LOS ANGELES – Two leaders of the Armenian Power gang were convicted today of participating in a racketeering conspiracy that included extortion, firearms offenses, bank fraud and identity theft targeting elderly bank customers, as well as a sophisticated credit and debit card skimming scheme that stole account numbers and personal identification numbers (PINs) from thousands of people who used their cards at 99 Cents Only Stores across Southern California.
Concluding a four-week trial, a federal jury returned guilty verdicts against Armenian Power leaders Mher “Capone” Darbinyan and Arman “Horse” Sharopetrosian. Rafael Parsadanyan, an associate of the gang, was also convicted for his role in the 99 Cents Only Stores skimming scheme.
The convictions today in United States District Court in Los Angeles were announced by United States Attorney André Birotte Jr., Acting Assistant Attorney General David O’Neil of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, and Assistant Director in Charge Bill L. Lewis of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office.
Darbinyan, 38, of Valencia, was found guilty of 57 criminal counts, including racketeering conspiracy, extortion conspiracy, extortion, bank fraud, access device fraud conspiracy, aggravated identity theft, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. According to the evidence presented at trial, Darbinyan was a leader of Armenian Power who participated in extortions, firearms offenses, frauds, and identity theft, and repeatedly engaged in criminal activities with members of the Mexican Mafia prison gang. Among other things, Darbinyan operated a sophisticated bank fraud scheme that used middlemen and runners to deposit and cash hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent checks drawn on the accounts of elderly bank customers and businesses. Separately, Darbinyan also organized and operated a sophisticated debit card skimming operation targeting customers of the discount chain 99 Cents Only Stores. This expansive scheme involved installation of skimmers in stores that were used to steal customers’ debit card numbers and PIN codes. The scheme targeted stores across Southern California, and involved the bank accounts of thousands of customers of the discount store. Darbinyan also conspired to extort and extorted funds from a member of the Armenian community using threats of violence against the victim and his family members. Darbinyan, on two separate occasions, possessed firearms and ammunition after having previously been convicted of felony grand theft for his role in a 2004 debit card fraud scheme. At sentencing, Darbinyan will face a statutory maximum penalty of 973½ years in federal prison.
Sharopetrosian, 35, was convicted of three counts – racketeering conspiracy, extortion conspiracy, and extortion. The evidence at trial showed that while Sharopetrosian was incarcerated in Avenal State Prison in 2009, he used smuggled cell phones to direct the extortion of a member of the Armenian community. Sharopetrosian worked together with Darbinyan and others to carry out the extortion over a period of six months, at one point even arranging the kidnapping at gunpoint of the victim in order to hasten the extortion payments. Sharopetrosian, at different times, threatened to kill and kidnap the victim in order to coerce the victim into paying him more than $100,000. As a result of today’s guilty verdicts, Sharopetrosian faces a statutory maximum sentence of 60 years in federal prison.
Parsadanyan, 29, of Los Angeles, was convicted of 14 counts of bank fraud for his role in the 99 Cents Only Store scheme. The evidence at trial showed that Parsadanyan assisted Darbinyan by, among other things, collecting and storing proceeds of the fraud scheme, including delivering approximately $34,000 in criminal proceeds to a co-schemer. Each count of bank fraud carries a statutory maximum sentence of 30 years in federal prison.
Darbinyan, Sharopetrosian, and Parsadanyan were convicted after a jury trial before United States District Judge R. Gary Klausner. Darbinyan is scheduled to be sentenced on July 21. Sharopetrosian is scheduled to be sentenced on September 15. Parsadanyan is scheduled to be sentenced on July 14.
Darbinyan, Sharopetrosian, and Parsadanyan were among 90 individuals charged in 2011 in two indictments targeting Armenian Power. One indictment accused 29 defendants, including Darbinyan and Sharopetrosian, of participating in the Armenian Power racketeering conspiracy that involved a host of illegal activities such as sophisticated bank fraud schemes, identity theft, debit card skimming, manufacturing counterfeit checks. Some defendants in the case were charged with participating in a variety of violent crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion and firearms offenses.
According to court documents, the Armenian Power street gang formed in the East Hollywood area of Los Angeles in the 1980s. The gang’s membership consisted primarily of individuals of Armenian descent, as well as of other countries within the former Soviet bloc. Armenian Power has more than 250 documented members, as well as hundreds of associates. According to court documents, Armenian Power members and associates regularly carry out violent criminal acts, including murders, attempted murders, kidnappings, robberies, extortions, and witness intimidation to enrich its members and associates and preserve and enhance the power of the criminal enterprise.
The evidence also showed that Armenian Power leaders worked closely with powerful organized crime figures in Russia and Armenia, known as “thieves-in-law,” to commit criminal activities in the Los Angeles area and elsewhere.
Out of the 90 defendants charged in the two indictments, 85 have now been been convicted. Two of the defendants are still pending trial, two defendants are fugitives, and prosecutors dismissed charges against one defendant. The charges contained in the indictments are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
The case was investigated by the Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force, which is comprised of the FBI, the Glendale Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Burbank Police Department, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, IRS – Criminal Investigation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, and the U.S. Secret Service. The Huntington Beach Police Department and the Beverly Hills Police Department provided assistance.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys E. Martin Estrada and Elizabeth Yang of the Central District of California and Trial Attorney Andrew Creighton of the Criminal Division’s Organized Crime and Gang Section.