Just months before she posed as a powerful banking heiress and swept through the gates of Mar-a-Lago in a black Mercedes Benz SUV, Inna Yashchyshyn was bombarded by threats from a Russian crime group with a history of money laundering and murder.
The 34-year-old Ukrainian immigrant — once known as Anna de Rothschild — had founded a Miami charity and launched a campaign that was supposed to raise money for impoverished families.
But this wasn’t just any charity drive.
Thousands of dollars were funneled into her organization under an arrangement that the group said it had reached with her in 2020, according to one of the network’s senior members.
And now the member of the criminal group known as the Thieves in Law demanded that she give back the money.
"I will force you to respect me," said a text. "You have until Friday."
For weeks, the texts and phone calls escalated until an ominous message arrived: a photo of an upscale Miami condo where she lived and that served as the address of the charity. "Wait, bitches," said a text.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project published an investigation in August that showed Ms. Yashchyshyn spent days at former President Donald Trump’s estate last year and posed as a member of the famous Rothschild banking dynasty while she boasted about her family’s luxury development in the Bahamas.
But interviews and newly obtained records show the charity that she led was taking in money that belonged to a member of a criminal group that the U.S. government had sanctioned three years earlier because of the organization's history of financial crimes and violence.
Her visits took place at the same time the former president and his staff were storing dozens of classified and top-secret government records at the estate in what federal agents are saying were potential legal violations now under investigation by a special prosecutor.
Her connection to an overseas crime operation and access to the former president’s Florida home without any background checks — four trips in just two days — has raised renewed questions about security at the sprawling complex that hosts some of the most powerful elected leaders in the nation.
Even as she was meeting with major political figures like Mr. Trump and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — posing for pictures with them at the former president’s golf club just miles away — the organized crime group was still trying to track her down.
"You’d think somebody would have been able to uncover this," said James Forest, a national security scholar who has appeared as an expert witness before the U.S. Senate on security matters. It "raises questions about what other kinds of [people] have followed in her footsteps even before or after she gained access to Mar-a-Lago."
The Secret Service will not say whether it’s investigating Ms. Yashchyshyn’s visits last year, but security remains a concern just weeks after Mr. Trump announced his third campaign for the White House from a ballroom not far from where she mingled with his entourage.
‘Thieves’ threats escalate
Ms. Yashchyshyn said in an interview with the Post-Gazette in August that she did not break any laws and that the charity, United Hearts of Mercy, was founded by a former business associate with whom she once lived.
In her interview, she said she was meeting with the Miami FBI in a few days, and didn’t know anything about threats over the charity dollars. "These are all lies. These are the allegations and all the lies," said Ms. Yashchyshyn, who declined recent interview requests..
But scores of text messages, court documents and an exclusive interview with one of the gang members based in Eastern Europe show the charity received thousands of dollars generated from stolen credit cards in a steady flow of money without any detection by law enforcement.
Week after week, the United Hearts of Mercy — founded in Florida in 2015 with Ms. Yashchyshyn as president — reaped "donations" from credit card payments that ranged from $125 from a church group in Australia to $19,200 from an investment broker in Hong Kong, records and interviews show.
Eventually, the money stopped after a payment service company known as Stripe Inc., discovered the funds poured in from stolen credit cards, prompting the servicer to dump the charity.
The Vory v zakone, or “Thieves in Law,” is a term for one of the criminal groups that arose in the gulag prison camps of the former Soviet Union. Those given the title, “thief in law” are expected to adhere to a strict code of criminal ethics while the elite members, or “vory,” dispense justice to lower-level thieves and settle local disputes.
The U.S. Treasury Department in 2017 imposed sanctions on the “Thieves in Law,” calling them a “Eurasian criminal syndicate” that engages in money laundering, extortion, and bribery. However, experts believe this is an artificial designation of a network that's made up of a number of distinct but interrelated Eurasian organized crime gangs.
"We will no longer be allowed to accept payments," said an email to United Hearts of Mercy.
In the end, the charity accountant said it took in $236,500, prompting a fierce battle for the funds by a member of the Thieves in Law who claimed the two sides had agreed to divide the cash 60-40, with the gang reaping the larger share.
The fight for the money intensified into a series of explosive threats against Ms. Yashchyshyn and the charity starting in June 2020 — including a text with a photo of a naked, bloodied man apparently beaten over an unpaid debt — that lasted for several weeks, records show.
