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Human trafficking suspect admits money laundering charges

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Summary of story from Detroit Free Press, September 14, 2011

Formerly on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and charged with running an international human trafficking network, Ukrainian nightclub owner Veniamin Gonikman pleaded guilty in federal court on Tuesday.

However, he only admitted money laundering charges and insisted he was not in charge of a trafficking gang which smuggled women into the US and forced them to work in Detroit strip clubs.

He also denied the existence of any “vulnerable victims” in his case and said that he had never been on the run, but living openly in a village in Ukraine up until his arrest in January 2011.

The government is pushing for a 41 to 51-month prison sentence, saying that Gonikman fled the country in 2005 to avoid prosecution in a case in which his son, ex-wife, daughter-in-law and business partner were all charged and convicted.

Gonikman’s lawyer Walter Piszczatowski said he plans to seek a 10 to 16-month prison sentence.

During the 90-minute hearing, the US District Judge Victoria Roberts asked Gonikman to explain how the women ended up in the US, what his role was in getting them here and if he made any money off the women.

Roberts’ questions forced Gonikman to offer more details about his involvement in the scheme, information that could be used against him at sentencing.

With a Russian translator at his side, Gonikman told Roberts that the women who came to the US to work at local strip clubs, came of their own accord. He said he only helped two women move here without proper identification.

Gonikman also admitted that his son, who was convicted of running the smuggling operation known as Beauty Search, wired him money in Ukraine, where the government claims he lived in hiding for years. He said that he received more than $160,000 in wages the women earned.

One victim testified before Congress in 2007 about her treatment:

“I could not refuse to go to work or I would be beaten,” she said. “I was often yelled at for not making enough money, or had a gun put to my face. Every week, I handed over around $3000 to $4000. I was their slave.”

It is expected that Gonikman will be sentenced in January.

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