had seemed to be trying as hard as they could to convict Gorr, yet it was Mishulovich who played the leading role in their testimony. The judge called him a "walking criminal activity factory" with a great talent for luring apparently law-abiding citizens into criminal schemes.
The judge found him indeed a leader and organizer, a status that lengthened his sentence to nine years and four months. He was dispatched to the federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky. He has declined to appeal, and even if his prison term is reduced to reward good behavior it seems certain he will not be a ladies' man for some time to come.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mireya Acierto, Nathan Mandell.