Final Defendant Pleads Guilty to His Role in International Conspiracy Involving the Forced Labor of Eastern European Women in Detroit-Area Exotic Dance Clubs

DETROIT—The Justice Department announced today that Veniamin Gonikman, 56, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Ukraine, pleaded guilty in federal court in Detroit, Michigan, for crimes related to an international conspiracy to compel Eastern European women to work in exotic dance clubs in the Detroit metropolitan area. Gonikman, who became a fugitive in 2005, was apprehended in Ukraine in January 2011. He is the ninth and final member of the charged conspiracy to be convicted.

According to information presented in court filings, between September 2001 and February 2005, Gonikman, together with his son, Aleksandr Maksimenko, a U.S. citizen, and Michael Aronov, a Lithuanian national, operated Beauty Search, Inc., a business that brokered and managed Eastern European women who performed in exotic dance clubs in the Detroit area. The three men recruited a number of these women in Ukraine, facilitated their illegal entry into the United States, and then harbored them for commercial advantage and private financial gain. In 2001, Gonikman facilitated the smuggling into the United States of two young Eastern European women from Ukraine, through Mexico, into the United States, and ultimately to Detroit, where the women were compelled to serve as exotic dancers.

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said, “This conviction brings the final member of this human trafficking ring to justice. These defendants treated human beings like a commodity, enticing Eastern European women to come to the United States illegally, then exploiting them for commercial advantage.”

“This conviction closes the door on a human trafficking organization responsible for wreaking havoc on the lives of women who came to the U.S. in pursuit of the American dream,” said Brian M. Moskowitz, Special Agent in Charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations for Michigan and Ohio. “Unfortunately, we know there are still traffickers out there looking to exploit the most vulnerable among us. Cases like this one serve to strengthen our resolve to protect and defend those who may not be able to evade or escape the grip of this form of modern day slavery.”

The lead defendants in this case, Maksimenko and Aronov, pleaded guilty in 2006 to forced labor, immigration, and money laundering charges. Maksimenko was sentenced to 14 years in prison and ordered to pay $1,570,450 in restitution to the victims. Aronov was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison and ordered to pay $1,000,000 in restitution.

Six other defendants were also convicted in 2006 for their respective roles in the conspiracy, including: Duay Jado, a Greek national, who was sentenced to four years in prison for setting a victim’s car on fire to retaliate for her escape and to intimidate the other victims; two Ukrainian nationals, Eygeniy Propenko and Alexander Bondarenko, who were convicted of visa fraud to facilitate victims’ illegal entry into the United States; and Anna Gonikman-Starchenko, a Ukrainian national formerly married to defendant Gonikman; Niki Papoutsaki, a Greek national formerly married to defendant Maksimenko, and Valentina Maksimenko, a naturalized U.S. citizen also formerly married to defendant Gonikman, all three of whom pleaded guilty to obstruction-related charges.

Under the terms of Gonikman’s plea agreement, he faces a maximum sentence of 51 months in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for January 26. 2012 at 3:00 p.m. before United Sates District Judge Victoria A. Roberts.

The case was investigated by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, and the State Department. The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Chutkow and Trial Attorney Benjamin J. Hawk of the Civil Rights Division’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit. Peter Ziedas, Assistant United States Attorney is handling the asset forfeiture part of the case.