The charity’s accountant was pulled into the fray when more than 48 texts were sent to warn her to return the dollars. "You think it’s hard to find you? You’re already under our control," said one text on June 16.
Messages arrived in Tatiana Verzilina’s phone that showed her home address, birthdate, credit score, names of relatives and other personal information.
Ms. Verzilina, 37, a certified public accountant, claimed she pleaded with Ms. Yashchyshyn to report the threats to law enforcement. But she said Ms. Yashchyshyn told her not to say anything.
Ms. Verzilina alleged the charity — which boasted on its website that it was created to help poor children — was a money laundering mill that was planned by Ms. Yashchyshyn as a conduit for "financial crime in organization with other group[s] of people," she wrote in a statement that was turned over to the FBI.
Ms. Verzilina, who declined to comment, left for her native Russia late last year after filing a request for a restraining order against Ms. Yashchyshyn in Montreal, saying she feared her former associate.
‘Don’t push me’
The crime group member also fired off warnings to Ms. Yashchyshyn and demanded she turn over the money. In one of the texts, gang member Artak Mardoyan wrote: "You’re playing me now. I will force you to respect me."
In a series of interviews with the Post-Gazette and OCCRP, Mr. Mardoyan — who sent the texts under the name Johnny Johnson — said his group reached an agreement with Ms. Yashchyshyn to funnel the money to the charity after it “loaded the money to the Stripe” payment processor.
He said Ms. Yashchyshyn was supposed to return $153,000 to the group and keep the rest, but instead kept everything.
"That makes me really angry,"’ he said in the phone interview. "That girl, she just withdrew the money and ghost[ed us]. So we [have been] looking for her for a long time."
Mr. Mardoyan, who displays the insignia of the Thieves in Law in his social media posts and wears the distinctive, eight-point star shoulder tattoos that are associated with the group, said he spoke with her several times by phone but she later stopped taking his calls.
"Let me tell you something [about] who I am. I am a part of a criminal [network], OK? We are not a killer, but we can solve any problem. Any problem we can solve in a peace[ful] way," he said. "As said the great rapper Tupac Shakur, ‘I’m not a killer but don’t push me.’”
Dozens of the text messages and voicemails were turned over to the FBI’s Miami office this year as part of an investigation, which includes an inquiry into Ms. Yashchyshyn’s visits to Mar-a-Lago, according to two confidential sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Andrew Smallman, a lawyer who represented Ms. Yashchyshyn in a civil dispute with a former associate, declined interview requests about her role with the charity.
Florida attorney John Torikashvili, who now represents her in undisclosed matters, said in an email that she was “declining to respond to your request at this time.”
Mr. Mardoyan said the money that his associates sent to the charity was not connected to fraud, but declined to provide details about the source of the funds.
Shot three times
What’s not clear is how much money has been moved into the charity throughout its history, which includes fundraising drives supposedly for such catastrophic events as Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, where hundreds of people perished in 2016.
Though United Hearts of Mercy was supposed to disclose its revenues to the public because of the amount of funds it took in two years ago, it did not do so.
The FBI has declined to respond to questions about the charity or the backgrounds of Ms. Yashchyshyn and her associates and whether her visits to the former president’s home presented security risks.
Two people interviewed by the Post-Gazette said they were questioned by FBI agents about United Hearts of Mercy and the source of the money into the charity’s accounts.
In a bizarre development two months ago, one of those individuals was shot in the parking lot of an upscale resort north of Montreal in a barrage of gunfire that shook up the small town of Estérel.
Quebec provincial police are still investigating the shooting on Oct. 7 that led to the injuries to Valeriy Tarasenko, who was a close associate of Ms. Yashchyshyn and founded a charity in Canada that bears the same name as the Florida non-profit.
Mr. Tarasenko, 45, who underwent surgery for bullet wounds to his head, a finger and hip area, alleged that one of his attackers was Richard Goodridge, a former gang leader and biker who was once expelled from the country in 2014 because of criminal activity, according to LaPresse.
"They just came out and shoot, shoot, shoot," he told the Post-Gazette.
It’s not clear what happened between the two men, but Mr. Goodridge, 53, was taken into custody and later released by police without charges being filed after they said he agreed to return to court at a later date.
The mayor of Esterel, Frank Pappas, said rumors have persisted for weeks about the case, including the possibility that a fight broke out between the two men and Mr. Tarasenko may have injured himself with his own gun — an allegation he has denied.
