Hunting gays for money How a gang of thugs in St. Petersburg has made an industry of baiting and extorting homosexuals
In Russia, violent crimes against homosexuals are hardly ever investigated, as victims usually don't go to the police, in order to avoid humiliation and being forced to publicize their sexual orientation. But the absence of potential repercussions only encourages offenders. Meduza's special correspondent Daniil Turovsky tracked down a gang of at least 20 men who have been operating in St. Petersburg for more than a year, luring gay men on fake dates, in order to beat them up and take their money.
In late March, Dmitry Tsilikin, a 54-year-old journalist, was found dead in his St. Petersburg apartment. The forensic team counted at least ten stab wounds on his body. There were also some valuable objects missing from the home. In a few days, the police apprehended the suspect: a 20-year-old man named Sergey Kosyrev, who called himself "a purifier" and claimed he had murdered the journalist out of hatred. He also told the investigators that he had met Tsilikin on a dating website.
A few months prior, in January 2016, also in St. Petersburg, a 24-year-old man from Omsk stabbed to death a 27-year-old man after meeting him on a social network.
In 2014, a Moscow court convicted three Dagestani men of violent crimes, handing down prison sentences ranging from 9 to 25 years. They had been approaching homosexual men on dating sites for several years. Once entering these men's apartments, they would tie up the owners and rob them. Thirty victims came forward to report the crimes. Three of the group's robberies ended in homicides.
In their accounts of these incidents, victims' friends avoid mentioning the killed men's sexual orientation. On social media, they write things like, "There aren't many accounts of what happened, but I'd prefer not to talk about it," and "There are certain circumstances, but I'd rather keep them to myself." If you see people saying of a victim "he was found in his own apartment, with no signs of a break-in," in reports by investigators, journalists, or the victim's friends, there's usually one explanation: the victim was gay.
In her New York Times piece on murders like this, Masha Gessen cited Alexander Smirnov, an openly homosexual Moscow administration official, who described to Afisha magazine Russia's "gangs of criminals who come to gay men's homes disguised as homosexuals, to kill and rob their victims." "Quite naturally, the families prefer not to disclose it, as no one would like such a story to get out in the open," Smirnov said.
224 Moskovsky Prospekt
Alexei from St. Petersburg (whose name has been changed for privacy reasons) never imagined how much trouble a simple mobile app would cause him.
In mid-March 2016, he downloaded and installed “Hornet,” a gay dating app that's used mostly by people looking for sex partners. This was his first time using social networks to meet people like this. When he got Hornet, Alexei uploaded two photos to his profile: in the first one, he was leaving a barber's with a fresh haircut, and the second picture featured his naked torso.
Alexei is 26, he has a "dull nine-to-five job," and he kills his spare time building radio gadgets and analogue clocks. He dresses like most people, unremarkably, in a big sweater, black shoes, and jeans.
On March 24, 2016, he received a private message from someone named Maxim. "Hi, you look great," the text read. Alexei browsed through the man's profile and discovered that the stranger said he was 21, with tags like #bigdicks and #hardsex listed among his interests. The userpic showed Maxim half-turned, against a background of planes, in an airport.
In one of his first messages, Maxim invited Alexei to his place. Alexei declined the offer. They spent March 24 and 25 exchanging messages about their sexual preferences and experiences. Eventually, on the morning of March 26, they arranged to meet, first, in the afternoon near the Komendantsky Prospect subway station, but then rescheduled the rendezvous to a later hour and a different location.
Around 7 p.m., Alexei and Maxim met outside the Moskovskaya subway station. Alexei found Maxim to be rather attractive, and things progressed swiftly. Soon they were on the way back to Maxim's apartment, walking along the crowded Moskovsky Prospect, one of Saint Petersburg's busiest central streets. It was about a ten-minute walk, during which they slipped into small talk about the weather, which was still cold, with a mix of snow and rain.
Maxim led him to 224 Moskovsky Prospekt, one of two symmetrical 22-story high rises. Constructed in 1974 as hotels, the buildings ended up being housing for the city's elderly who survived the Leningrad Siege in World War II. Because they were designed to serve as hotels, the buildings are composed of only single-room apartments. The buildings neighbor a memorial dedicated to those who defended Leningrad from the Nazis. The memorial's inscription reads, "To your feat, Leningrad." The canopy outside House 224's entrance is decorated with a black-and-orange St. George's Ribbon, Russia's symbol of the Soviet victory in 1945.
Alexei and Maxim passed by the concierge to the elevator. Maxim told him that the apartment belonged to his brother, who was out of town. They went up to the 10th floor.
