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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Beauty and the Banker




The siren wailing suddenly outside Robert's window makes him jump. "Sorry," he said. "It's been a bad day." Earlier, he had learned that while his mother had been having coffee with friends at her Connecticut home, a Federal Express truck had delivered a death threat - a simple sheet of white paper with a single sentence: "Does your son really want you to die?"


"I can't even protect them. The FBI says I have to stay here until I give evidence," he said, looking around at the gray walls and cheap, gaudy bedspread. Only the stack of expensive computer equipment showing market data from around the world links the high-powered investment banker to his old life on Wall Street. "They call this a safe house. To me, when somebody starts screwing around with my family, it feels like anything but."


Robert, 30, is hiding from Russian mobsters who have put a price on his head before he gives takes the witness stand next year to testify against five Russian mafiosniki who have been arrested in Brooklyn on charges of extortion, kidnapping, and assault. It's a trial with ramifications far beyond the Brooklyn courtroom. This case, according to Brian Cook of the State Department's Visa Squad, goes to the very heart of the growing international industry of forced prostitution run by Russian gangsters. In the U.S. alone, the FBI estimates, there are more than 3,000 Russian mobsters operating 11 main gangs located principally in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and Miami. All of the groups are involved in forced prostitution affecting up to 8,000 women.


Robert's problems began March 7, 1998, when he and his friend and business partner, Tony, decided to celebrate after a spectacular week at the boutique Wall Street brokerage where they held court. The pair had made more than $2 million from a cleverly executed set of trades.


Robert and Tony joined the small brokerage from market megalith Merrill Lynch, a step designed to give their natural flamboyance more breathing room. Robert brought the charm, seducing a swelling host of deep-pocketed money managers to their client list. Good looking, fluent in four languages and effortlessly cultured, he made billionaires feel privileged to be letting him handle their money.


Tony provided the technique, using his mathematical genius to identify profitable combinations of obscure financial instruments. Together they made riding the market seem easier than sitting on a carousel horse.


They made an intriguing pair, keeping clients guessing about their backgrounds. Robert seemed all Ivy League and blue blood Connecticut but was actually a blue-collar kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Tony had the opposite mix. He came on like a guy from downtown Detroit who got a lucky scholarship to a prestigious college. In truth, Tony came from a privileged family with a lineage stretching as far back as the Mayflower.


Tony had planned a belated 29th birthday party for that night for Robert. Along for the ride were a small group of intimate clients and colleagues, including a stunning money manager in a designer dress who carried a torch for Robert. Happily married with a 9-month-old son, Tony had invited her for the same reason he always introduced Robert to young, beautiful women. He wanted his friend to find a wife or at least a steady girlfriend. Above all, he wanted to wean Robert away from prostitutes.


Robert, however, was unabashed about this habit, blaming his 18-hour-a-day work schedule.


"I have no time for real dating but I love sex," Robert told his friend. "I think it would be dishonest of me to talk some girlfriend into bed when I know I have no time for a real commitment. This way nobody gets hurt."


Those words have come back to haunt Robert. He may once have thought high-class prostitution is a victimless crime, but that was before he met Irina, a young woman who, like thousands of others from the former Soviet Union, was forced into prostitution by mafia gangs.


That night, Tony thought his matchmaking scheme might work. Robert seemed hooked - that is, until he went to the bar and found out about a new escort service - Elegant Evenings.


"Russian girls do anything, a tasty bit of red menace," Robert whispered to his friend after returning to their table. "You want to come and join me later?"


"Screw that," Tony replied. Robert just laughed in his face.


Soon after receiving the Elegant Evenings card, Robert separated from his friends. "I got in the limo and dialed Elegant Evenings on the way uptown," he said. "They sent me to an apartment on East 74th Street. That's where I met Irina."


They Meet


"He was the most handsome man they ever sent to me," said Irina, fiddling with a cup of coffee in a Staten Island diner, while two detectives kept watch from a nearby table. "Because Robert was good looking and kind he scared me more than the fat old guys."


