Vladimir Nesterenko left the Ukraine 28 years ago following the Chernobyl disaster, one of the worst nuclear power plant failures in history. The 1986 explosion and fire flung radioactive particles into the sky and across the western USSR and Europe, causing cancers and deformities that are still emerging today.
Nesterenko escaped this Level-7 meltdown and landed in America, where he lived in a Mid-Wilshire apartment and worked as a technician at a Long Beach refinery. He began paying off a vacation home in Las Vegas, where he'd planned to retire with his wife. But four years ago in 2010, a $52,800 counterfeit check written to a nondescript furniture store on Vermont Avenue would forever change his life.
"I want these people who were involved in this fraud to be accountable for what they did," Nesterenko says. "It highly impacted my life, my family, my health, my lifestyle."
Nesterenko was among more than 75 victims who had their financial information stolen by Armenian Power member Andranik Aloyan, says former Asst. U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada.
There's a big difference, however, between Nesterenko and the other victims: Wells Fargo still hasn't reimbursed the 68-year-old for most of the $52,800 spirited out of his checking account.
His effort to get justice from the bank morphed into a battle much more profound — a crusade to clear his name. The cash taken from his account was more than half of his total savings, leaving Nesterenko unable to pay the mortgage on his Nevada dream home. With the property went his health.
An early letter Wachovia sent on behalf of Wells Fargo about his fraud claim is dated June 23, 2010. The letter, obtained by L.A. Weekly, challenges his statement that the check was counterfeit or unauthorized, stating, "We have reason to believe that the Check is authorized and that you benefited from the underlying transaction causing the issuance of the Check."
Wells' letter cites "careful review and investigation of this claim" and implies that Nesterenko is either lying about the check being fake, or that he was in on a scam to steal money from himself.
That's not what the U.S. Attorney's office, the Burbank Police Department, the FBI and other experts say. They say Nesterenko is a victim in this story.
"From everything we uncovered, he's completely innocent in all this," former Assistant U.S. Attorney Estrada, who prosecuted Armenian Power gang member Aloyan earlier this year, says.
The AP gangster was convicted in February by a federal jury for felonies including attempted bank fraud and identity theft. He's serving more than 13 years in prison. Law enforcement caught Aloyan red-handed when it found in the Mid-Wilshire apartment he shared with his girlfriend five different USB sticks brimming with other people's personal information.
The combined value of the bank accounts to which Aloyan had access, which included Nesterenko's, is estimated at more than $25 million. He had "all the personal information you would need to access the account," Estrada says, including each person's date of birth, Social Security number, address and sometimes even relatives' names.
Information like this can only come from one source, Estrada says: "an insider."
An insider at Wells Fargo would have had the ability to log onto bank computers, print out customer profiles and hand them over to Armenian Power gang members. Criminals often target older customers like Nesterenko because they may have more money (saved from a lifetime of working) and many are less likely to use online banking, Estrada says, which means they don't review their bank statement regularly, taking them longer to realize that money has been stolen.
The going rate paid in the underground felony world to a bank insider to gain access to someone's entire financial file is just $500 to $1,000, investigators say.
"AP members and associates actively recruited bank employees and paid them for customer profiles," Sgt. Mark Stohl of Burbank P.D. wrote in an email. "They then used the profiles to steal money from unsuspecting bank customers."
To help Wells Fargo finger its inside accomplice, Stohl delivered to a West Covina Wells Fargo branch a disc containing some of the stolen customer profiles that had to have come through a Wells Fargo employee, according to the police sergeant.
Wells Fargo's reaction to the detective's efforts to identify and arrest the bank's insider? Silence, according to Stohl, who says his follow-up emails went unanswered.
So Nesterenko took things into his own hands. After multiple appeals to Wells Fargo, Nesterenko filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of the Comptroller, and Richard Cordray of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He then hired a private investigator, a forensic document examiner and two lawyers to help prove his innocence — and simultaneously out Wells Fargo for its stonewalling.
Some basic facts about Nesterenko's version of events appeal to common sense. The $52,800 check drawn on his account was made out to a tiny furniture store whose invoice shows that the buyer ordered furniture quantities suited to a motel chain: 12 mattresses, 20 nightstands, 12 bed frames, and other items.
Moreover, court documents show that Nesterenko's own, legitimate checks are printed on a scenic background; the check used at the furniture store was not, and it was printed with a phone number that is not Nesterenko's.
In an October 2010 letter to North Carolina–based Michelle Melton, the assistant vice president of Wachovia, Nesterenko's attorney Daniel Latter hit Wells Fargo for failing to produce "factual support" for its refusal to reimburse Nesterenko's $52,800. Latter also referred to a possible whiff of ethnic discrimination in the actions of the North Carolina–based bank.
"Perhaps if my client sported a different accent or was a man of different ethnic origin, he would not have aroused WFB's suspicions to the extent that he apparently did. Or, it may be that WFB is covering up the fraudulent activity of one more of its employees," Latter wrote.
In the end, none of this mattered. It all came down to one person — an arbitrator. Under Wells Fargo account agreements assented to by customers, many of whom probably never imagine what the fine print could one day mean to them, all customer disputes (except for small-claims cases over minor cash disputes) must be settled in arbitration. Wells Fargo has one of the most uncompromising arbitration policies in the business, and in this case, in 2012 arbitrator Mark C. Rutherford sided with the bank.
Nesterenko, thinking his case was a slam dunk, and being short on cash, decided not to have a lawyer present when he met with Wells and Rutherford.
The arbitrator decided Wells Fargo did not have to reimburse Nesterenko his missing $52,800.
The Weekly's phone calls to Wells Fargo investigator Gloria Luna were not returned. Gary Kishner, a media representative for the bank, said they couldn't comment because of "customer confidentiality," and referred the Weekly to the 2012 arbitration session.
"If you look at the arbitrator ruling, you will see that the arbitrator's ruling in favor of Wells Fargo was based on the arbitrator's finding that Mr. Nesterenko authorized the payment," Kishner wrote in an email.
That's not what Rutherford's ruling says, however. It states: "After hearing the testimony of the witnesses and reviewing all evidence and briefs in this matter, I find that the Claimant (Nesterenko) has not met his burden by a preponderance of the evidence on all claims submitted in this Arbitration" — an outcome not surprising for someone without a lawyer present.
"Even if it's an entirely winnable case, if you're handling it without legal counsel, it usually handicaps you considerably, in my view," Latter says of the decision.
But later in 2012 — after Wells Fargo denied Nesterenko's claims and prevailed in arbitration — the bank reps wrote him a telling letter. Though grammatically incorrect, it was clear on one point: they'd managed to "recover" about $21,349.89 from "another financial institution to where we had traced funds to," and it promised to credit Nesterenko's account with the $21,350, and then did so.
It was a bizarre turn of events. The bank gave him no further explanation, he says, but the damage had already been done. He'd lost his retirement home and was diagnosed with sky-high blood pressure and other heath problems, forcing him to stop working as a technician and take disability.
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Wells Fargo won't comment on this apparent contradiction in its position.
"The bank wants to contain what really happened," Nesterenko says. "All this scheme inside their walls. They don't want to bring it outside.''
A former U.S. attorney says only a Wells Fargo worker could have nabbed the data.
See also: Wells Fargo Typo Victim Dies in Court