Surviving Chicago's sex slave trade
August 7, 2005
BY ANNIE SWEENEY Crime Reporter
She was walking by the Freedom Monument -- a popular meeting spot in Riga, Latvia, and a symbol of the nation's independence -- when Alex Mishulovich introduced himself and made an intriguing offer.
Come to America. And dance.
He was looking for dancers at his clubs in Chicago -- his high-end respectable clubs where clothes stayed on. There would be nothing vulgar about it.
And she'd make $60,000 -- a fortune to a girl from a small Baltic country that had shed the bonds of communism not long before.
The girl -- whom the Chicago Sun-Times isn't naming and, for her safety, is identifying only as Z -- was 18, and had just graduated from high school. She'd studied ballroom dancing, but was uncertain what to do with her life.
To Z, Mishulovich's offer was exhilarating.
It was also a lie -- something she discovered shortly after landing at O'Hare Airport.
Put up in a cramped apartment with other Latvian women, she was watched constantly, beaten and threatened with being sold as a prostitute. Her passport was taken away.
And the dancing? Really it was stripping. For maybe $20 a night.
She was a virtual slave -- a sex slave, a victim of "human trafficking."
That was nearly a decade ago. Today she's miles away, rebuilding after having helped prosecute her captors.
"We were all so . . . trusting," she said.
The Sun-Times, in a three-day series, is exploring the plight of Z, the alarming breadth of human trafficking, the international efforts to curb such illicit bondage and the ordeal of kids who are being plucked off Chicago's streets.
There's a global pipeline with a precious commodity. Not oil -- people.
Hundreds of thousands of them, sold for somebody else's profit.
What it is, really, is slavery. Men, women and children forced or tricked into hard labor or the sex trades. This concept, this crime, has been around forever. A growing problem in some parts of the world, there's an increasing focus on combatting it, abroad and locally.
The Chicago Police Department's vice unit -- which recently arrested a Thai woman working here as a prostitute and wiring money back to her trafficker -- soon will have two people dedicated to investigating trafficking. They'll be scouring the Internet, periodicals and the streets, Police Cmdr. David Sobczyk said.
The unit also will be coordinating with social service agencies to help victims -- something a new statewide coalition also is focusing on, along with recent Illinois legislation.
In 2000, federal legislation further criminalized trafficking, creating new penalties, funding for victims and a new immigrant status -- T-Visas -- that allow victims a chance to live here permanently.
Since then, the United States has dedicated at least $295 million to address the problem in 86 countries, according to the U.S. State Department.
But between 2001 and 2004, the number of U.S. Justice Department investigations jumped from 106 to 340, prosecutions of people traffickers rose from 16 to 60 and convictions doubled from 59 to 118.
Trafficking can be lucrative for people like Mishulovich -- although he's paying the price now, having been convicted with most of his cohorts -- and it's often linked to organized crime rings. Profits from a single woman can average $250,000, according to some estimates. Now, Congress is considering new legislation that would provide money and more services for people who are bought and sold for profit in the United States -- in most cases, teens and even younger children who are forced into prostitution.
Estimates on the number of trafficking victims in the Chicago area are not available, although Sobczyk hopes his team will be able to get a handle on the scope of the problem.
The State Department estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are pumped through this underground pipeline each year around the globe. Between 14,500 and 17,500 make their way into the United States. Most find themselves in some form of servitude.
They arrive from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, from countries such as Latvia.
On a recent afternoon, nearly a decade removed from her ordeal, Z sat in her air-conditioned condo, just purchased with a relative who lives with her where soft sandy beaches stretch on and on.
When a reporter visited, Z was negotiating with the cable guy over how many channels she needed, musing at the endless choices and why anyone would need hundreds of offerings. On her counter sat small shopping bags from Godiva chocolate and Chanel.
