A Los Angeles man, his wife and his ex-wife are the target of federal charges for allegedly running a "large-scale prostitution enterprise" that brought Eastern European woman to become sex workers in Southern California, authorities said Tuesday.
Mher “Mike” Hakopyan, 38; his current wife, Natalya Muravyeva, 31; and his ex-wife, Alla Kassianova, 43, are accused of conspiracy to transport in furtherance of prostitution, according to a press release from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Justice.
Hakopyan ran two brothels in Santa Monica, authorities said.
An affidavit filed in the case states that the prostitutes came from Eastern Europe and Russia, staying in the United States for up to three months at a time depending on their immigration status. The women worked shifts at private residences where appointments were offered in 30 or 60 minute increments, with a referral-based customer pool.
The women speak limited English, according to the affidavit..
Hakopyan and Muravyeva were arrested at their home in the 800 block of North Crescent Heights Boulevard (map), just south of West Hollywood, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said. They were subject to a hearing in federal court in Santa Ana Monday afternoon and are being held without bail.
Investigators believe Kassianova, pictured below at right, may be out of the country. She is still being sought, according to the release. Kassianova claims to be the sister of Hakopyan's current wife, Muravyeva, according to the affidavit.
Authorities did not release images of the two suspects in custody.
Two other Los Angeles residences were searched as well Monday: an apartment in a high-rise building in the 7100 block of Hollywood Boulevard (map), and another apartment in a multi-unit building in the 5600 block of Wilshire Boulevard (map).
The case alleges that the defendants had four recruiters in Europe who found potential sex workers. The defendants allegedly coached the women on how to enter the United States through a visa waiver program. After arranging flights for the women, the pair would allegedly find them housing and have them photographed.
The professional "provocative pictures" would be posted on sites such as eros-guide.com, cityvibe.com and thatmall.com, the affidavit said.
The husband-and-wife pair were employed as elderly care takers for Hakopyan's parents in Los Angeles under the California Department of Social Services' In Home Supportive Services program, according to the affidavit..
Muravyeva's attorney, Correen Ferrentino, declined to comment to the Associated Press, while Hakopyan's attorney did not return a call from the wire service seeking comment Tuesday.
The investigation began in June 2011 with authorities looking into an Eastern European prostitution ring based in Southern California. Then, in September 2011, customs agents stopped two Latvian women whose stories contained "many inconsistencies" when they tried to enter the country at Los Angeles International Airport, the affidavit said.
The women -- who were carrying condoms, lube and medication for STDs -- both were forced to return to Moscow. Their travel had been arranged by Hakopyan, investigators learned.
Both women had said they were headed to units in a building at 2200 Colorado Avenue in Santa Monica (map), where authorities were aware of allegations of prostitution, according to the affidavit..
Hakopyan, who was waiting in LAX arrivals for the women, refused to answer questions about the passengers. He and another male left the airport in a black Cadillac Escalade, the affidavit said.
Detectives later identified 14 women who were brought to the country to work as prostitutes, according to the case affidavit.
The assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, Sandy Leal, told the Associated Press it was unclear if the women knew what they were getting into.
ICE's Homeland Security Investigations unit collaborated with the Santa Monica Police Department on the investigation, with help from Customs and Border Protection.
The affidavit states that investigators obtained a search warrant in October 2011 for Hakopyan's Gmail account. He allegedly used the address to contact recruiters in Riga, Latvia, and elsewhere, to get in touch with prospective prostitutes and to set up advertising for services at the brothels.
The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.
“If the allegations in this case prove true, the defendants’ actions were reprehensible,” said Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks.
If convicted, the defendants each face up to five years in prison.