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Ringleaders guilty in prostitution operation

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Posted: Friday, April 17, 2009 4:28 pm

Nine people connected to what authorities called the largest prostitution bust in Arizona history - including three of its ringleaders and a Valley radiologist - are facing prison time for their roles in the Desert Divas Internet-based escort operation.

Paul Nichta, 33, of Paradise Valley and Peter Shifman, 57, of Chandler, two key players in the business, entered into plea deals and pleaded guilty Wednesday in Maricopa County Superior Court to prostitution-related charges, according to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

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Paul Nichta, left, and Peter Shifman

Scott Eder, 36, another key player in the criminal syndicate who lived with Nichta, pleaded guilty on March 27 to illegal control of an enterprise, money laundering and illegal use of a wireless or electronic communication.

Dr. Ross Levatter, 53, of Phoenix also pleaded guilty to one count of attempted money laundering on Thursday, according to the county attorney's office and Levatter's attorney.

Phoenix police began executing search warrants at residences throughout the Valley in August 2008 and made more than 50 arrests after conducting a yearlong investigation into the criminal syndicate. During that time, investigators discovered that the operation covered three states, involved more than 100 prostitutes and generated $250,000 a month. A number of the women working as prostitutes were still living at home with their parents, authorities said at the time. The investigation is ongoing.

Nichta, who was the owner of Desert Divas, acknowledged that the entire operation was a criminal prostitution enterprise and pleaded guilty to illegal control of an enterprise, money laundering and use of a wireless or electronic communications.

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Dr. Ross Levatter, left, and Scott Eder

Sentencing dates vary for the men who ran the syndicate, which included operations in New Mexico and Pennsylvania, but Nichta, Eder and Shifman each are facing up to 2 1/2 years of prison, according to the county attorney's office.

Levatter, who investigators identified as an investor and VIP customer of the business, also could face disciplinary action from the Arizona Medical Board for his involvement, according to Levatter's attorney, Barry Mitchell.

Mitchell told the Tribune on Friday that Levatter invested in the syndicate and attempted to maintain an interest in the operation in an account at a Wells Fargo bank branch.

Mitchell said he believed Levatter's plea agreement was fair.

"The plea is reflective of Dr. Levatter's state of mind when he invested in the operation," Mitchell said. "He said at the time he invested in the escort business he was unaware that it was a racketeering operation, but in hindsight, he acknowledged he should've known."

The men also are facing charges in New Mexico.

"The hard work of Phoenix police and our prosecutors broke this criminal syndicate," Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said. "Some of these defendants were living the high life. Soon, they'll be living a very different lifestyle behind bars."

Other people who pleaded guilty in the case were: Shelia Bucalo, 42; Sean Carter, 40; Adam Beech, 25; and customers Louis Stirling, 55; and William Ferretti, 65, according to the county attorney's office.

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