Saint Petersburg court charges gang members with attacks on homosexuals
On October 18, 2016, the Krasnogvardeysky District Court of St. Petersburg sentenced two members of the "gay-hunting" gang: one of them was given two years and three months in prison, while the other – a female – was given a two-year suspended sentence and released on probation right in the courtroom.
The pair would approach gay men on the Internet, lure them out on fake dates, beat them and extort money from them. Often, their victims did not turn to police for fear of a forced coming out. However, the victim who was robbed of 49,000 rubles (approximately $780) in January, somehow found the strength to file a statement against the pair. At least three of their accomplices are still on the loose.
Daniil Turovsky, Meduza's special correspondent who has covered the gang's activity in the past, looked into the criminal case file and provided the following synopsis of the events surrounding the trial.
Pyotr Kulikov was invited to join the hunt for homosexuals in an ordinary sandwich bar on Nevsky Prospect. It was the end of December 2015 and the New Year holidays were drawing near. The eighteen-year-old had come to the meeting right after the end classes at school.
He was awaited by Yulia Semkina. Prior to that, he had only seen her once, a couple of weeks earlier, at the end of November 2015, when the new acquaintance gave him and a friend a lift home from a night club.
Semkina invited him to try his hand at an unconventional way of making money. Together with her accomplices, the girl found prospective victims through the gay dating app Hornet, messaged them under the guise of a handsome guy, and arranged her meeting. On the spot, when the man would start undressing, a few men would burst into the room and start intimidating the victim, accusing him of child molestation, beating him up, and extorting money from him.
Kulikov was to act as the bait: he was supposed to call the target, arrange a rendez-vous, bring him to an apartment, and encourage him to get undressed.
Money instead of ideology
Yulia Semkina was 28 at the time. She has not had any post-secondary education, but at school, she was on good terms with her classmates and took extra music classes (details procured from the criminal case file provided to Meduza). After having finished her schooling, she worked as a human resources manager, a cashier, and a sales assistant. In 2005, Semkina got married, but "it was a complicated relationship because [the spouses] often had conflicts on the grounds of the husband's adultery." When her marriage broke up in 2007, Semkina made a goodbye call to her father and "took some pills with the intention to commit suicide." She then swallowed "everything she could find in her first aid kit."
In 2009, the girl underwent treatment at a mental institution and was diagnosed with hysterical personality disorder; she has not sought psychiatric help since. At the time when Semkina invited Kulikov to join the gang, she was officially unemployed, which led the investigators to believe that money extorted from homosexuals was her primary source of income. (since the hearing on October 5, 2016, she claimed to have been working as a human resources manager with an employment agreement and a salary of 70,000 rubles (approximately $1100).)
Semkina's VKontakte page is unremarkable: there are songs by Russian rock, pop, and punk-rock performers in her Audio Files, and a wall covered with pictures of kittens and photos of herself with cars. In her interests section, there is nothing that could betray her rightist views: no homophobic communities or groups created in support of Maxim Martsinkevich. Nevertheless, the criminal gang in which she was involved copied the methods used by the activists of the dissolved Occupy Pedophilia movement, with the exception of the ideological component: instead of forcing their victims to confess and repent their sexual orientation, the gangsters interrogated them about their savings. Human rights advocates from Vykhod group pointed out that "Today [after Occupy Pedophilia has been crushed] they are nothing but a gang of bandits who have jumped at the opportunity to blackmail vulnerable people."
Semkina's accomplice was her friend and partner Ilya Vassilyev, 26. He completed nine years of schooling and has had two criminal convictions. In 2011, he was apprehended for possession of illegal drugs, namely 700 grams of sodium oxybate (another name for GHB, a popular street drug). At the time of his arrest, he attempted to bribe the police to get away. He did not have any money on him, so he called his grandmother and asked her to bring 35,000 rubles ($560). The first offense brought him a three-year jail term, and the other – for the solicitation of law-enforcement officers – added another two-year suspended sentence.
