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3 charged in Calif.-based prostitution ring

Posted: June 19, 2012 1:30 p.m.
Updated: June 19, 2012 1:30 p.m.

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) - Three people in Southern California have been charged with running a prostitution ring that recruited women from Latvia and Russia to work in the sex trade in Los Angeles and Orange County, federal authorities said Tuesday.

Mher "Mike" Hakopyan, 38, and his wife, 31-year-old Natalya Muravyeva, were arrested Monday by immigration agents and the Santa Monica Police Department. A third suspect, Hakopyan's ex-wife, 43-year-old Alla Kassianova, remains at large and may have left the country, said Virginia Kice, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman.

Hakopyan and Muravyeva made a first court appearance Monday in federal court in Santa Ana. They were ordered held without bail. Their attorneys did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

The three used paid recruiters to find potential prostitutes overseas and then helped the women apply for visa waivers and bought them plane tickets to Los Angeles, according to a search warrant affidavit. Once in the U.S., the women would work out of residential homes and often returned to their native countries after three months before coming back again.

Federal agents began investigating after two women were stopped at Los Angeles International Airport last September. The women, both from Latvia, gave inconsistent stories about their travel plans, and agents found sex paraphernalia in their luggage, court papers allege.

Investigators have since identified up to 12 women that the defendants brought - or attempted to bring - to the U.S.

It's still unclear whether all the women understood what they were getting into, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandy Leal, who is prosecuting the case. Emails uncovered in the case show Hakopyan worked with a woman in Riga, Latvia, who found the potential prostitutes and was paid using a wire transfer for her work.

"There are email communications with the foreign nationals while they are overseas," Leal said. "You don't see anyone specifically saying, 'Do you want to come here to engage in prostitution?' So it's unclear, and we're going to be talking to a lot of the potential victims in this case."



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