Taking Down Armenian Power, California's Modern Mafia
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.
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.
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.
Authorities say cultural stigma and the community's silence have allowed AP to thrive. Which is exactly how a witness who helped the feds target Armenian Power — Victim M.M. — got himself into the mob's grip. The gangsters targeted him with an extortion gambit, squeezing him so hard that he ultimately broke — and went to the feds.
Victim M.M. got in deep with AP when he took out a "business loan" from Sharopetrosian's sister-in-law, according to court documents. But her brother-in-law soon assumed responsibility for Victim M.M.'s repayment, and the "vig" demanded by the mobster reeled out of control: Victim M.M.'s initial loan of about $95,000 snowballed into an arbitrarily fluctuating debt that at one point reached more than $160,000.
Horse turned Victim M.M. into his personal piggy bank, extracting money from him to pay off drug debts or people in prison, Estrada says. Sharopetrosian ultimately ordered the kidnapping of Victim M.M. in a Porsche Cayenne, orchestrating the abduction from his cell in Avenal State Prison in Kings County, where he was serving time for assault with a deadly weapon.
Horse used smuggled cellphones to communicate with AP members on the outside. Authorities believe that corrupt prison guards and family members are the key cellphone supply chains; in 2011 Governor Jerry Brown signed a law making it a criminal misdemeanor to smuggle a cellphone into prison.
But Sharopetrosian wasn't as cunning as he thought. Many of his prison calls were being recorded by the FBI and were played during the mobster's trial.
The recordings made clear that Darbinyan and Sharopetrosian spoke often about holding Victim M.M. for ransom, threatening M.M. with disfigurement and other bodily harm, according to the indictment. In the exchanges, the men speak Russian or Armenian — the two countries to which AP is deeply tied.
The FBI says they often speak their native languages to confuse law enforcement. But Darbinyan's meaning comes through loud and clear in the transcripts:
"You are lying. I'll jerk off on the liar's mother's head," Darbinyan tells Victim M.M. one day.
"If you get the brother upset on the inside, you make our dicks stand up on you and we are going to chase after you and it won't be good for you," the AP leader says in another threatening call.
The defense argued that this language was merely a form of Armenian "trash talk" — meant as a jab, not a threat — and that certain words or phrases have multiple meanings, so the translation was open to interpretation.
But in many of the taped calls, the AP's message is pretty clear.
"I will skin you ... if that deposit does not happen by 6 o'clock," Sharopetrosian says. "I will not give a fuck. Good luck to you."
Everything changed for Victim M.M. as he stood outside a Blockbuster Video in Hollywood one day, and a guy asked him for a cigarette. M.M. turned to find Emil Airapetian, aka Clever, standing there with a gun — "one of the most violent, dangerous Armenian Power guys there is," Stebbins says.
Victim M.M. says Clever motioned for him to get inside a waiting Porsche Cayenne, within which were more AP members. One held a cellphone — on the other end was Sharopetrosian, delivering Victim M.M. a heightened new threat from inside Avenal State Prison. Horse said he'd see to it that Victim M.M.'s wife and young child were kidnapped and murdered.
After months of living in fear and under the mob's thumb, struggling to pay mounting extortion demands, Victim M.M., accompanied by his father, walked into the FBI's office to tell his story.
Little did he know that the FBI was already building a case against Armenian Power and had been hearing about his ordeal over wiretaps — for months.
Victim M.M. became a collaborator with the U.S. justice system. In return, the FBI protected him while it gathered evidence to crush Armenian Power's upper tiers. Law enforcement beefed up surveillance on key AP players and began providing cash for Victim M.M to pay Sharopetrosian in small installments, enough to buy time and keep him out of harm's way.
"We couldn't have kept that up for a long period of time," Stebbins says. "Every day they wanted money, every day they threatened his life."
Then one day, out of the blue, someone called from Armenia and offered to take responsibility for Victim M.M.'s debt. The FBI has a pretty good idea who it was but won't discuss it. For Victim M.M., his debt got paid and the unbearable pressure was off.
Meanwhile, on Feb. 16, 2011, more than 1,000 officers from federal and local agencies conducted a massive sweep, arresting more than 90 Armenian Power members and associates, Stebbins says. Most were taken to a secret airport hangar for interrogation and processing, and then bused to a U.S. Marshals facility.
Victim M.M. was relocated to an undisclosed location before trial, but eventually faced, in court, the very men he helped indict. But not before he suffered two heart attacks, flatlining once for more than a minute. Estrada points to the immense stress M.M. was under.
