A leader of a ring that smuggled hundreds of Ukrainians into the United States through Mexico and forced some immigrants to work as prostitutes was sentenced Monday to 17 1/2 years in federal prison.
"There's no question that I committed a crime," Serge Mezheritsky, 37, told U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi, "but nobody got hurt and nobody lost any money.... I didn't think I was breaking that much of the law."
His remarks drew a sharp retort from Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Saunders, who denounced Mezheritsky as unrepentant and unwilling to accept responsibility for his crimes.
Mezheritsky, convicted after a two-month trial last year, was one of 18 people indicted on charges of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens, importing and harboring aliens for purposes of prostitution and money laundering.
According to trial testimony, the smuggling operation began in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where men, women and children were provided with Mexican tourist visas. They were flown to Mexico City, then transported to a villa near Rosarito Beach in Baja California.
At the villa, they were coached to look, act and dress like Americans, instructed, for example, how to say "United States citizen" without a Russian accent.
From there, "the merchandise" -- as one ring member described the immigrants -- was escorted across the border by foot, car, train and boat, then on to Los Angeles and other U.S. cities.
Prosecution witnesses testified that the smugglers' fees ranged from $5,000 to $7,000 per person, and that some women immigrants were handed over to pimps and escort services in Los Angeles to work off their debts.
Mezheritsky was said to have supervised that part of the smuggling operation, a claim that he and his lawyer emphatically denied in court Monday.
The arrests of Mezheritsky and other ring members followed a 14-month investigation by the FBI, Immigration and Naturalization Service and Border Patrol. It began when Border Patrol agents happened upon a discarded videotape that told of a Ukrainian family's journey to the United States with the aid of smugglers.
Investigators eventually were able to identify the smugglers and tap into their telephone communications. Many of those incriminating wiretaps were played at trial.
Saunders said Monday that the ring may have been responsible for smuggling "a couple thousand" undocumented immigrants into the United States. His estimate was based on records obtained from a travel agency employed by the ring.
In his appeal for leniency, Mezheritsky told the judge that prosecutors had once offered to recommend a seven-year prison term in exchange for his guilty plea before trial. He turned them down.
Of the 18 defendants in the case, 12 were convicted at trial or pleaded guilty beforehand. Six are fugitives.