Updated at: 01/18/2013 12:07 PM
By CURT ANDERSON
(AP) MIAMI - A Russian mobster was sentenced Friday to a relatively lenient three years in federal prison after admitting he ran a South Beach scam that used so-called "B-Girls" to lure wealthy tourists into secret bars where they were charged exorbitant amounts on credit cards for alcohol.
Alec Simchuk, 46, hobbled into the Miami federal courtroom on a crutch because Russian thugs broke one of his legs in an effort to prevent him from returning to the U.S. to plead guilty and testify against his cohorts, most of whom were convicted after an 11-week trial.
Federal prosecutors sought a light sentence because Simchuk returned voluntarily from Russia despite the assault and threats against both his life and that of his wife. U.S. District Judge Robert Scola agreed, even shaving four months off the prosecutor’s recommended prison term.
"I think he should be given credit for coming here and facing the music," the judge said.
Simchuk testified that he imported his scam from Riga, Latvia, to Miami Beach in 2009. With him came a few dozen attractive Russian and Eastern European women who worked as "B-Girls," which is short for "Bar Girls." The scantily clad women trolled swanky South Beach bars looking for rich men _ they were instructed to focus on expensive shoes and watches _ and invited them back to private clubs operated by Simchuk’s gang.
The clubs had cool-sounding names like Caviar Bar and Stars Lounge but were not open to the public. Once there, the women made sure the men got exceedingly drunk and then ran up huge alcohol charges on their credit cards. The clubs even had vases where the women would pour out drinks so the men would have to order more.
One victim, former Philadelphia TV weatherman John Bolaris, testified that he was charged some $43,000 over two nights through the scheme. In all, dozens of men were fraudulently charged between $400,000 and $1 million, according to court records. The total is still being calculated.
Simchuk initially fled to Russia _ which has no extradition treaty with the U.S. _ just before he and 18 others were indicted by a federal grand jury in 2011. A year later, he agreed to surrender and cooperate even though his leg had been broken by mobsters after Simchuk received a threatening phone call from Albert Takhalov, 31, who was convicted in the recent U.S. trial.
Simchuk pleaded guilty to charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to defraud the U.S., which could have landed him in prison for a much longer term. In court Friday, Simchuk said he was sorry and pleaded for another chance to live an honest life.
His attorney, Michael B. Cohen, said Simchuk’s cooperation was key to the convictions of Takhalov and two other men in December. They each face more than 20 years in prison when they are sentenced later this year.
"He did his job. He did what he was supposed to do," Cohen said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Thakur said Simchuk initially lied about how he broke his leg, telling investigators he slipped on ice. But Cohen said that was only to protect his wife, who was still in Russia at the time.
In all, 12 of those charged in the scheme pleaded guilty, including most of the "B-Girls" who have subsequently been deported. Three men were convicted in last year’s trial. One suspect remains a fugitive, and another is scheduled for trial in the coming months.
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(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)