The apartment was a well-lit studio, furnished with a bed, an armchair, a TV set, and a mirrored sliding-door wardrobe. Maxim took off his warm jacket, and Alexei was confused to see that he was wearing a blazer and collared shirt underneath. The whole scene seemed too neat somehow, he now recalls. Then Maxim suggested "undressing and going to bed." They chatted for a while, and Alexei went to take a shower. He returned, wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around him, and sat down in an armchair.
As soon as Maxim disappeared into the bathroom, the wardrobe doors flew open, and three stout men in their late thirties jumped out. Alexei recalls that two of them had "bandit faces," while the third one resembled a "typical Russian fellow." "Uh-oh! Do you know that kid isn't even 18 yet?" asked one of them. When Alexei asked to see Maxim's passport, he was punched in the stomach.
The men encircled Alexei. "The Russian" took out a tablet and pointed its camera at Alexei, while one of the "bandits" questioned him about his line of work and his salary. The third one paced, sometimes cutting in and screaming threats, like "We'll break your ribs and bury you in the ground," "Faggot, why don't you find yourself a woman?" and "What were you thinking, coming here?" They threatened to call the police and post the video of their conversation on the Internet.
Alexei says he wasn't scared at the time, crediting his antidepressant medication. As the gangsters interrogated him, he says he stopped hearing their voices and concentrated instead on a lingering worry: "What if the guy really is underage?" But another idea bothered him even more: the possibility of being seen on the Internet. He detested the idea of his parents learning about his sexuality under such circumstances.
The criminals moved all his belongings from the hall to the room and turned out his pockets. Six-hundred rubles ($10), a bottle of nose drops, a photocopy of his passport, and a mobile phone dropped to the floor.
One of the "bandits" grabbed the phone and said he was going to call the police. The second one stopped him: "We could actually think of something else..." "What do you have in mind?" Alexei asked. "We could find a financial remedy to the issue," suggested one of them. "Do you have any savings?" At this point, browsing through Alexei's phone, one of them found a message from a bank stating that his savings account balance was about 60,000 rubles ($900). They demanded that he transfer the amount to them immediately. But he couldn't remember his password, when he launched his banking app. The men tried to wire themselves the money using an app of their own, once misspelling the Russian word for “transfer.” They failed, too, in the end, and one of the "bandits" consoled himself by punching Alexei in the back of the head.
The criminals ordered him to get dressed and go home to fetch the credit card, "without any tricks." As Alexei was putting on his clothes, one of the "bandits" told someone on the phone: "You handle the next one. We'll be in Ilyushina soon." (Ilyushina Street is near Komendantsky Prospekt, which is where Alexei and Maxim first met).
The "typical Russian" guy escorted Alexei home. It turned out that the attackers didn't have their own car. The man tried to hail a ride, but no one would stop for them, so he ordered a taxi on the phone.
While they were waiting, the man told Alexei, "I have mouths to feed. Just bought a pair of trainers, with only 5,000 rubles ($75) left of my salary, and the recession is killing me. Actually, I'm not homophobic. We just came up with an idea of making money this way." They got in the back seat and kept silent for most of the trip. The driver even got lost. It took them about half an hour to get to Alexei's place. They got off in the neighboring yard. The man looked up the nearest bank on his cellphone and headed there. Alexei went up to his apartment. His parents were home. He quickly came up with a story about a suspicious transaction on his account, grabbed his ATM card and rushed out. As they were approaching the bank, the "typical Russian" suggested that Alexei withdraw only 50,000 rubles ($750), so that he would have at least 10,000 rubles ($150) left "for expenses." Alexei handed him the money, and the man returned his phone and promised to delete the video. After that Alexei was set free.
* * *
According to Meduza's sources, another unsuspecting Hornet user was lured to the same apartment the very next day, on March 27. The victim tried to escape and made it to the stairs. The gang caught him, but let him go, after realizing he had nothing to offer but the 100 rubles ($2) and cheap mobile phone in his pockets.
The concierge at 224 Moskovsky Prospekt told Meduza that the suspicious apartment is rented on a per-day basis. As she recalls, on the evening of March 27, tenants of other apartments on the 10th floor reported "a strange noise." She went up to check on it and rang the doorbell, but no one answered. Shortly thereafter, she says she saw two tenants from that apartment walk past her. She describes them as "men in their mid-thirties." When she asked what had happened, they said there'd been "a small fight." The woman couldn't remember any more details, saying too many visitors pass through the lobby every day, and most of the apartments in the building are rented.
At Meduza's request, the concierge shared the building's visitor log—a book adorned with kittens and flowers on its cover. The log entries for the apartment in question listed "one guy" and "two guys" entering the building on the afternoon of March 26. There were no names or any ID information recorded (and Alexei says he was never registered, when he was there).
The concierge says the notorious apartment is rented out by a man named Alexander, the building's manager. She intends to give him a call, but there he is, on the ground floor, wearing aviator sunglasses and a denim vest. "What the fuck do you want?" he says in a south-Ukrainian accent.