Apart from Semkina, Vassilyev, and the newly-recruited Kulikov, the gang included a few more men, all of them natives of Saint Petersburg and the suburban town of Kolpino. According to Kulikov, Ilya Grekhovodov, also known as Grekh ("sin" in Russian), also participated in the attacks; he told Kulikov that he had served in the police but had been fired on the grounds of illegal drug possession. Another gang member specializing in physical intimidation was called Yevgeny. He wore camouflage and a holstered gun. The police have not been able to locate the accomplices of Semkina and Vassilyev.
Vykhod group activists believe these individuals to form yet a cell of a much bigger gang. This was also confirmed to Meduza by a source close the General Administration of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for St. Petersburg who mentioned that the gay-hunting gang consisted of about 20 people of different age groups – mostly men between the ages of 18 and 45. The first attacks occurred in March 2015; the criminals acted mostly at weekends, successfully extorting sums up to 100,000 rubles ($1600).
Pyotr Kulikov participated in three attacks.
A meeting in Nastavnikov Street
Amongst her other duties, Semkina was in charge of renting apartments for fake dates. On January 15, 2016, she found a suitable apartment at 34 Nastavnikov Street in the east of St. Petersburg through Avito, an online platform for private announcements. As the apartment’s owner would later tell investigators, Semkina had seemed "trustworthy" to her.
The following day, Kulikov came to the rented apartment to obtain the phone number of yet another target from Semkina. He dialed it and arranged to meet the man a few hours later.
Around seven in the evening, a tall dark-haired guy called Kirill arrived at the pre-arranged location. He thought he was about to meet Anton (the name indicated in Kulikov’s Hornet profile); it struck him that Kulikov was dressed like a football hooligan, in a sport raincoat and turned-up pants.
In the apartment, Anton started leaning against Kirill right away, to which he reacted by a suggestion that they have a glass of wine for starters. While they were drinking wine in the kitchen, Anton received two calls. A few minutes later, the entrance door was unlocked from the outside with a key, and five people entered the kitchen: Vassilyev, Semkina, and "three individuals whose identity has not been established." One of them introduced himself as an activist of "a social organization called Kindness (Dobrota in Russia). "We fight guys like you," he said. At this point, Kulikov left the kitchen and locked himself up in the bathroom.
The unidentified individuals gave Kirill a rough time. One of them claimed that Anton had not yet turned eighteen. Kirill was searched and the criminals found two credit cards among his possessions. They invited Semkina in the room and introduced her as a "journalist who will tell the world everything about you."
Semkina asked questions regarding the man's financial status, interrogating him about his work, trips abroad, and cars. One of her accomplices threatened to call the police immediately unless Kirill paid them 500,000 rubles; he hit the victim on the back of his neck and on the leg. Another man procured a sewing needle and threatened to stick it in Kirill’s eye; another threated to strip him naked and take photos of him. Kirill agreed to pay 200,000 rubles ($3200) in two separate payments: 50,000 ($800) on the spot and 150,000 ($2400) on the following day.
He was made to finish the wine he had brought and led out onto the street, where he caught the first bus and left.
Kulikov spent about an hour and a half in the bathroom. Around nine in the evening, Semkina told him he could get out. He was paid 4000 rubles ($64) for acting as bait.
An arrest instead of a wedding party
In Russia, cases of assault against homosexuals are rarely investigated: victims avoid going to the police for fear of being outed. The following day, Kirill went to an outpatient hospital to verify the battery-induced injuries. He was diagnosed with soft tissue injury to the back of his neck, a hematoma, and a skin abrasion on his lower leg.
Two more days followed, and the man filed a statement at a police department in Krasnogvardeysky District of St. Petersburg on January 19. He gave investigators the phone numbers which the gang members had used to contact him.