Irina arrived in New York from her native St. Petersburg in October 1997. Her father, a former naval commander, was out of work and drinking hard when Irina saw an advertisement promising work at a travel agency in the United States - part of a "pay as you learn" educational project.


An intelligent young woman with an easy manner and quick sense of humor, Irina agreed to pay $3,000 for a passport and visa processed by her new employer. The sum was to be deducted from her U.S. earnings. But these documents were taken from her upon her arrival in New York, where she was whisked off to a house near the airport and repeatedly beaten by her "employers."


Irina's captors demanded reimbursement for her fare and accommodation expenses, threatening to kill her if she did not pay them $5,000 immediately. That figure soon doubled and she was given a week to pay, a demand coupled with threats against her family back in Russia.


After three days, Irina was given the opportunity to discharge her debts by working as a prostitute. She was told the money was good - $400 a night - and she was assured her debts would soon be cleared. After a few more days of abuse, Irina gave in.


But it soon became clear to her that she would never be able to repay her captors. Almost all her clients paid in advance, with credit cards, and she ended up with between $10 and $20 a night. Irina was also told any attempt to escape or steal would be met with punishment, for her and her family.


By the time she met Robert five months later, Irina was so demoralized that escape was her paramount concern. It didn't take Robert long to become her shining knight.


"I never used to look too deep into the girl's eyes," said Robert. "But with Irina I couldn't help myself. Most prostitutes have a steel door in their eyes and you can't get beyond that. With Irina I could see there was so much pain and fear. I fell in love with something in there almost immediately."


There was also something different about Irina's surroundings. All the hookers Robert had used before appeared to make good money. One actually asked him to manage her earnings.


But Irina's apartment seemed squalid in comparison - and so did her anxiety. When Robert began touching her she trembled and he noticed a bruise on her cheek hidden under a heavy layer of makeup.


"I began asking her questions about her employer and how she came to be in the U.S.," said Robert. "Her English was shaky but good enough for me to be convinced she was turning tricks against her will. I knew there was no way I could have sex with her."


Robert went home, planning to return with a colleague who spoke Russian. This was not easy, since the management of Elegant Escorts has a rule that no client is allowed to see the same woman twice in a row. However, for extra payment they eventually agreed to let him see her again on the understanding that it would be the last time.


The Rescue


With his translator in tow, Robert was able to get the bare bones of Irina's story. By the time she finished her tale the doorbell rang. It was her next client. "She told me to go, but I wouldn't," said Robert. "I knew that I would not be allowed to come back a third time. So I hid in the kitchen."


An hour later, Robert and the translator emerged from their hiding place to find Irina crying, her thighs streaked with blood. Robert now knew there was no time to lose. He had an hour to persuade her to gather her belongings and get out.


"It was really tough. She was so scared about her family," said Robert. "But Rick, the translator, made Irina see they would probably kill her and her family in the end anyway. Even so we pretty much forced her out of the apartment and carried her most of the way down the stairs."


"Rescuing Irina was unlike anything I had done before in my life," said Robert, lighting a cigarette as an FBI agent closed the curtains against the gathering dusk. "I had taken risks for money, but not for somebody else. Definitely not for a woman."


Robert acted just in time. Irina's employers soon learned about her absence after her next client showed up at an empty apartment. Within a few hours there were five "nasty looking guys" picking through her place, the building caretaker said. It wouldn't take them much longer to find Robert.


En route to his apartment, Robert remembered he'd paid Elegant Escorts with a credit card. "I realized they could use that really easily to find me. I could not risk going home with Irina - not if I was serious about protecting her."


Instead, Robert went to Tony's home, who turned him away. "I told him he couldn't bring his hookers to my home in front of my wife and children," Tony recalled. He was even angrier when he heard about the Russian mafia connection. "[Robert] had put my family in danger by bringing her to my home."


"I hadn't thought about that and I wasn't prepared to think it was a realistic possibility, even though I was scared enough not to go back to my own apartment," Robert later admitted.


But an hour later, while Robert was driving around Manhattan trying to think of some place to go, Tony called back offering Robert the use of his cousin's place on Staten Island that was empty for the next month.