She's relaxed, her model-like tanned figure fitting perfectly in light cargo pants and tank top; feet clad in gold-sequined flip-flops. Her eyes are light blue and her hair blond and board-straight. She's striking and comfortable, yet reserved. She weighs each detail of her story before she shares it in accented but strong English.
She is one of 454 people in the United States to be granted a T-Visa, which means she can legally work here and possibly stay permanently.
On this day, she is relaxing after spending a week studying for her real estate license, perched on a staircase in an open, bright, unfurnished apartment. Large colorful art prints lean on walls, waiting to be hung.
It's miles from Latvia, a former Soviet state where the government issued school uniforms -- "ugly blue, dark dark dark blue" -- and controlled everything, from the economy to the curriculum.
The daughter of two professionals, Z grew up in a nice neighborhood and had a good, happy childhood, she said. Life changed drastically in 1990 when Latvia declared independence and then fought the Soviets off one last time a year later during a coup attempt.
Like many in Latvia, which has been occupied much of the 20th century, she and her family celebrated freedom and a chance for new opportunities. But early on, good opportunities were hard to come by, and that's partly what made Mishulovich's offer so enticing.
In her mind, she'd be dancing in a revue or musical -- although in a bikini -- and would be making $60,000 a year. Mishulovich would get a cut of the money, and she'd have to pay him an initial debt -- between $10,000 and $20,000 -- for bringing her here and setting her up.
One day, though, she'd be living on her own and making good money to live a good life in the United States. "We were just like so naive you can't even imagine,'' she said, shaking her head slowly.
A gun to the head
Mishulovich and the others had no intention of ever letting the debt get paid down, authorities said. On a good night, Z would earn $500. And just about all of it went to the crew, who also checked her belongings at the end of the night, looking for hidden cash.
"It's not easy -- when I have to think about it, when I go back into what happened, it makes me feel really bad,'' she said. "I am just trying to move on. The good things are happening. I'm more grown up now.''
Her captivity would last just under a year and be filled with anxious moments, but also some sad and just plain strange moments, Z recalls, talking in a hushed tone, as if to be sure no neighbors can hear her.
She and four other Latvian women in similar straits worked at Chicago area clubs, including the Admiral, Heavenly Bodies, Thee Dollhouse, Skybox and Crazy Horse 2. She danced topless at several of them. "We were just trapped inside the house. Just waiting. What is going to be the next thing?" Z said.
When she arrived in Chicago in October 1996, her captors initially showed some kindness. But it was a month before they were allowed out of the Mount Prospect apartment where they were held, and then it was only for a drive to see the sights of downtown Chicago. After that, they were rarely allowed out, and the phone was removed when they were left alone.
If they needed to buy something -- even shampoo -- a list was made and Mishulovich's crew would go shopping.
The girls were given movies to watch -- "Showgirls'' and "Striptease'' -- to learn how to dance exotically.
They drank to cope with the situation. They got depressed.
And they danced. Many nights Mishulovich watched and critiqued.
The threat of physical violence was constant. And at times, the men threatened to sell the women for sex.
The first beating that Z recalls came after Mishulovich first told the girls they'd be stripping, and one complained. Mishulovich continually harassed the girls for sex or walked into the bathroom while they were showering, Z said.
At other times, he threatened them with a gun, holding it against their temples.
For a time, they were forced to live with his mother, who, depending on her mood, either cooked for them or called them whores, Z said.
The worst beating came several months after they arrived, when Z and another girl tried to escape. They agreed to meet a man they had befriended at a club and planned to ask him for help. She recalls going to a McDonald's or Wendy's -- she can't remember for sure -- and being dragged out and beaten on her head and in the stomach by Mishulovich and another man with him.
"I got the most,'' Z said. "They used their hands. They used their legs. I was on the floor.''
The racket unravels
At a Loop diner, FBI Special Agent Michael Brown spreads the glossy pictures out across the table.
There's Mishulovich, in bookish glasses with a bald head and stubbly beard.
There's Vadim Gorr, a young- and innocent-looking tough, who, according to the feds, drove the women to their jobs and held them against their will.
