Updated Friday, November 9, 2012 at 06:43 AM
MIAMI — During the height of the tourist season two years ago, a Philadelphia TV weatherman flew down to Miami Beach for a little fun.
At the Delano Hotel, John Bolaris was approached by a couple of Miami Beach's finest "bar girls." The two said they were visiting from Estonia. They ordered rounds of shots, wine and Champagne while pecking him on the cheek.
Then they lured the liquored-up Bolaris to a Russian-style nightclub called Caviar Bar. Over the next two nights, he signed American Express charge slips for more than $43,000, picking up the tab for extravagantly overpriced Dom Pérignon, Beluga caviar and other items, including $2,480 for a modernistic painting of a woman that had been hanging in the bar.
Bolaris' tale of woe and regret and others like it are coming out in Miami federal court during the trial of five business associates accused of being the puppet masters behind South Beach's "B-girl" scene, as it is known.
Among the witnesses: "B girl" Marina Turcina, who said Bolaris was so smashed he was vomiting on the way back to the Fontainebleau, where he'd been staying.
"He smelled really bad," she said.
But the featured witness is no Estonian temptress. He is bald, burly Alec Simchuk, an admitted Russian mafioso straight out of central casting who is the acknowledged leader of the alleged racket.
Simchuk, who once lived in a pricey penthouse but is now cooperating with the feds from a cell at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami, brought Turcina and other women to Florida from Russia and the Baltic states to work in his shady South Beach clubs.
After pleading guilty to wire-fraud conspiracy and visa violations, he is testifying for the prosecution against the five defendants, among them a real-estate broker who once ran for the city commission.
They're accused of operating a string of clubs that deployed "B-girls" to fancy hotels such as the Delano, where they fleeced customers.
The women would target male tourists showing telltale signs of wealth, such as expensive watches or shoes. (They referred to cheap customers as "condoms.") If they had a hot prospect, they would text-message bartenders back at their clubs to get the place ready.
They would pour their own drinks into flower vases while the guys guzzled theirs, becoming progressively plastered. That made it easy to persuade them to order still more bottles without noticing the exorbitant prices.
"He was just signing them without looking at them," Turcina said of Bolaris, who is expected to testify.
Miami Beach police and the FBI launched an undercover investigation into the B-girl network after Bolaris and other customers complained to their credit-card companies about the outrageous bar tabs. As part of the investigation, agents and cops recorded the women in action.
To pull off the arrests, the FBI staged a party at one of the clubs for the B-girls and their managers. A Miami Beach officer who had infiltrated the ring as a "dirty cop" and worked as a bouncer invited many suspects to a party of stone crabs and Russian vodka at Tangia Club.
Left for Latvia
Eleven defendants, mostly women, have since pleaded guilty and served short prison sentences. Simchuk, 46, left for Latvia (later detouring to Russia) before the FBI rounded up his ring, but he eventually grew tired of life on the lam. In March, he made up his mind to return to Miami, disclosing his plan to a fellow fugitive in Russia.
That stirred things up. Soon after, he said he got a "threatening" call from an indicted business associate in Miami on his cellphone.
A month later, while smoking outside his mother-in-law's in St. Petersburg, he was accosted by strangers, he testified in his thick Russian accent. "One guy pulled gun on my head and said, 'Good people from Miami don't want you to testify. You have beautiful wife. Stay at home.' Another guy just broke my leg, just squeeze it in one shot."
After a year as a fugitive, Simchuk was arrested by FBI agents upon his arrival at Miami International Airport in July. He pleaded guilty, agreeing to testify against his alleged partners and associates.
In Simchuk's plea agreement, he admitted that his organization ran up bogus bills for booze, wine and Champagne on the credit cards of blurry-eyed male tourists. All told, the scam cost customers $400,000 to $1 million, according to the written agreement. The "B-girls" received 20 percent commissions, while Simchuk's partners pocketed most of the illicit profits.
Standing trial on wire-fraud charges since mid-October are Stanislav Pavlenko, 41; Albert Takhalov, 31; his wife, Kristina Takhalov, 31; and Siavash Zargari, 48, who live in the Aventura and Sunny Isles Beach areas. Longtime Sunny Isles Realtor Isaac Feldman, 51, is the fifth defendant.
A sixth defendant, Simchuk's "silent" investment partner, Andrejs Romanovs, is a fugitive in Russia. A seventh defendant, Mikhail Rasner, a club investor with Albert Takhalov, is not on the docket because his defense lawyer is involved in another trial.
Simchuk, who described himself as an international con man during testimony, would be a classic immigrant-made-good story, if he hadn't done it by doing bad. Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), he traveled to the United States for the first time in 1989 to study English at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn. He was 23. In the mid-1990s, he became a naturalized citizen.
By then, he had started an import-export business. He would buy Toyotas, Hummers and other vehicles with a stolen ID and ship them from Mexico to Finland. He also engaged in insurance fraud, for which he was arrested and charged in Pennsylvania in 2000.
That's when he headed to South Florida, where he started promoting "Russian Nights" at local discos and opened his own club at the Ramada Inn Hotel in Hollywood.
In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, Simchuk pleaded guilty to the insurance-fraud charge and was placed on probation. After failing to get his probation transferred to Miami, he decided to flee the country, heading for Latvia instead of his native Russia because his girlfriend was from Latvia.
It was in Latvia, he says, that he perfected the "B-girl" business model. In Riga, Simchuk opened his first "striptease bar," the Cleopatra. "It was my dream to have a striptease club, so that's how I opened up," he testified last month.
He decided to open another, Foxy Lounge, then two more, La Rouche and Cabaret Miami.
But the Latvian government did not like the strip-club scene, so authorities shut it down.
From that point on, Simchuk said, he was in the business of deploying bar girls.
"The girls from now on are going to go to the disco bars and pick up the customers, bring them to the club ... and make them buy expensive bottles of Champagne," Simchuk said. He said he also made the prices "high" and the lettering on the menu "very little" so the patrons could not read it. Another trick: His bartenders would pour vodka into customers' beers to make them more drunk.
But by 2008, the Latvian police closed his clubs because so many customers were demanding refunds on their bar bills. An attempt to replicate the clubs in neighboring Estonia fizzled, and he decided to return to the United States.
Defense attorneys attacked Simchuk as a habitual liar who made up stories in an effort to reduce a potential 20-year prison sentence.
Sentencing is pending.
Myles Malman, defense attorney for Feldman, pointed out that he initially told the feds he broke his leg in a slip-and-fall on ice, and only later said it was snapped in an encounter with thugs.
During his testimony, Simchuk was asked if the women were instructed on what to say to get the men into the clubs.
"They knew already," Simchuk testified. "They are professional liars."
AL DIAZ / MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS
The South Beach "bar girl" scene is being exposed in federal court in Miami.