Trial spotlights vice gang wars

Frankfurt massacre: Defence blames Russian mafia hitmen for killings at brothel for the rich
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The Independent Online
High-fliers from the world of finance and prominent characters from Frankfurt's low life were brought together yesterday for the trial of Germany's most brutal killings in recent history.

In the dock at Frankfurt's central court stood an ethnic German couple from eastern Europe, accused of strangling the owner of the most exclusive brothel in town along with his wife and four prostitutes. The six victims were forced to lie face down and then garrotted with electric wire on 16 August 1994.

Among the 70 witnesses to appear are the clients: business folk who had no trouble charging the fees of 350 marks (pounds 160) an hour to their company expense accounts. And watching attentively from the fringes are the shadowy Russian and Ukrainian mafias battling for a piece of the action in Germany's lucrative sex market.

It is a trial where some of the victims appear more sinister than the perpetrators. The brothel, a stuccoed villa a short taxi ride from Frankfurt's business district, was owned by Gabor and Ingrid Bartos, Hungarians with a taste for the good life and friends in high places. Though Bartos only employed four prostitutes, he made enough money to own a private jet, which he used to ferry Russian women to Germany. He changed his employees frequently. The four east European prostitutes murdered that night had been in the country only for a few days.

Though German detectives uncovered nothing when they retraced Bartos's steps to Budapest, suspicion lingers that he imported more than his fair share of women, provoking the wrath of big crime syndicates from the anarchic lands of the former Soviet Union. That is certainly the assertion of the main accused, Eugen Berwald, a 25-year-old immigrant from Moldova, who claims his only role in the crime was to let a Russian hit squad into the brothel on the night of the massacre.

This yarn was stretched to the limit of credibility when the defence yesterday called a witness caught up in a government sting against plutonium smuggling. The implication is that Bartos earned his fortune in this business, but fell out in the end with his Russian partners.

The police have a different story. Though they have been unable to exclude the link to organised crime, the prosecutors say Berwald did all the killings, helped by his wife, Sofia, who worked at the brothel. According to this scenario, the motive for the crime was greed, and the robbery went horribly wrong when the owner, Bartos, was accidentally killed in the struggle as Berwald tried to tie him up. In a fit of panic, Berwald is then alleged to have murdered everybody else staying in the villa.

The trial is set to run for three months, but it is unlikely that the whole truth will emerge.

The case has already highlighted, however, the growing strength of east European crime gangs.

Out of some 200,000 licensed prostitutes, more than a quarter come, courtesy of the various syndicates, from eastern Europe. Some 15,000 to 20,000 of these are lured to Germany with promises of respectable jobs, only to find themselves in brothels against their will.

In the vicious struggle for hegemony in this racket, the established German, Czech and Hungarian operators are being blown away by their new competitors from farther east.