Alexander says he works for a company with dozens of apartments all around the city. In the first minutes of our conversation, he denies having rented the apartment where the two assaults allegedly took place, but soon he admits that the details fall into place, especially when he learns about the mirrored wardrobe. "I don't know anything about a fight. And I am aware of everything that's going on in my apartments. Even if someone's getting laid, I'll know about it," he says assuringly. "The walls are paper-thin. There's nothing you can't hear." The shady apartment is rented at 2,000 rubles ($30) per night. You can find it easily on the rental company's website, or even at Booking.com.
Alexander insists that he doesn't sign the rental contracts and does not remember who rented the apartment for the weekend of March 25–27. However, as our conversation continues, his memory seems to clarify. He smokes cigarette after cigarette. "The four guys referred to themselves as military men on a leave," he says. He hesitates to give any more details, using the same wording to describe them: late thirties, short hair. "It seems they had a good time," he adds.
"So you're saying they beat up a homo?" he asks. "He should thank God he survived at all. I know such things happen. There have been some incidents in the neighborhood. It's good that he survived, though. The police won't be looking for evidence."
‘We fight guys like you’
Unlike Alexei, 30-year-old Kirill (not his real name) used Hornet to find dates more than once, and nothing ever went wrong, until last time.
In mid-January 2016, Kirill went to the outskirts of St. Petersburg to meet a young man he'd befriended through the app. When the man came downstairs to answer the door, Kirill noticed that he was dressed in a typical soccer hooligan outfit, and a sport raincoat and turned-up pants. As soon as they entered the apartment, the new acquaintance began rubbing himself against Kirill, who suggested that they first uncork the bottle of wine he'd brought with him. So they moved to the kitchen. But a few minutes later, Kirill heard a key turning in the front-door lock. Then two men in their late thirties burst into the kitchen. In his mind Kirill, called one of them "the Round," because of his oval-shaped face, and the other one "the Felon," because he'd clearly had his nose broken at some point. "We're from a social organization called ‘Kindness.’ We fight guys like you," said the Round. "Do you even know how old he is?" one of the men asked. Kirill said his companion was 19, as stated in his Hornet profile. Then the Round punched him square in the head.
The criminals searched Kirill, finding two credit cards and a fitness-club membership card.
They invited a third man into the kitchen and introduced him as a "media worker who will record footage of your entire story." He started questioning Kirill about his work and trips abroad, and then asked if he owned a car. Most questions concerned Kirill's savings. "We should probably kill you, faggot," threatened the Round and hit him a few more times (in the shoulder, in the back of his head, and in his leg). The Felon said they were going to strip Kirill naked and take photos of him. Then he threatened to plant drugs on Alexei and call the police.
"But who benefits from you going to jail?" one of the men said. And Kirill asked what they wanted.
The men retreated to the hall for deliberation. Kirill heard them say "two million," then they started discussing “one million.” Finally, when they returned to the kitchen, they said they'd set him free for a ransom of 500,000 rubles ($7,500). Kirill suggested that they come up with a more realistic amount, as he only had as much as 10,000 rubles ($150) in his savings. Eventually, they bargained down the ransom to 200,000 rubles ($3,000), with 50,000 ($750) paid up front and 150,000 ($2,250) due the next day.
Kirill then called his sister on speakerphone, but her phone wouldn't ring. So he resorted to phoning a friend, who immediately agreed to wire him 40,000 rubles ($600). The Round took his card, went out and withdrew the money from a nearby ATM.
When he returned, he grabbed a cutting board and slapped Kirill with it several times. "You want me to beat your dick off?" he asked. They forced Kirill to finish the wine and pulled him out into the street. He was warned that they were expecting the 150,000 rubles ($2,250) by the next day, wired to a second account they provided. Kirill caught a bus and left.
He went straight to his friends, who tried to calm him down and recommended that he go to the police. At first, Kirill refused to heed their advice, but then he agreed, fearing that his silence could mean his friends and other men using Hornet might end up in the same situation.
The next day, he canceled his credit cards and stopped answering the criminals' phone calls. To this day, he walks home carrying a knife in his hand. Those men know where he lives.
Having filed a report with the police, Kirill started talking to his friends about the scam, to find out if there have been others similar incidents. So far, he's spoken to ten victims of these fake dates. Only one of them has had the courage to go to the police.
Kirill prefers not to give a detailed account of his investigation, to make sure the gangsters don't find out too much. He dreams of putting them away in prison for as long as possible, which in Russia would be seven years for organized robbery (Article 161 of Russia's criminal code).
