TORONTO — A former high-profile Vice Media music editor who recruited young musicians, models and a former Vice intern to smuggle huge loads of cocaine — hidden in their luggage — on flights to Australia was sentenced to nine years in prison, Tuesday.
Yaroslav Pastukhov, 29, best known under his pen name Slava Pastuk or his online alias Slava P, was found not to be the mastermind of the international plot that ended when four Canadians and one American were caught at Sydney airport with more than $20 million worth of pressed cocaine bricks glued into the lining of their suitcases.
He was, however, found to be directing frontline couriers and organizing and facilitating the network’s Toronto end, along with a co-accused, a judge said.
Ontario Court of Justice Judge Heather Pringle said Pastukhov’s actions were more significant because he “exploited his relationship with these couriers,” several of whom he met through his work at Vice.
She noted that in text messages he sent when he was recruiting drug mules, Pastukhov said one was “too young” but he might still be considered, and that a female courier interested in a free trip to Australia didn’t even need to be told about the hidden cocaine.
“The evidence convinced me that Mr. Pastukhov was not a leader or a principal in this large-scale cocaine importation scheme,” Pringle said in her sentencing decision.
“Obviously there were people much higher than the defendant who controlled it from the American and the Australian end using various middlemen. The defendant had (himself) been a courier but weeks before, and it was most unlikely that he climbed the ladder from courier to trusted mastermind in the span of those few weeks.”
In an Agreed Statement of Facts submitted in court earlier, when Pastukhov pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to import cocaine, he admitted he personally smuggled cocaine hidden in his luggage from Las Vegas to Australia before he arranged for others to do the same thing.
He worked at Vice from 2014 until he was fired in February 2016.
The evidence convinced me that Mr. Pastukhov was not a leader or a principal in this ... scheme
Months before he was charged by the RCMP, a National Post investigation revealed allegations from former and current Vice employees that Pastukhov used his position at the youth-oriented media outlet to try to recruit them to also carry contraband to Australia. They refused the offer.
To prepare for a day he knew would end with him being taken to prison, Pastukov chose clothes that were casual and “comfy” instead of a suit and tie, he said outside court before his sentencing.
“I’m going to throw a bunch of this stuff out after I get released,” he said of his coat and shoes. “I’m going to see if I can take the hoodie in with me at some point because it’s fairly warm, same with the hat,” he said of his toque.
He said living without the internet would be a challenge.
“That’s going to be the worst thing about it. I’m not going to get my hot takes off,” he said. “I’m going to do a newsletter, that’s going to be sent out to some of my closer friends and family.”
His hot takes and his seemingly unrepentant internet activity during his trial was at odds with his demeanor in front of the judge. Asked about that contrast, he said, “You know, I’m a changed person.” When it was pointed out the change was evident within weeks, he added, “People change everyday.”
The day did finish with him being sent to prison.
He sat for a few minutes after Pringle’s ruling with his mother in court, both teary as they hugged. A Toronto Police special constable then asked him if had anything in his pockets. The officer did paperwork and pulled out a few tissues and handed them to Pastukhov. As Pastukhov continued to wait, he spoke with a journalist who is preparing a podcast on his case.
Then the officer asked him to stand and turn. He locked a pair of handcuffs around his wrists behind his back and led Pastukhov away through the hallway.
In her sentencing, Pringle accepted as fact the submissions made by Pastukhov’s lawyer, Dan Kirby — that Pastukhov claims he was trying to find an edgy story that would draw accolades from Vice brass when he was first drawn into the cocaine ring.
“He found the glamour, the famous people and the club life appealing. The defendant started experimenting with cocaine, finding it a common feature in the music industry,” said Pringle. “Mr. Pastukhov also desired to advance his journalism career further.”
This misguided ambition got him criminally charged
As he had seen happen to others at Vice who landed a big, flashy story, “he hoped to embed himself into the narrative of a cocaine importation scheme, write about it and break his journalism career wide open,” she said in her ruling.
“This misguided ambition got him criminally charged and dragged down others with him.”
Vice sources disputed and ridiculed that contention.
The Crown had sought a 12-year sentence and Kirby asked for six-to-eight years. Pringle said one was too high and the other too low.
She said Pastukhov would likely have been given an 11-year sentence if not for mitigating factors. He was “youthful,” she said, as he was 24 at the time of his crime. He had no previous criminal record and strong prospects for rehabilitation.
“The defendant is most unlikely to return to the criminal justice system,” Pringle said, “but the crime he committed must be met by a significant penitentiary term.”
After settling on nine years, she deducted 113 days for pre-sentence custody, 14 of which were in jail before he was granted bail on house arrest supervised by his mother.
His co-accused, Ali Taki Lalji, who met Pastukhov while both worked at Vice, was also charged with the drug conspiracy. Allegations against Lalji have not been proven in court and his case has not yet been heard. His lawyer said his client maintains his innocence.
The five couriers who were caught at the airport each pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison in Australia.