It seemed like the perfect solution. By seven that evening Irina and Robert were alone in the Staten Island house, drinking beer and eating pizza surrounded by the unfamiliar artifacts of somebody else's family.


"I saw all these happy family photos of Tony's cousin," Robert said. "It seemed safe. A place with kids and laughter. I wanted the same thing and Irina was increasingly striking me as the right woman to have it with. I was fishing for moonlight, I guess."


But the next morning, reality intruded with a vengeance.


Robert snuck back into his building, only to find that his apartment had been trashed. Broken furniture was everywhere, his CDs and paintings had all been ruined. There was a note which read, "Return the Girl - DO NOT FUCK WITH US - we know where your family lives." Robert rushed to his bathroom and vomited. Then the phone rang. "We are outside, come out with the girl," said a voice before the phone went dead.


Robert then remembered an old acquaintance, Michael Ciravolo, president of Beau Dietl Associates, a team of private investigators. He pulled out the man's card and paged him. Agonizing minutes passed. His phone rang three times. The first two were hang-ups. After the third call he heard the same threatening voice: "We're waiting." Robert was getting desperate.


Finally, Ciravolo called. "We have had plenty of dealings with the Russian mafia," Ciravolo said. "From what Robert said I knew immediately the situation was serious. We had to get him out of there and under some kind of protection."


A Mobster's Revenge


The man who sent his troops after Robert is a former resident of Irina's home town, a mobster called Sergei Krykov who served eight years in Soviet military intelligence and four in the KGB before becoming a leading force in St. Petersburg's so-called "black mafia," the city's dominant gang. It is now one of three Russian mafia units that operate multimillion-dollar prostitution rings out of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.


Krykov entered the U.S. legally four years ago through his son, who was already running a superficially legitimate import-export business in Brighton Beach. He has an impressive reputation for brutality, is suspected of ordering nine hits on rivals and businessmen who rejected his protection services, and has a habit of choosing some of the sex slaves to live with him when they first arrive in the United States.


Like all U.S.-based mafia bosses, Krykov takes his orders from Russia, but he retains considerable power and influence back home. According to U.S. intelligence sources, Krykov recently ordered the assassination of a rival in St. Petersburg who was planning to muscle in on the sex slavery business in New York. His motto is "take no prisoners," and he apparently took Robert's rescue of Irina as a personal insult. According to an FBI informant, Krykov recently told an associate that killing Irina and Robert remains one of his main priorities. There is a substantial reward for whomever makes the hit on the star-crossed lovers.


Ciravolo had two cars with four detectives outside Robert's building within 20 minutes. He also called in some favors with the local police precinct and had Robert's street buzzing with patrol cars.


"That persuaded those skels to move," Ciravolo said. "I got Robert out of there without him being followed, but I warned him that the mafia and Krykov in particular would find him. He had not heard the last."


Ciravolo's warnings proved to be prophetic. Back on Staten Island, Robert discovered Irina in tears. "She had called her mother in Russia. The mafia had already sent somebody around to make threats," said Robert, adding that Irina's parents were told they and their daughter "would have to be made examples" if Irina didn't turn herself in.


Ciravolo consulted with a Russian mafia expert in the FBI. The results he brought to Robert were sobering. "I told him whatever the mafia promised, even if Irina was returned, there was a better than 90 percent chance they would both be killed," he said.


"Mike said it was simple. I had stolen mafia property and they couldn't let that stand," Robert recalled. "They'd either kill me or maim me - probably the latter followed by the former. As for Irina, she was going to be made an example of. They wanted her to turn herself over to them, just to make killing her easier."


At first Irina would not believe it. Ciravolo had to bring his FBI consultant to see her. "My guy told her about other girls who had tried to escape, what had happened to them and their families. He even showed her some photographs of two girls in Chicago who escaped but were caught and killed, very slowly," Ciravolo said.


Romance Blossoms


The FBI expert helped persuade Irina, but she was also swayed by Robert. She had never experienced such tenderness from a man or such devoted attention. She was beginning to fall in love with him.


