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“I liked him,” Malik continues. “Everybody liked him.”
Station manager Wartanian agrees. “I trusted him like I trusted them all, they were like family to me,” he says. “I started here last September, and Erick was already here. . He was the nicest of all the workers.”
After fumbling around in the cash register, Wartanian pulls out a cashier’s receipt for $200 from the Arco station, with the signature “Erick” scrawled on it. It is dated April 23, two days before Erick disappeared.
“Anytime he needed cash, he could take it out of the cash register, leave the receipt with his name on it, and I would just deduct it from his next paycheck,” Wartanian says. “So this time, he robbed an extra $200 from me . and he took my laptop.”
Wartanian says there was another warning sign. “He acted dumb, and he was always asking me questions about the station,” he says. “My English is bad . but his was worse. He barely spoke English. . He speaks Russian better than English.”
But Erick spoke English well enough to get hired at the Arco, using a fake but very authentic-looking driver’s license listing his age as 32. The official, state-issued number on his driver’s license turned out to belong to someone else, but the company did not pursue a deep enough background check to uncover the discrepancy.
“He fooled us all,” says the station’s owner, Avetik Moskoyan. “He seemed like a normal guy, a good guy with no complaining about anything. . Then suddenly he robbed my store and now he is gone. ... He cost me personally at least $15,000.”
“Erick,” whoever he is, has left behind confusion, anger and betrayal, even inspiring a heated debate over his true ethnicity. Was he from a Russian crime gang, or an Armenian one?
Owner Moskoyan is Armenian, as is manager Wartanian. They believed Erick was Russian, as he had claimed. Moskoyan says he has no idea why his station was targeted by what police believe was a Russian or Armenian crime ring, whose operations are growing in Southern California.
“I have no enemies,” Moskoyan says. “No one I know of would want to do this to me.”
Wartanian says it’s bad enough that the station’s customers were burned. “That hurt them, and it hurt our reputation, too,” he says. “Our sales are way down.”
But what’s worse, he adds, is the way the station is being treated by its parent company. “Now Arco wants cash before they will unload the gas truck and give us gas to sell,” he says. “They used to just take the money from our account.”
Smog-check technician Malik is the most bewildered of all. For him, the bonds of friendship forged over eight months on the job die hard. “I’m still not sure Erick did it,” Malik says. “The whole scam was too sophisticated for him. He’s not that smart.”Reach the writer at email@example.com.
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