The Department of Homeland Security investigation into a "large scale," Eastern European/Southern California prostitution pipeline that won sensational headlines in 2012 ended this month with barely a whimper inside Orange County's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse.
According to law-enforcement records, Mher Hakopyan; his wife, Natalya Muravyeva; and his sister-in-law, Alla Kassianova provided fake identities to young women; purchased for them airline tickets from Moscow to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX); posed them for provocative photographs used in online escort ads; and then lured male customers to various residential properties in Santa Monica, Los Angeles and Orange County.
The profitable scheme worked for nearly two years until 2011, when on-the-ball U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers at LAX became suspicious of two arriving Latvian women who didn't convincingly sell their fake identities or the purpose of their travel.
Hakopyan, who'd been waiting to pick up the ladies at the airport, became angered that officials sent his employees back to Moscow and complained. He sped away in a Cadillac SUV, a scene that led to a 10-month investigation with raids on several buildings, wireless surveillance and undercover snooping of available sex services.
Investigators identified 14 women, all near the age of 20, as foreign national prostitutes.
Despite national newspaper coverage and near saturation of TV news coverage in LA, as well as cops calling the defendants "predators," the case quietly ended this month when U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney handed Muravyeva a punishment of probation for one year and doubled that faint wrist-slap for Kassianova. The judge, a lifetime appointee of President George W. Bush, also waived all fines.
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In odd secrecy last November, Carney blocked public knowledge of the government's sentencing recommendation for Hakopyan, who received a term of probation for three years.
All three defendants admitted guilt and could have been sent to prison.
The illicit operation used multiple online escort websites including backpage.com, cityvibe.com, eros-guide.com, thatmall.com and craigslist.
According to investigators, the ring employed a two- or three-call system to weed out potential undercover cops and sold sex in 30-minute increments for fees ranging from $100 to $350 or more.