LOS ANGELES -- What started as a routine question-and-answer session at Los Angeles International Airport turned into a months-long, multi-agency investigation into an alleged sex trade ring that had been operating for at least two years.
Mher "Mike" Hakopyan and his wife, Natalya Muravyeva, were arrested Monday on suspicion of running what U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) described in a press release as a "large-scale prostitution enterprise." Hakopyan's ex-wife, Alla Kassianova, was also named as a suspect. Investigators believe she may be outside the country.
The unlikely business trio face allegations that they conspired to recruit Eastern European women, coached them to abuse the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, and then employed them as prostitutes. According to the case affidavit, 14 women have been identified as individuals the defendants brought to the U.S. or tried to bring to the U.S. to work in the sex trade.
The following details have been drawn from the June 19 CBP press release and the case affidavit.
Investigators were tipped off to Hakopyan's business when CBP officers questioned two Latvian women who had just come into LAX from Moscow in September 2011. During routine questioning, the women were unable to answer simple queries about their return tickets, hotel reservations or amounts of money they carried.
Under more questioning, both women said that Hakopyan had bought their tickets for them. However, neither one knew his full name, his address or any other information except a phone number. Additionally, an inspection of their luggage turned up paysheets, sexually transmitted infection medication, condoms and lubrication -- items "consistent with prostitution," the affidavit notes.
CBP officers decided to send the two women back to Russia on the next available plane. Hakopyan, who was waiting at LAX's arrival lobby, allegedly told officers that he was "not happy" with the decision to bar entry to his "friends" and then hopped into a black Cadillac Escalade without answering any more questions.
The LAX encounter touched off a 10-month inter-agency investigation involving U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and the Santa Monica, Calif., police department. Santa Monica police were already investigating a similar case involving Eastern European prostitutes. The two departments combined forces to uncover more about Hakopyan's business.
What they brought to light was a complex sex trade web with operating headquarters in Los Angeles. Three different apartments, located in neighborhoods near West Hollywood, Hollywood and the Miracle Mile area were searched, the affidavit said. It also said that two units in the same Santa Monica apartment building were operating as brothels.
According to the affidavit, law enforcement officers used email records and other information provided by Google to link Hakopyan to women working as prostitutes. They allege they were also able to link Hakopyan's email address to accounts for purchasing "adult" ads on sites like thatmall.com, cityvibe.com, eros-guide.com and backpage.com.
Of the 14 women identified as possible sex trade workers in the affidavit, five have been named as material witnesses in the case. Others were out of the country during the investigation and have been barred from re-entering the U.S. "It would be premature to speculate what will transpire in the long term" to the women still in the United States, said Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Virginia Kice.
As for whether the women knew what awaited them when they were recruited for U.S. jobs, Kice said that issue would be explored during the criminal proceedings. "Some sent provocative pictures of themselves to the defendants in advance of their arrival in the U.S.," noted Kice. But she added, "It's unclear if they had been explicitly told they were being hired as prostitutes."
U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. in Los Angeles praised the inter-departmental cooperation in a statement Tuesday: "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."
"It's an amazing story. It's almost as if it were taken out of a movie," said CBP spokesperson Jaime Ruiz, who also praised the instincts of the officers who first questioned the two Latvian women back in September.
It takes anywhere from six to 21 weeks to become a CBP officer, during which time applicants receive intensive training in immigration law, trade law and the nuances of policy differences among 40 different federal agencies. But Ruiz said, "The key piece of training they receive is human behavior."