(NEW YORK) — John Bolaris was a TV weather forecaster in Philadelphia, but even he could not predict the intentions of two comely women that approached him at a luxury hotel bar in Miami.
He woke up two days after the encounter with little memory and even less money — allegedly drugged twice on consecutive nights and charged more than $43,000 on his credit card.
Bolaris had become another mark in a scheme run by an alleged Eastern European crime ring.
Hours of FBI surveillance videos and photos obtained by ABC News show how the group of so-called bar girls, known as “b-girls,” lived and operated in South Beach — targeting wealthy male tourists and bilking them of thousands of dollars.
“They came across very cutesy, and very sincere, and very nice, like the girls next door,” Bolaris recalled of his alleged scammers in an interview with ABC’s 20/20. “This wasn’t a hooker-type thing.”
The FBI said Bolaris was one of 88 men preyed on by a crime ring that illegally brought in attractive women from Eastern Europe and used them to lure men from Miami hotspots like the Hotel Delano, Clevelander and Fontainebleau to shady clubs nearby where the girls plied their alleged victims with liquor, forged their signatures and charged them “exorbitant prices” for alcohol.
Bolaris’ stranger-than-fiction story began when he vacationed in Miami in March 2010. Bolaris, who was 52 at the time of the incident, said he was having a drink at a South Beach bar when he was approached by two women with Russian-sounding accents.
After a few drinks, Bolaris and the women piled into a taxi heading to another bar. On the way, Bolaris said, the women asked if he wouldn’t mind stopping to see a painting a friend was selling for charity. Bolaris said yes, but then the weatherman’s memory becomes cloudy.
He said he did not regain full consciousness until the next morning, when he awoke in his own hotel suite. Then, to his surprise, he received a call from the b-girls offering to return his sunglasses that they had inadvertently taken.
Bolaris himself wanted to return the painting and agreed to meet up with the girls again that evening. According to Bolaris, they met him at the hotel and took a cab together to return the piece of art. On the way, the girls disembarked at an unmarked storefront and “whistle[d]” at him to join them inside.
“And next thing I know, I’m passed out,” said Bolaris.
He woke up on March 30 feeling “very sick” and “extremely worried” because he had no recollection of the previous night.
Instead of hearing from the girls again, Bolaris received a call from his credit card company, American Express, detailing charges of $43,712.25, including a $2,480 charge for the painting.
When Bolaris attempted to dispute the charges, American Express referred him to a man named Stan Pavlenko, who was later indicted in the case and has pleaded not guilty. Pavlenko had supplied a photograph of Bolaris at the bar to the credit card company in an attempt to legitimate the charges.
Despite evidence that located him at a bar called Caviar, Bolaris vowed to fight the expenses. He eventually connected with the FBI, which had launched a full-scale investigation of the Eastern European criminal activities in the South Beach clubs.
After spending 13 months and more than an estimated $1 million investigating the case, the FBI staged a birthday party at one of the clubs to arrest the bar girls and their managers. The agency raided the club fully armed, arresting 16 suspects, including almost a dozen b-girls and a handful of male managers and accountants.
The case against Pavlenko and others who have pleaded not guilty will head to federal court in October. Bolaris and the b-girls are expected to testify.
Bolaris lost his job as a weatherman in Philadelphia after the b-girls scandal made headlines. But there was a silver lining: He won a court battle against American Express — the credit card company repaid him the $43,000 it originally charged and also forked over thousands more in damages.
Watch the full story on 20/20 Friday at 10 p.m. ET.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Arthur Brice, CNN
Rafael Romo and Emanuella Grinberg, CNN