An organized-crime ring that police believe is Russian or Armenian targeted a high-volume Redondo Beach Arco gas station, assigned a low-level soldier to infiltrate it and waited eight months while he worked himself into a position where he could implant a tiny, high-tech “skimmer” to steal customers’ credit-card information.
Armed with a fresh batch of personal-information numbers, the gang began draining thousands of Southern California bank accounts soon after “Erick,” the model employee who was by then entrusted with opening the station every day at 5 a.m., vanished in late April along with 1,500 packs of cigarettes, $1,000, a laptop, his employee application form — and the two digital video recorders used for surveillance.
Because the Arco is at a prime location at the bustling corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Prospect Avenue, the skimmer scam left a string of more than 1,000 victims, stretching from Santa Barbara to Newport Beach.
The “model employee” con represents an elite level of criminal sophistication in its planning, patience and execution, police say, which is now appearing in the South Bay and Los Angeles.
“This was an organized-crime ring that knew exactly what they were doing and very carefully lay in wait before they finally struck,” Redondo Police Department detective Mike Strosnider, heading the investigation, tells L.A. Weekly. “This has been done before in other places around the world. . It’s just never been done in our city.”
The Redondo police investigation began in mid-May after a torrent of complaints from customers, including an undisclosed number of ripped-off Redondo police officers, whose bank accounts had been drained with a series of withdrawals of about $300 to $500. The victims proved to have one common denominator: They all bought gas at the busy Arco on PCH.
The investigation is now focused on tracking down and arresting the man who called himself Erick Volonski, and taking down the global gang that planned and executed the scam and used him as its financial Trojan horse.
Luckily, the detective says, the Redondo Police Department has a photo of Erick, who is now wanted for robbery and ATM fraud. That single, slightly blurred photo exists only because of an extraordinary piece of luck that, in hindsight, seems like a red flag that something about Erick was amiss.
The picture was taken in February by a photographer for an architectural firm, who was shooting the station in preparation for a major Arco makeover. When Erick realized he had been photographed, he instantly became agitated and rushed into the office to ask manager John Wartanian to have the digital photo deleted.
Wartanian was surprised and irritated by the request.
“I finally asked the photographer to do it, just to make Erick happy, and he said to tell Erick he had deleted it, but he didn’t do it,” Wartanian tells the Weekly. “So that’s what I did. I told Erick it was deleted, even though it wasn’t, and he stopped freaking out. . It seemed a little suspicious, but I let it go.”
The station’s smog-check technician, Philip Malik, said he thought Erick’s explanation that he didn’t want girlfriends seeing his picture on the Internet was weak but semiplausible.
“It seemed a little weird that he would be so upset about having his picture taken, but I didn’t think anything like this could be happening,” Malik says. “Maybe I should have realized he was into something criminal, but here at the station where he worked? I’ve never heard of anything like this happening . anywhere.”
When the story of the skimmer scam first broke in Los Angeles media outlets weeks ago, it was a 48-hour sensation on TV news. But employees at the Arco station said the first wave of mainstream media, during which the station was ringed with TV satellite trucks, sensationalized the case and buried the fact that, so far, all the victims have had their stolen money, now approaching $300,000, reimbursed by their respective banks.
Nor did the first wave of media have time for the human-interest story behind the news: the betrayal of the kind of day-to-day work friendship that can quickly develop between employees at blue-collar, minimum-wage jobs, often held by young males from other countries with little or no family here and no fluency in English.
“I thought of Erick as a friend,” says Malik. “He was a sweetheart of a guy.”
Malik describes the tall, skinny Erick as a gentle, humble man who worked hard, asked a lot of questions but never talked about himself, did not appear to have a car and walked to work every day, never accepting a ride home and never using the station’s phone.
“But there were a couple of times I found him talking on his cell phone, whispering on the phone,” Malik says. “He said it was his girlfriend . that she was in the hospital.”
Erick, he says, was a model employee and a good guy to be around.
“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.”
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.