Taking Down Armenian Power, California's Modern Mafia 

Thursday, Jul 3 2014
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AP doesn't fight over "turf" in these communities. Instead, it maintains "hangouts" where the gangsters gather, plan and commit crimes, FBI agent Stebbins says. Using this network, in the early 2000s, just as a notable drop in serious crime began in Los Angeles, AP went the other direction: A new wave of leadership ushered the gang into prominence.

The rise of the AP mob can largely be credited to Hollywood Mike and Paramaz Bilezikchyan, aka P or Parik.

These two men forged a strategic relationship with the notoriously violent Mexican Mafia, also known as La Eme. Darbinyan became one of the first people "validated" as a Mexican Mafia member without being Latino, Stebbins says.

click to flip through (4) Police mug shots for Mher Darbinyan (Capone, Hollywood Mike), 38, top, and Arman Sharopetrosian (Horse), 35
  • Police mug shots for Mher Darbinyan (Capone, Hollywood Mike), 38, top, and Arman Sharopetrosian (Horse), 35

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The executive branch of AP began paying taxes to La Eme. In return, AP received protection within California's state prisons from La Eme, the state's most powerful prison gang, which orchestrates drug deals, arms deals and even murders on the outside.

The two gangs have become so closely knit that AP often is known as AP-13, the number "13" referring to the 13th letter of the alphabet, "M," which stands for Mexico. By forging this relationship, Armenian Power now "had the gang component, because in Los Angeles, to have power, you have to have ties to gangs and the Mexican Mafia and prisons and things like that," Estrada says. "But in terms of what they did, it was an umbrella used to commit every crime you can imagine."

Mostly, however, Armenian Power is about money. Mob boss Darbinyan, 38, stood trial for helping to orchestrate a skimming operation in which he and his associates tried to steal almost $6 million from 99 Cents Only Stores customers across the Southland; they nabbed about $2 million.

Darbinyan was joined in court by 35-year-old Arman Sharopetrosian, aka Horse, who faced extortion and racketeering conspiracy charges, and 29-year-old Rafael Parsadanyan, aka Raffi or Raffo, an AP associate also charged in the 99 Cents store operation.

Parsadanyan, Darbinyan and nine others were charged with creating a "sophisticated scheme" in which they stole debit card numbers through innocent-looking point-of-sale (POS) systems.

The caper actually was pretty simple. Darbinyan and his crew bought the same POS keypads used in the 99 Cents Only Stores (you can find them on Amazon or eBay, starting used at around $20). The schemers inserted a skimming device inside their POS, which would record customers' debit and credit information at checkout, then used it to create fraudulent cards and tap customers' bank accounts.

Video evidence showed defendants in 99 Cents Only Stores using distraction techniques — coupled with quick hands — to swap out legitimate POS keypads for altered ones. Sometimes a "customer" would go through checkout with oversized items such as paper towels and baking pans, obstructing the teller's view of the keypad while the criminals made the switch.

As in many expertly overseen money schemes, the AP mob set up a tiered system of operation. While Darbinyan oversaw the process, Parsadanyan was on the ground floor, collecting cash and distributing debit cards to the lower-downs as he worked at his day job — running the AT&T Mobility store not far from Glendale's Americana at Brand.

When the three appeared in court, they didn't exactly fit the image of ruthless gangsters.

Darbinyan sat with his hands in his lap, wearing a pastel V-neck sweater and hair combed back under a thick sheen of gel. Seated next to him was Sharopetrosian — Horse — quiet and subdued with dark circles under his eyes. At a table behind them was Parsadanyan — Raffo — wearing a suit that looked a bit too big for his diminutive frame.

But their fairly polished looks belied their dirty hands. Armenian Power maintains control through violence and the targeting of "civilians" — Armenians who are not involved in gang enterprises.

"These guys aren't drive-by–ing, hitting other gangs," Estrada says. "When they commit violence, it's against other members of the Armenian community."

The victims often are chosen because they are committing less serious illegal activities of their own, such as mortgage fraud or health care fraud, and they don't have the gang ties to protect them, Estrada says. When AP chooses a target to lean on, the victim is hesitant to go to the police for fear of getting busted himself. And even though this is California, even some innocent Armenian residents are distrustful of or reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement.

You might think elected officials who are seen as leaders in the Armenian community would be clamoring to discuss the FBI's and U.S. Attorney's success in decimating the local wing of Armenian Power — but many shy away instead. The office of L.A. City Councilman Paul Krekorian, for example, said it had no comment and referred L.A. Weekly to a local LAPD station. Krekorian held elected office in Burbank for years, and his Council District 2 in L.A. encompasses portions of AP's stronghold.

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