Dubai: Russian expatriate Karine Petrova, 30, was nervous and excited when her taxi pulled up in front of a hotel on Al Mina Street in Jumeirah, here.
Inside, she thought, awaited the chance of a new career, a new life and a world of opportunities.
Like many aspiring flight attendants, she was attracted to a career in aviation by the promise of travelling the world and a luxury Dubai lifestyle. Not to mention of course a salary that would be three times more than what she was earning as a sales representative in Bur Dubai.
For Petrova, however, the dream job interview turned out to be a nightmare that would haunt her till this date.
Her job interview with one “Ryan Fernandez”, the visiting managing director of High Fly Jets, was to become an ordeal that ended in subterfuge, drugging and a sexual assault.
The interview on May 26 had been set up by Linda Gomez, a recruitment manager for the American private jet charter company.
A WhatsApp message sent from California days earlier had seemed encouraging. It said: “Ever heard of this… ‘right place at the right time’. There is something good coming for you…good things happen to good people...don’t forget to treat me to dinner at Burj Al Arab when you get that job.”
The two had never met, but Petrova says they had been friendly throughout the recruitment process.
He’s [Ryan] the right hand of the CEO. He decides who to hire and what to pay them. Two women have met him since he landed. They got hired at salaries of Dh18,000 each. Maybe you WONT get 18,000. Maybe you’ll get 15. But hey, it’s still freaking good,
Lured by the offer of free accommodation in a high-rise tower block in Dubai’s exclusive Marina district and a salary much greater than what she was then earning, Petrova approached the interview with cautious optimism.
The interview was to be conducted by the airline’s managing director on a visit from the United States.
“He’s [Ryan] the right hand of the CEO. He decides who to hire and what to pay them. Two women have met him since he landed. They got hired at salaries of Dh18,000 each. Maybe you WONT get 18,000. Maybe you’ll get 15. But hey, it’s still freaking good,” she was told by Linda via text message.
At 7.15pm, Petrova entered the hotel lobby and was met by a bearded Asian man in his mid-30s who introduced himself in an American accent as Ryan Fernandes, the MD of High Fly Jets.
“He didn’t look anything like the boss of an airline, much less an American, but who was I to judge a rich and successful man by his appearance?” Karine told Gulf News.
“He said the interview would take place in his room as the hotel meeting rooms were closed because of the pandemic. It seemed a plausible explanation. So I followed him, hoping to finish the interview and return home before the 10pm coronavirus movement restrictions.”
Once inside the hotel room, the man asked Karine to sit on a sofa chair while he propped himself up on the double bed.
“He started with common questions as he read from my CV on his laptop. All this while, he smoked incessantly, lighting one cigarette after another,” said Karine.
“Ryan told me their company was headquartered in the US but operated air charter services in 43 countries including the UAE and that their clients were mostly VIPs like top CEOs, senior government officials and foreign dignitaries. I was impressed.
“He then asked me why I wanted the job and what motivated me. He listened intently as I rattled off my well-rehearsed answers. After some time, he got up from his bed, came around and handed me his laptop with its screen open. It showed a web page with 100 questions. He said he had an opening for a team leader and could hire me if I satisfactorily answer all questions. The team leader’s position commanded a salary of Dh22,000.
“I thought I had been randomly blessed. The questions looked easy. I took the laptop from him and began typing the answers, glancing at my watch every few minutes.”
Petrova said she was at the halfway point when the man said he was ordering food online and asked if she wanted something for herself.
“I thought it was nice of him, but I was in a hurry so I politely declined. He smiled and poured a glass of water from a disposable bottle next to his bed and offered it to me, saying I should at least have some water. I was thirsty and gulped it in two quick swigs.”
According to Petrova, it was at this point that the interview took a turn for the more sinister. Karine believes the water contained a date-rape drug. The colourless, odourless and taste-free drug can have a paralysing effect on victims. It works quickly, causing drowsiness and inducing hypnotic effects, often within minutes.
Petrova told Gulf News how the words on the computer’s screen began to swim and blur before her eyes.
