Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Human-trafficking case: Club owner denies hiding

The government had him on its Most Wanted Fugitives list.
He says he was never hiding out, lived openly for years in a Ukrainian village, and no one ever came looking for him.
In a human-trafficking case that is unfolding in U.S. District Court in Detroit, nightclub owner Veniamin Gonikman -- charged with smuggling women into the U.S. and forcing them to work at Detroit strip clubs -- is disputing the government's fugitive theory.
Specifically, Gonikman, 53, says he lived in a Ukrainian village for nearly five years with his now 14-year-old daughter. He said he has evidence to prove he wasn't on the run, including a driver's license in his name, a speeding ticket, auto insurance for his Cadillac Escalade, a small business and a letter from the village council backing his story.
"His whereabouts were no mystery," his lawyer, Walter Piszczatowski, argued in court documents filed Friday in U.S. District Court.
Piszczatowski is trying to have the charges against Gonikman dropped, saying his client has been denied the right to a speedy trial because of the delay between his indictment and his actual arrest.
Gonikman was indicted in 2006, but wasn't arrested until almost five years later. Ukrainian authorities arrested him Jan. 26 on immigration charges for overstaying his visit there and turned him over to U.S. authorities.
U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement had placed Gonikman on its Most Wanted List.
Gonikman says in court documents that roughly two years before his indictment, he had returned to live in his homeland of Ukraine and never had any idea he was being sought.
Gonikman openly operated a business in his village and was well-known to locals, wrote Piszczatowski, who also submitted a character reference letter from the village council of the Ukrainian village where Gonikman lived.
Victor Domagalskiy, who practices law in Ukraine, also submitted a letter in U.S. District Court defending Gonikman. He said Gonikman "made efforts to strongly discourage" eastern European women from coming to the U.S. to work for Gonikman's son and another business associate.
Gonikman's son, Aleksandr Maksimenko of Livonia, and other associates are serving prison sentences ranging from seven to 14 years for their roles in the human-smuggling operation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Chutkow would not comment on Gonikman's position that he was never a fugitive, saying only he plans to file a motion soon disputing that.
Court documents, meanwhile, paint a much different story of Gonikman's life.
Federal authorities say Gonikman lived on the lam for nearly five years after his indictment, eluding authorities by using a counterfeit Russian passport and a fake name.
At the time of his arrest, court records show, Gonikman was carrying the counterfeit passport.
Gonikman came to the attention of authorities in Detroit in 2005, when one of his alleged victims escaped and agents later confirmed he was operating Beauty Search in metro Detroit, records showed.
According to the indictment, Gonikman and several others used Beauty Search as a cover for a human-trafficking operation that smuggled and harbored eastern European women.
The women primarily staffed Detroit strip clubs, where they allegedly were forced to work 12 hours a day and have all of their proceeds extorted by Gonikman and his associates. The women turned over more than $1 million of their earnings to those people, court records showed.
In an effort to highlight global human trafficking, one alleged victim testified before the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary in 2007 about her treatment.
"I could not refuse to go to work or I would be beaten," the woman testified. "I was often yelled at for not making enough money or had a gun put to my face. Every week, I handed over around $3,000 to $4,000. I was their slave."

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