The whole thing started with a scene straight out of a mobster movie. It was around 6 p.m. when more than a dozen men from two organized crime groups opened fire on each other in a North Hollywood parking lot. Witnesses say nearly everyone was armed, and the shootout quickly went mobile. The men took off in cars, exchanging fire as they weaved through the Whitsett Avenue traffic.
More than 50 shots were fired, and two people were killed; one was shot in the back and the other died from shrapnel from an AK-47. Only one person was charged in connection with the shootout.
This was six years ago. It was thought to be over a fraud scheme gone wrong, but law enforcement still doesn't know exactly what happened.
"It was basically mayhem on a busy street corner," FBI special agent Jeremy Stebbins says.
The FBI learned that the 2008 firefight was dominated by Armenian Power, an international, organized-crime group, which functions more like the mob than like gangsters who flash their signs in the grittier stretches of Los Angeles and its suburbs. Although the FBI has been aware of Armenian Power for years, it was after this very public spectacle that the agency doubled down on its investigation into the group, whose documented population in Southern California is about 250.
The FBI's operations were just part of a massive task force targeting Armenian Power (AP), which also included the Los Angeles, Glendale and Burbank police departments, as well as the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, the U.S. Secret Service and other federal groups.
In 2011, after years of surveillance, wiretaps and the testimony of a kidnapping and extortion victim who put his own life at risk, 90 Armenian Power members and associates were federally indicted, and dozens more were arrested. The list of their aliases is long, and includes such names as Thick Neck, Guilty, Stomper, Gunner, Lucky, Menace and Casper. One of the few females involved answers to Sugar.
Despite the mobsters' 1940s film noir nicknames, these gun-toting defendants drove flashy BMWs and Porsches and were connected to elaborate schemes in bank fraud, identity theft and other highly sophisticated white-collar crimes. As a whole, the syndicate is estimated to have cost victims at least $20 million.
"They were like old-school Mafia, in that they go to Armenian businesses, Russian businesses, try to extort them," Assistant U.S. Attorney E. Martin Estrada says. "Go after people in the community who they thought wouldn't go to the police. Make them pay money — even though they had zero gang ties."
In April, after many of the 90 indicted men and women were convicted in plea deals that avoided trial, an AP kingpin took his chances with a federal jury. Mher Darbinyan, also known as Capone, along with two associates, appeared at the U.S. District Court House downtown, where the jury heard weeks of testimony and was presented with legions of evidence. The jury convicted Capone, aka Hollywood Mike, of 57 criminal counts, including racketeering conspiracy, extortion, bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Darbinyan, one of the founders and leaders of Armenian Power, faces years in prison when he is sentenced soon — among the last of the 90 mobsters and their associates to be sent away. But his reach exceeds his freedom, especially for "Victim M.M.," a husband and father and the top informant who testified against the mob, and who now lives watching his back.
Lead prosecutor Estrada's office walls are covered with mug shots of the crime syndicate members. As each one was convicted, Estrada crossed out his or her face. (He didn't allow L.A. Weekly to take a picture of his display because it includes people who cooperated with authorities.)
Estrada's victory is a rarity in federal prosecutions. In most federal trials involving the U.S. Attorney, the defendants plead guilty because they may be able to get a more favorable deal and can't afford private attorneys to wage a full trial, which they may lose. In AP's case, however, some of the key defendants had substantial resources.
Both sides had their reasons for going to trial, Estrada says: "Part of that was because of how little these types of defendants accept responsibility, and also part of it was because we wanted to make sure we could get the highest sentences possible on some of the worst targets."
AP wasn't always this belligerent and strong. It formed fairly innocently in the 1980s as a way to protect Armenian high school students — many of them newcomers to America — from aggressive Latino gangs in North Hollywood and Hollywood, where Armenian immigrants settled in the early 1970s in what is now Little Armenia.
AP, mimicking the Latino gangs it once feared, spread through Hollywood and into suburban areas, including North Hollywood, Burbank and Glendale, now home to one of the largest populations of Armenian people in the United States.