“I felt I would faint. I tried to stand up, but my legs buckled under me. As my vision started to fade away, I saw Ryan’s face inches away. There was a furtive gleam in his eyes and an evil sneer around his lips as he forcibly kissed and groped me. I wanted to resist but couldn’t move my limbs. I felt woozy. Barely awake, I watched helplessly as he dropped off his pants and ordered me to perform lewd sexual acts. I begged him to leave me alone, but he held me firmly as I drifted into unconsciousness.”
Petrova was not the only woman to meet with a similar fate. Between September 2019 and May 2020, more than a dozen women in the UAE were similarly drugged and sexually assaulted by the predator after being called to different Dubai hotels on the pretext of job interviews, investigators said.
Yana Litvin, 27, of Ukraine, Malike Hadad, 29, of Lebanon, Dylla Santos, 26, of Brazil, have all shared their harrowing experiences with Gulf News.
Each one of them was threatened with dire consequences if they reported the matter to the police.
Petrova, who had stayed past nightly restrictions, was warned she could be arrested and fined. Litvin and Hadad were told they could be charged with prostitution “because they came to the hotel room willingly”. Santos was threatened with sextortion.
“He said he had clicked my nude photographs and would post them online,” said Santos. “I got scared. I am not sure if he took any snap because I have only a faint recollection of that evening. I went into a trance-like state almost immediately after drinking the water,” recalled the 25-year-old who was sexually assaulted on March 17 at another hotel in Jumeirah.
The traumatised woman spent two weeks under psychiatric care. Her emotional scars have not healed.
He said he had clicked my nude photographs and would post them online. I got scared. I am not sure if he took any snap because I have only a faint recollection of that evening. I went into a trance-like state almost immediately after drinking the water.
“I am still plagued by nightmares and wake up in the middle of the night, sweating. I fear people and feel vulnerable even when I am with friends,” she said.
Santos said there was a young European blonde sitting beside Ryan on his bed when she entered his hotel room. “He introduced her as his assistant and began the conversation by giving me an overview of his airline as I perched on a chair in the far corner. He claimed he had a masters degree from Harvard University and had worked himself up in the aviation industry with sheer determination. He said I don’t have to be intimidated by his position as they had a friendly work culture and their staff was like one big family. He then offered me a glass of water and suggested we play the game ‘Simon Says’ to “calm my nerves” before the interview.
Simon Says is a popular ice-breaker game involving three or more players where one player takes the role of ‘Simon’ and issues instructions to the other players, which should be followed only when prefaced with the phrase “Simon says”.
“I felt amused, but I thought this is how they do it. At his clue, a blonde [present in the room] started the game by asking me to pat my head and stick out my tongue. To my utter surprise, I found myself stupidly following the instructions. She said ‘Simon Says Jump’ and I jumped. It was as if I had been hypnotised. Slowly, my mind went blank. I didn’t even realise when the blonde had left and I was alone with the man who was completely undressed now,” said Santos.
Litvin, who works in the hospitality industry, said the man touched her inappropriately several times and forced her to perform sexual acts while she was under sedation in his room at a hotel on Al Thanya Street off Shaikh Zayed Road on the intervening nights of January 19 and 20 this year.
“Linda had messaged me saying Mr Ryan would be flying into Dubai for just one night and this was my best chance. I was asked to carry along my Emirates ID and A4 size papers for a written test,” she recalled.
“He was courteous and polite when I showed up past midnight. In fact, he even apologised for the late-night interview. He claimed he had a flight the following morning. I believed him. He then lit up a cigarette and handed me a paper containing 100 job interview questions.
“As I got busy with the answers, he passed me a glass of water. I drank half of it. Soon I started to feel dizzy and disoriented. I was conscious of my surroundings, but had no control over my body when the man removed his clothes and held me close to his bare chest.
“He was murmuring, ‘don’t worry, it will be all right’. Everything appeared to be happening in slow motion. I was terrified. I thought what if he had a knife tucked under his pillow,” Litvin told Gulf News.
