‘It scared a lot of people,’ said Morning Star Christian Church member
Ivan Rudyi was home Wednesday morning when police knocked on his door.
Rudyi is principal of a private Christian school in northwest Boise, and federal agents were raiding the church that houses his school. They needed someone to open the church’s safe.
“My father-in-law was, before, the pastor,” Rudyi told the Statesman. “They say, ‘We come to arrest Stan Babichenko.’ I say, ‘He’s already died.’ ”
Stanislav Babichenko had been pastor at Morning Star Christian Church since it was founded at another location in 1992. His son, Gennady Babichenko, took over as pastor earlier this year, when the elder Babichenko became too ill.
Rudyi went with the armed agents to help them get into the safe at the church. It only contained church documents, he said.
The church property and associated Petra Christian Academy — on Wildwood Street between Fairview Avenue and Ustick Road for the past 18 years — were on a list of a half dozen Ada County properties seized by federal officials last week. Prosecutors say the church, like the other properties, was either used in the alleged crimes or was bought with money from them.
But worship services and school activities have continued since the FBI raids and arrests of 10 people, including several members of one family — the Babichenkos — who have strong ties to the church and school.
The arrests were unexpected and hit the congregation like an “atomic bomb,” one church leader said.
The church’s bank account, which has about $300,000 of savings and operating funds, has been seized by the federal government, church members said. They plan to hire an attorney to fight the seizure of the church, school and funds.
“We’re not going to just walk away because this is not true that two or three people own it,” Nick Gotra said. It’s a “second home” for its faithful members, some of whom tithed 10 percent or more of their paychecks for years to buy the property.
The Babichenkos and several others are accused of running a decade-long counterfeit cellphone operation. A grand jury indicted eight members of the family — four brothers, a sister and three of their spouses — and two of their friends earlier this month on 34 counts, including laundering millions of dollars from the scheme.
They bought the fake goods in bulk from manufacturers in Hong Kong and China, repackaged them in the Treasure Valley, then resold them on Amazon and eBay to consumers as new and genuine, prosecutors allege. With the money, prosecutors say, they bought nine vehicles, six Ada County residential or commercial properties, and foreign property that included apartment buildings in Brazil.
Unfortunately for dozens of local families who hail from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and Georgia, that list of properties included their church.
The Morning Star Christian Church is a gathering place for its 216 members, largely families that came to the U.S. as refugees fleeing religious persecution in the former Soviet Union. The community is tight-knit, with church services daily and twice on Sundays.
Their two-hour Sunday services are broadcast live online and posted to YouTube, so members who are traveling for work — and family in the old countries — can watch remotely. The service is conducted in Russian, but in-house translators allow visitors to listen in English via headphones.
Last Sunday, families poured from the small stone church, speaking a mix of Russian and English. The crowd ranged from newborns with pacifiers, to silver-haired women in head scarves. Nobody talked about the week’s events during the service, but afterward, they were eager to talk about their fears, worries and questions about the FBI raids.
The Babichenko family is entwined with the church. Babichenkos helped found it almost two decades ago. Generations of them have served as pastors. Some of the youngest Babichenkos are students at Rudyi’s school, whose chairman is one of the Babichenkos arrested last week.
Pavel Babichenko and his wife, Natalya, were officers on the church board and could both write checks on the account, church leaders said. But the leaders also said they reviewed annual reports of the church’s finances and never saw anything amiss.
Members of the congregation say they support the Babichenkos and the other defendants, believing the charges are false or stem from misunderstanding. They are upset that the Babichenkos’ case was announced at the same time as an unrelated drug-trafficking case, they said. That case’s defendants include people from the former Soviet Union who aren’t part of the church, they said.
They also believe the seizure of the church’s property and bank accounts is wrong.
The church’s members own the property, they say. The congregation pooled its money and got bonds to buy the property with a 15-year loan. They rejoiced when they paid off the debt three years ago.
“We want to clear the name,” Gotra said. “Some people from Russia, not even involved with the church, they call me and say, ‘At my work, everyone is looking at me like I’m mafia.’”
Guilt by association?
Church members and other Eastern European emigrants feel they are being scrutinized by the broader community following the federal indictments. They say they have done nothing criminal but are now on the defensive.
“People talk,” said Deacon Vasiliy Rudyi said. “Boise is not a big city. People are asking a lot of questions.”
They worry that the criminal case — and the unrelated drug case — casts a shadow on the whole community of Idahoans from Russian-speaking countries. That shadow comes at a time when Americans’ suspicion of Russians is at a renewed high following investigations into Russian meddling in U.S. politics.
And the raids reminded some older church members of living in the former Soviet Union, they said.
“Our parents will tell you, this is KGB tactics,” said Ben Bibikov, a relative of defendant David Bibikov. “Because these kind of tactics, we only saw in the Soviet Union. ... ‘We are the FBI, we are right.’ This is the attitude they operate with.”
Lyubov Babichenko, a nursing assistant at St. Luke’s, said she was shocked by the allegations.
But now, she fears animosity against anyone with her last name, and she’s afraid the federal government might seize her bank accounts because she’s in the family.
“I don’t feel safe now,” she said, breaking into tears. “People think we’re all the same.”
Here are the defendants and their relationships to each other, according to a federal indictment:
- Pavel Babichenko (brother)
- Natalya Babichenko (wife of Pavel)
- Gennady Babichenko (brother)
- Piotr Babichenko (brother)
- Timofey Babichenko (brother)
- Kristina Babichenko (wife of Timofey)
- Anna Iyerusalimets (sister)
- Mikhail Iyerusalimets (husband of Anna)
- David Bibikov (associate)
- Artur Pupko (associate)
Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448
Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413