Hunting gay men, but without homophobia
According to Meduza's source with connections at St. Petersburg's Interior Ministry Main Directorate, there is a single gang behind all the fake dates arranged to extort and blackmail the city's gay men. The gang consists of about 20 men, between the ages of 18 and 45. Some of them are ex-military, many have children, and they also keep in touch outside the gang, posting common selfies on social networks. It's likely that the offenders got acquainted through a martial arts club.
As Meduza's source reports, three or four gang members collaborate to put together a single fake date. A man between the ages of 18 and 20 serves as the bait, whose pictures are used to create an account on Hornet. It's this young man who first approaches the victim and lures him back to the designated apartment, where at least two other men are waiting. One of these men, with the looks of an ex-convict, plays the “bad cop,” shouting at the victim, beating him up, and threatening to kill him or frame him for drug possession and call the police, while the other plays “good cop,” talking reasonably and suggesting a “peaceful” resolution after a few minutes of pressure and intimidation. Sometimes there's also another man who acts as a “media worker,” who threatens to film the victim and interrogate him about his private and professional life.
The gang has been operating for about a year (the first attacks were recorded in March 2015). On the weekends, between Friday and Sunday, they lure victims to several addresses at the same time, using the mobile app. The thugs have managed to extort as much as 100,000 rubles ($1,500) in a single attack. Meduza's source, who is privy to the details of a police investigation, affirms that "very few of those assaulted" have filed statements. Presently, the police are gathering information, questioning witnesses and collecting CCTV camera footage.
The gang of extortionists use the exact same methods as activists in the now-dissolved “Occupy Pedophilia” movement, but they don't share the movement's ideology. In fact, many of these thugs say they aren't even homophobic, rarely mentioning “pedophilia” at fake dates. Instead of debating the morals of homosexuality, they're far more interested in their victims' savings. "Today they are nothing but a gang of bandits who has jumped at the opportunity to blackmail vulnerable people," says a report on violence against the LGBT community by the human rights group Vykhod (“A Way Out”).
Just like Occupy Pedophilia activists, these gangsters show little concern for discretion, never hiding their faces from CCTV cameras, and not shying from getting to know the landlords who rent them the rooms they use for their scams. They also openly disclose the bank card numbers they use in wire transfers, and they don't even throw out the SIM cards they use for contact with their victims. One of the men they targeted told Meduza that he later tried to call the man who acted as “bait” in his assault, and the call actually went through. Meduza spent several days trying to reach this number, but no one answered the phone.
Maxim "Tesak" Martsinkevich's Occupy Pedophilia movement existed for a few years, from October 2011 to the fall of 2014.
Tesak turned his hunt for gay men into a full-fledged entertainment industry, with advertisements and "safari" tickets (this is how his activists described the group's hunt for “pedophiles”), and he even launched several regional “affiliates.” Every time his group “exposed” a new “pedophile,” it was recorded on video and posted online. Ekaterina Zigunova, one of the movement's former leaders, told Meduza that Occupy Pedophilia activists followed guidelines that "prohibited violence and stealing." By early 2014, the police had broken up most of the campaign's regional subdivisions. By the fall of 2014, the movement was totally crushed, and Tesak and many other activists were sent to jail.
‘This happens a lot more often than we know’
Last year, the LGBT activist group Vykhod, which works to protect gay rights, registered 12 assaults using the fake-date scenario. So far in 2016, it's recorded six attacks, including two in April. “This happens a lot more often than we know,” says Ksenia Kirichenko, the group's coordinator. "It's impossible to estimate the percentage of those who reach out to us. These gangs take advantage of their victims' vulnerable position, assuming that a man wouldn't want to go to the police and reveal that he went on a date with someone of the same sex.”
Vykhod activists are quite confident that most victims would rather pay the equivalent of a few hundred dollars than be forced to come out of the closet. Many of those who turned to Vykhod still didn't plan to file a police report, as they were mostly concerned about offenders uploading footage of the "date" to the Internet.
“Closeted homosexuals make perfect targets for criminals. Neither the victims nor their relations would go to the police," explains Igor Kochetkov, the head of the Russian LGBT Network. "Homosexuals normally keep such incidents [these assaults] secret even among themselves."
"I assume such phenomena are directly linked to the perception of the LGBT community as an enemy, which is largely promoted by the authorities through the federal media," insists Adrei Petrov, a spokesperson for Stimul (Stimulus), a Moscow-based LGBT organization. "When Occupy Pedophilia was out there, people were robbed, humiliated, and beaten up just like they are now. Nothing's changed. The regions are rapidly embracing the idea, because people involved in this realize they won't be punished very severely."
Activist Andrei Petrov says he knows of a few recent fake dates that took place in Moscow, Novosibirsk, Lipetsk, and Omsk.
This text was translated from Russian by Ksenia Khudadyan.