A former Vice Media editor who used his position to organize an international cocaine smuggling ring that included a former intern was sentenced to nine years in custody on Wednesday in a Toronto, Canada courtroom, according to a reporter from The National Post.
Yaroslav Pastukhov, who was a music editor for Vice Canada and wrote under the name Slava Pastuk, pleaded guilty in September to charges of conspiracy to import cocaine. Canadian authorities arrested both Pastukhov and another former Vice employee, Ali Taki Lalji, earlier this year. Lalji has not entered a plea.
While working at Vice, Pastukhov recruited a small group of young people aspiring to break into the entertainment industry — including a 19-year-old model, a DJ and Pastukhov’s former intern Robert Wang. Pastukhov convinced five of them to take pre-packaged suitcases of cocaine from Las Vegas to Australia in late 2015, offering them cash, free trips and what they saw as a chance to get in with an influential media personality.
“This is the most gangsterish thing that you will ever do,” Pastukhov told them, according to one of their testimonies to an Australian court.
Pastukhov had also allegedly approached other Vice employees during his time at the publication with offers of money for transporting suitcases to Australia, according to The National Post, but they turned him down. Vice fired Pastukhov in 2016.
Some of the couriers, such as Wang, told prosecutors that they began having second thoughts after initially agreeing to be part of the smuggling operation, but were coerced into carrying it out. Wang claimed that he even called Pastukhov to back out, and later sent a text to the Vice editor saying “I hope this doesn’t jeopardize our working relationship.”
But after Wang and others expressed doubts about the smuggling, they say they received threats from Pastukhov and his associates. (Pastukhov denies threatening anyone). Two of the couriers additionally claimed that the men in Las Vegas who gave them drug-filled suitcases also pulled a gun on them, demanding they see the trip through. The five smugglers arrived on Dec. 22, 2015 at the Sydney International Airport, where customs officers pulled them aside and found nearly 40 kilograms of cocaine in their luggage.
Each of the couriers received over three years in Australian prison, and prosecutors heard the details of the smuggling operation and Pastukhov’s involvement. Wang was particularly valuable to investigators because he had recorded a conversation between himself, Lalji and Pastukhov in which the two Vice employees coached him on how to traffic drugs, The Ringer reported. Despite the recording and multiple reports in Canadian media that implicated Pastukhov in the drug ring, it took years until authorities could gather enough evidence to arrest Lalji and Pastukhov in Jan. 2019.
During Pastukhov’s sentencing hearing, his lawyer argued that it was Vice’s workplace culture and the pressure to find a breakout story that initially pushed his client into the drug trade. Pastukhov claimed he deeply regrets his crimes. Pastukhov’s mother wrote a letter to the judge stating that her son lived in fear of being fired and worked long hours to compensate. But in an interview with The Ringer in September, Pastukhov appeared to express little regret for his actions as he hoped his story would be made into a movie and aspired to become a podcaster.
“Worked at vice then went to jail,” states Pastukhov’s Twitter bio.