Less than a month later, a detective sent Kirill a few screenshots of VKontakte profiles. Kirill identified one of them as being that of Semkina. Detective Andrei Doshin then sent him a link to the woman’s profile and Kirill found Pyotr Kulikov among her acquaintances. According to the detective, he was able to verify that Semkina's mobile phone was at the crime scene during the attack.
On February 19, the police initiated a criminal case against the group and on March 24, just a month later, they apprehended Kulikov. During his very first questioning, he agreed to cooperate in the investigation and promised to disclose everything he knew about the gang, describing "the role of each member" (nevertheless, three of his accomplices remain unidentified). He was released from pre-trial detention on the condition that he will remain in Saint Petersburg.
Meanwhile, Semkina and Vassilyev were preparing for their wedding. In their profiles on social networks, they shared invitations to the wedding ceremony, to take place on April 12 at Saint Petersburg Wedding Palace # 1. Vassilyev even set the photo of the invitation as his profile picture.
According to a source close to the investigative team, the detectives purposfully waited until the wedding day and apprehended the "gay hunters" just a few hours prior to the ceremony. Semkina and Vassilyev refused to testify and were sent to a pre-trial detention center.
In May 2016, Detective Doshin assigned his team with the task of locating another gang member, Ilya Grekhovodov, by checking his official place of residence, his VKontakte profile and the IP address he had last used to log into the social network. They did find Grekhovodov at the stated address; nor did they receive an answer from the administration of VKontakte. The criminal case file does not include any mention of the investigators using the SORM ("System for Operative Investigative Activities") grants people access to member’s personal messages. The spokesperson of Administration "K" of the MIA (specializing in cybercrime) explained to Meduza that ordinary policemen cannot access SORM without being authorized by the Russia’s Federal Security Service, and the police try to abstain from excessive contact with this authority. Grekhovodov's VKontakte profile, to which Ilya Vassilyev is subscribed, can still be found; it is occasionally updated. The latest post reads: "Children are the best advertisement for condoms."
In July 2016, after the indictment, Semkina and Vassilyev pleaded guilty and agreed for their case to be heard according to a special procedure. Their relatives refused to provide any comment to Meduza.
"I don't have anything against them"
At the hearing on September 8, 2016, Kirill requested that Kulikov be given a long-term prison sentence. "We should take into consideration the aggravating circumstance of committing the crime on the grounds of hatred toward a certain social group, homosexual people," said he.
"I would like to apologize!" responded Kulikov. "I thought we were after pedophiles. I don't feel any hatred toward homosexuals; I don't have anything against them."
"He is lying about catching pedophiles. When we met, he told me that he was 19," said Kirill.
"I could not have said so! I was 18," responded Kulikov.
The prosecutor considered Kulikov's collaboration with the investigators to be a mitigating circumstance and required a three-year prison sentence. The court found him guilty and gave him a two-year suspended sentence without a fine.
After Kulikov, Semkina, and Vassilyev were apprehended, attacks on homosexuals following the same extortion pattern did not cease. Meduza has information about similar crimes occurring in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, with the latest occurring in late September. Fearing public outings, none of the victims intends to file statement with the police. One of the victims informed Meduza, however, that he might reconsider his decision about going to the police now that he has learned about Semkina's and Vassilyev's sentences. "The court’s decision will be a call to action. Or [a lack of such]," he said.
A few homosexuals who have sought the help of human rights advocates from Vykhod group identified another "bait" among Pyotr Kulikov's VKontakte friends. It was this guy who introduced Kulikov to Semkina after a nightclub party in November 2015. According to Kirill, Kulikov's friend was summoned to the police for questioning, but rejected all accusations against him and was let go. When Meduza approached the alleged "bait" for a comment, he deleted his VKontakte profile.
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On October 18, 2016, Krasnogvardeysky District Court of St. Petersburg gave Yulia Semkina a two-year suspended sentence. The girl was released on probation in the courtroom. Ilya Vassilyev, who had had prior convictions, was sentenced to two years and three months in prison. As he was being convoyed out of the courtroom, he retorted to Kirill: "You are going to die, cocksucker."