There's a stern Rudite Pede, with close-cropped bleached blond hair. She's Mishulovich's wife and helped recruit some of the women in Latvia, assuring them the way only a woman could that they'd be safe and the work was respectable, federal officials said. Her friend and look-alike is Dace Mediniece, who came to Chicago on false documents, officials said.
There's Sergei Tcharouchine, 42, with longish blond hair and good looks, peering out from a wanted poster. He remains at large. He allegedly organized the ring with Mishulovich.
All ended up charged by the feds with playing roles in an illegal human trafficking operation, an investigation Brown was central in.
Except for Tcharouchine, all have been convicted of, at the least, visa fraud.
Mishulovich, 44, was sentenced to about nine years in prison. He's jailed on his involuntary servitude conviction at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in the Loop and is slated for release in fall 2006. Through a prison official, Mishulovich declined to comment.
Mediniece, 26, Pede, 28, and Gorr, 35, have all been released on parole.
Brown said Mishulovich exerted control over the women by demeaning them, telling them they'd committed a crime coming into the country, that his U.S. citizenship gave him more credibility with police.
Born in Russia, he's a naturalized American citizen whose family fled the Soviet Union in 1981 because they faced persecution over their Jewish faith, court documents say.
At one point Mishulovich took a locket from one of the captive girls that contained a picture of her mother and said he'd send it home to the Russian mafia if she didn't cooperate, Brown said. Mishulovich would boast he was in the Chechen mob and could have their families killed back in Latvia.
Brown spent about six months unraveling the group's scheme -- beginning in March 1998 -- because of an astute State Department worker in Riga who was suspicious of Mishulovich and fired off two notes about him to federal authorities. Before agents got Mishulovich and the others, they had released the women, in part because they knew federal agents were onto them, and because they were arguing with each other.
Z was simply rounded up one day in July 1997 by her captors and dropped off at O'Hare with her passport and a ticket to Riga. She thinks she had about $40 in her pocket. And she thinks she took a taxi home from the airport in Riga.
Despite her relief at being free, she didn't hesitate to return to the United States within the year. She wanted to start a new life. Later, she connected with the feds and cooperated with them against Mishulovich's crew.
Brown, who spent days and nights putting the complicated picture together, muses that the tale is practically movie-quality.
Five women lured here, abused and forced into the sex trade. The infighting among the captors. The attempted escape. But there doesn't seem to be a smooth ending to any of this, he said.
"When I look back at this now, the thing that sticks with me the most is the long-lasting effects on the victims,'' Brown said recently, over lunch near the Dirksen Federal Building, where the case was prosecuted. "These ladies, they were just young. Students. They were scared to death.''
Stripper: 'This is what I am'
Z's own emotional recovery continues.
Walking into large rooms causes her to panic sometimes because she feels everyone is looking at her, judging her. Trusting men has been a challenge, although she is in a relationship now. She has a recurring vision of walking onto a plane and bumping into one of her captors.
And she has grown incensed by messages in the mass media -- beer commercials for example -- that suggest women are objects. Some days she thinks she will volunteer for a women's rights organization.
Brown occasionally hears from the women. They've scattered. Some went back to Latvia, some are still here. One had a child. One shocked Brown when he asked her what she was doing with her life. Stripping, she said.
"I've come to the conclusion,'' she told him, "that this is what I am."
Z grew up about 10 minutes from the Baltic Sea, where a large forest opens to sand dunes and slopes down to the beach.
"The beaches are Nordic, the water is cold,'' she said. "It's completely different colors. It's beautiful in a different way. It's more gray. The sand is not as white. It's kind of wild, but it's nice."
Today she is just as close to a beach that is more tropical. She's happy here now, rebuilding her life, with a new condo, a good job prospect and family and friends around her.
"I knew without those people I could make something good,'' she said. "I just saw things. I saw the life. I know it is possible if you are not trapped like that.''
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