The shooting took place months after Mr. Tarasenko said he met with the FBI and talked to agents about Ms. Yashchyshyn’s visits to Mar-a-Lago and the threats against her by the Russian criminals over the charity money.
Mr. Tarasenko had been embroiled in a legal dispute with Ms. Yashchyshyn this year after he alleged that he brought her into his home to watch his children while he was away on business, but that she ended up abusing them — allegations she has vehemently denied.
In direct contrast, Ms. Yashchyshyn said in a court deposition in Miami that she had been romantically involved with Mr. Tarasenko, and when she tried to break away in November 2021, he turned on her and became violent.
In an interview with the Post-Gazette in August, she cast Mr. Tarasenko as the criminal mastermind behind their ventures — including the charity — and that he controlled her.
“I am the victim right now,” she said, weeks before she was granted a restraining order against him in a Miami court.
Records show that Mr. Tarasenko was the founder of a Canadian charity in 2010 by the same name — United Hearts of Mercy — and that it once hawked donations online through PayPal and credit cards, but was never legally registered in that country.
Mr. Tarasenko claimed he launched the charity to raise money for victims of a subway bombing in 2009 in Russia, but he ultimately never collected any funds. He said Ms. Yashchyshyn decided to launch a similar charity in Florida.
Ms. Yashchyshyn told the Post-Gazette that she never posed as a Rothschild when she went to Mar-a-Lago, and was invited during one of her visits to attend a fundraiser at the nearby Trump International Golf Club.
She said the name was conjured up by Mr. Tarasenko, whose teenage daughter had been using the name while she was trying to break out to be a singer known as Sofyia Rothschild.
However, four guests who spent time with Ms. Yashchyshyn at Mar-a-Lago said she identified herself as a Rothschild, while two of them said she boasted about her family’s housing project on the Great Exuma Island of the Bahamas.
Records show the project was not built by the Rothschilds.
After her initial visits to Mar-a-Lago on May 1 and the following day in 2021, Ms. Yashchyshyn returned the next week for a fundraiser at an oceanfront mansion owned by Mr. Trump next door to Mar-a-Lago to raise money for former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who was then running for the U.S. Senate.
Mr. Greitens, a Republican and former Navy Seal, signed four of his books to Ms. Yashchyshyn.
"For Anna, who shines with hope!" he wrote in one of his books, “The Warrior’s Heart.” In another book, “The Heart and the Fist,” he penned, "For Anna, stay strong!" In his book, “Resilience,” he signed, "For Anna, from her friend."
The Miami FBI said it would not respond to questions about whether the charity violated federal sanctions imposed against the Thieves in Law in 2017 by the U.S. Treasury.
The Secret Service said that it is responsible for protecting the president and his family, and that any questions about visitors to the private club should be directed to organizers of events at the facility.
But several experts interviewed by the Post-Gazette said her entry to Mar-a-Lago under a false name and as a target of Russian organized crime member — with no background checks on her identity — created risks for the entire compound, including Mr. Trump.
"Embarrassing — dangerous," said Emily Harding, a former CIA leadership analyst and now a senior fellow and deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Because Mar-a-Lago is a private club and the former president’s home, his security detail has to focus on his safety. But that kind of a setup also brings risks.
"It’s a cost-benefit analysis, and the cost is you are going to have some of these embarrassing slip-ups — like this," she said. "Clearly, if other [foreign] intelligence services were not attempting this before, they are going to try it now."
Joseph Serio, an author and lecturer who has written about national security and Russian organized crime, said questions about Ms. Yashchyshyn’s background and her associates still abound. "We still don’t know enough about her" and until then, "I would be stripping this case up and down."
"A woman pops up — Ukraine or Russian — and she is representing herself as someone she’s not, and she is connected to the Thieves in Law," he said. "The whole thing stinks from the top to the bottom."
James Forest, the congressional expert and a professor in national security and terrorism at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said her ability to get into the estate shows that others, too, can gain entry to the former president’s home.
"Some of them may have had even worse connections, worse profiles, worse intentions," he said. "What is the priority on what and who is being secured? It just kind of makes you wonder whether this was just the tip of the iceberg."
Post-Gazette reporter Anya Litvak contributed to this report.
Michael Sallah: email@example.com; @mikesallah7
Kevin G. Hall
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Laura Malt Schneiderman
Uncredited photos were provided by sources with knowledge of ongoing law enforcement inquiries who wish to remain anonymous.