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Russian mafia linked to clubs in U.S. cities

GENEVA -- A reputed Russian mafia boss on trial in Switzerland for membership in a criminal organization had operations in New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Miami, a former FBI agent testified Thursday.

Retired special agent Robert Levinson said the Moscow-based Solntsevskaya crime organization, allegedly headed by Sergei Mikhailov, took over a nightclub in New York's Brighton Beach area and another in Los Angeles."They became a center for drugs and a meeting place for racketeers," said Levinson, who spent four years investigating the Russian mafia.

Mikhailov also invested several hundred thousand dollars in a Houston car dealership, Levinson said.

Mikhailov, 40, who is also charged with breaking Swiss property laws in acquiring a villa near Geneva, faces a maximum 7 1/2 years in prison if convicted.

He has denied any connection to the crime group. The trial, which began Monday, is expected to hear evidence from more than 90 witnesses.

Levinson told the court Thursday that Mikhailov and his associates headed Solntsevskaya and directed so-called "combat brigades" specialized in assassination.

"The organization was engaged regularly in the extortion of businesses, the distribution of drugs including cocaine, counterfeiting of currency and trafficking in arms," Levinson said.

"They would commit murders in Russia and other countries in Europe and then come to Miami where they would stay by the beach and wait for the heat to cool off."

Levinson also worked on the case of Russian mafia godfather Vyacheslav Ivankov, imprisoned in New York last year.