It was Robert who came up with the idea of using Irina to build a case against the mafia. Using the Internet he began to research the topic and discovered mounting evidence that Russian bandits were forcing thousands of women like Irina into prostitution. "Mafia slavery rings are well established in Europe and becoming so in the United States. Irina could help mount a counteroffensive," Robert said.


According to a report by the Global Survival Network, a Washington-based nonprofit agency that conducted a two-year investigation into the illegal trafficking of women from the former Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands of women have fallen victim to international sex trade peddlers. Lured by promises of a better life and lucrative employment abroad, these women are trapped into signing fake contracts to work in Japan, Western Europe or the United States. Once they reach their destination, however, their captors turn them into sex slaves.


The United Nations estimates that criminal syndicates earn billions of dollars each year in the flesh trade - a lucrative business that bandits like Krykov will go to violent extremes to protect.


Having discovered where Robert worked, the mafia was making life difficult for him. The whiz kid who had not taken more than two days vacation at one time in five years was forced to take a leave of absence.


The mafia began spreading rumors on Wall Street that Robert's firm was facing an SEC investigation, and that he had been filching money and funneling funds into drugs and prostitution. "Who knows how they managed to put these rumors out there," said Ciravolo. "Most of these Russian mafia guys are ex-KGB. They know how to do shit the Italians never dreamed of."


At first Robert's employers, knowing his marquee value, were prepared to tolerate his quixotic rescue mission. But the company's chief executive made it known through intermediaries he wanted Robert in a sex addiction clinic once the case was over and they wanted Irina out of the picture.


"I knew I wasn't going to do the second and the first was unnecessary," Robert said. "I was never going to go with a hooker again. I felt remorse about the ones I'd used in the past."


Robert's friends also distanced themselves. None of them wanted mafia attention. Besides, the Upper East Side gang he ran with - especially his old buddies from Yale - thought using prostitutes was something one did not admit to in public.


Sensing the havoc she had created for her white knight, Irina decided to run. Robert caught up with her as she was boarding the Staten Island ferry. With the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop, he tried to bridge the language barrier and tell Irina he loved her and wanted them to build a life somewhere safe. He explained he was rich and could do whatever was necessary to get them protection. They could take new identities, he said, and live where the mafia couldn't find them. "I couldn't understand everything he was saying," said Irina, working on a fresh cup of coffee. "But I could see from his eyes he wanted us to run. I couldn't do that. My family is too important to me. I said we could only be together if we stood and fought."


Shortly after that, Ciravolo - wary of facing off against Krykov alone - turned the case over to the FBI and the New York Police Department. A meeting was called to discuss bringing a case against the mob and Robert and Irina were introduced to NYPD detective James Peppetone. An FBI liaison officer and Dennis Hawkins, the Brooklyn assistant district attorney, were also at the meeting. When they looked at the pair, the three men all wondered why Robert would turn his life upside down for Irina.


"It is not as though she was a 10 or anything, to justify risking everything, his life included," said Peppetone. Others expressed skepticism that Russian women, Irina included, are innocently forced into prostitution.


But Robert was determined to go through with the case. Indeed, he was just as eager to save himself as he was to save his Russian girlfriend. He saw redemption in his mission to save Irina.


The Sting


The FBI and the NYPD knew they had to move fast. Unless they indicted the men who enslaved Irina, the mob would strike. The bureau had also pledged to help Irina's family in return for her testimony.


On July 17, the NYPD arrested five Russians in Brighton Beach on charges of extortion, kidnapping and assault. Krykov, who slipped back to Russia a few days before the warrants were issued, was not among them. At the same time, an FBI team backed up by Russian police spirited Irina's parents out of St. Petersburg.


Robert and Irina were placed in protective custody where they remain, held in adjacent safe houses outside New York, where their romance continues to blossom.


"Once the guys who enslaved Irina are in jail, I think I'll give up investment banking," said Robert. "There's an organization in Washington I read about that is working internationally to defeat forced prostitution. They've identified thousands of ordinary Russian women enslaved just like Irina. I may go work with them, go on the offensive. It's probably the best way for me to be safe - to hide in plain sight."