She said days after the assault, the man turned up at her workplace with four young Asian women and asked me to visit his hotel again to complete the questionnaire. “I was still reeling from the assault and was shocked to see him, but now I was also very, very scared because he had my CV and knew where I worked and lived,” said Yana who lives alone and had stumbled upon the job opportunity on social media.
The ones who got away
Not all women who applied, however, fell into the predator’s trap. Lada Morozova who lives in Abu Dhabi said she was called to a Dubai hotel past midnight, because that “was the only time the MD was free”.
She said: “I was reluctant to drive to Dubai, but his secretary said they would reimburse my fuel bill, so I agreed,” said the Russian expat.
“When I met him in the lobby, he asked me to accompany him to his room. I refused and said he could talk to me anywhere in the hotel except his room, but he remained adamant. So I stormed out of the hotel and drove back to Abu Dhabi without claiming the fuel money.”
Maria Ivanova from Belarus, Ukrainian Ulyana Senchuk and Iraqi model Isha Ali also spurned offers to be interviewed in hotel rooms.
“I saw the job posting on a popular classifieds website in Dubai in early May. Candidates were required to either WhatsApp their CV and five pictures to a France cellphone number or send it by email to email@example.com.
“Shortly after I applied I got an email asking me to come to a hotel room for the interview. I didn’t respond.”
Investigations made by Gulf News show that the purported airline doesn’t exist. The fancy job advertisements and the detailed enrolment forms were also fake. There is probably no real Linda Gomez either. The elaborate set-up was just a smokescreen to lure and trap unsuspecting young women.
Reign of terror ends
Last fortnight, the sex-predator’s ten-month reign of terror finally came to an end. He was busted by security authorities in Dubai after two of his victims called the government’s Al Ameen Service hotline and narrated their experience.
Sexual predators don’t care about what their victim goes through. Domination is central to their personality,” he said. “They are usually charismatic and proficient in what they do.
Available around the clock, the service allows complete anonymity. Following a detailed investigation, the Asian man, identified as AA, was arrested. Gulf News is withholding his details for legal reasons.
“He is in jail. We will press charges of sexual assault and impersonation against him,” a security official told Gulf News.
For his victims, the process of rebuilding their lives is only just beginning.
Petrova and Litvin have since struck up a bond. “We relate to each other, we faced the same despicable crime about which we can’t talk about to our family or friends so we draw strength from each other,” said Petrova. Yana said the incident has shattered her self-esteem and hurtled her towards depression. “Karine is a great support. Thanks to her I am much better, but I still freeze when I see a job posting or drive past Shaikh Zayed Road.”
Editor’s note: Names of victims have been changed to protect their identities.
If you have any information related to this story please share it with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Predators don’t care about victims’
A prominent psychologist working in the UAE said sex is a control operation for sexual predators and seeking a conquest can be the overriding aspect.
“Emotions like love and romance have no place in their freak show,” said Dr Mohamed Yousaf, specialist psychiatrist, Aster Clinic in Dubai.
“Sexual predators don’t care about what their victim goes through. Domination is central to their personality,” he said. “They are usually charismatic and proficient in what they do. Many will have an ideal family life surrounded by friends and relatives who wouldn’t have even have a slight inkling about their devious side.
“They are aware of laws, its consequences and know right from wrong. Sex predators shut their conscience off with total disregard to the emotional or physical damages their action might inflict. They just go about doing what they want and when caught, they feel absolutely no remorse.”
“Talking openly is the first step to coming to terms with the abuse and the start of the healing process.”
The UAE government encourages abuse victims to come forward and press charges against the predators.
Dubai Police have a dedicated hotline where the public can anonymously report such cases, confidentiality being the most significant aspect of this initiative.
A free helpline service by Dubai Foundation for Women and Children also provides prompt provides prompt response.
Women targeted in Oman
In July, there were reports of an arrest of a sex predator who used a similar modus operandi to target 56 girls in Oman.
Announcing his arrest on Twitter on July 6, the country’s Royal Oman Police said the Muscat-based suspect posed as the head of recruitment at an airline and lured female aviation enthusiasts with fake social networking accounts.
Women who responded to the job openings were asked to share suggestive personal photographs, which were then used to blackmail them.