Although the FBI was operating wiretaps prior to Victim M.M.'s cooperation, investigators said he helped to fill in holes in the overarching Armenian Power narrative, allowing the FBI to lengthen the list of criminals it indicted.
Darbinyan — Hollywood Mike — was convicted of 57 counts, including extortion, bank fraud, identity theft and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Sharopetrosian was convicted of three counts, but that sentence is merely icing on the cake since he faces a 25-year prison sentence for a bank fraud scheme. Parsadanyan was convicted of 14 counts of bank fraud, with each count carrying a maximum of 30 years.
Parsadanyan's lawyer, Andrew Flier, maintains his client's innocence. He says Raffo has no gang ties, and is merely a small-business owner who was railroaded through to trial based on "guilt by association."
"When the fisherman are fishing for profit and collecting tuna, unfortunately, sometimes they get a dolphin in a net," Flier says of the investigators.
While these three face sentencing sometime this summer, Victim M.M. is trying to cope with his uneasy status as a known "snitch."
"Every day we're concerned, and he lives his life in a completely fearful manner," Stebbins says. "He's always careful about where he goes, who he goes with, what he tells people."
Despite being on the wrong side of an organized crime syndicate, it was Victim M.M.'s choice not to go into the federal witness protection program, where he would have been "disappeared" by the FBI. He decided not to leave behind his life as he knows it.
But the alternative is pretty bleak. He remains in danger, and among his daily safety precautions, Victim M.M. drives with at least 1½ car lengths in front of him so he has maneuvering room to evade pursuers if need be.
"This is a guy who was kidnapped at gunpoint — he's going to be scared for a long time, if not forever," Stebbins says.
Victim M.M. is right to be afraid. Throughout the FBI's investigation of Armenian Power, the mob and its associates committed kidnappings, extortions and murders, Stebbins says.
In 2009, through existing wiretaps, the FBI learned of a kidnapping in progress by Armenian Power associates, Estrada says. The target was Sandro Karmryan. It was the second harrowing time AP had kidnapped Karmryan, whose business is shipping cars to Russia, where he also owns a café.
During Karmryan's first abduction, his family in the L.A. area quietly paid $50,000 for his return.
"Then they decided they could kidnap him again, since he was sort of a 'patsy,' " Estrada says. "[He] couldn't do anything against them, didn't have ties to Armenian Power, wasn't a gang member, had no way to sort of protect himself."
One early morning in July 2009, Karmryan was again snatched, this time from a parking garage in Van Nuys. When his captors approached him, he took off running — only to be accidentally shot by a friend who was with him. The defendants grabbed the severely injured Karmryan, threw him in a van and took off, Estrada says.
For nearly five days, he was moved from stash house to stash house as the kidnappers used his debit card to withdraw money from ATMs across Southern California. His ransom was set at $1 million, a fee they hoped his family in Russia would pay, Estrada says. But his friend's gunshots had torn through Karmryan's abdomen, causing his intestines to rupture and leak fluid into his body. He was vomiting stool and bleeding severely internally, Estrada says, when the FBI tracked Karmryan to a marijuana grow house in Mira Loma. They found him in agony, blindfolded on an air mattress, with a pit bull standing guard over him.
Karmryan was rushed to surgery. What happened next was like something out of a horror movie.
"The [trauma] surgeon actually testified at trial," Estrada says. "He said everyone was in shock, had never seen what they saw, which was basically a fountain of liquid stool erupt from his stomach because of all the pressure that was building up for the five days."
Karmryan was hospitalized for nearly a month, undergoing multiple surgeries. His kidnappers each got 15 to 30 years in prison.
Vagan Adzhemyan, a reported Armenian Power associate and former wrestling champion in Armenia, received the steepest sentence and showed "no conscience or remorse," according to a statement from the judge.
If it appears that Armenian Power has a lot of "associates," it's because it does. In addition to kidnapping and extortion, Armenian Power dabbles in whatever makes money, from buying and growing high-end marijuana to bank fraud, Estrada says. AP looks for people with expertise in certain areas and cozies up to them — no matter what their allegiance.
"If Darbinyan wanted guns, he'd find a source of guns. ... He'd befriend him, get involved with him, and suddenly he's got a source of guns coming in," Estrada explains. "Their reach was really wide, much wider than you'd ever see with a traditional gang."
The organization even made friends in federal court, in what Estrada calls an "unprecedented" breach.
In 2012, a female employee of the federal district court clerk's office in L.A. and her husband were arrested for disclosing confidential information to members and associates of Armenian Power. The couple was accused of accessing sealed federal court documents and tipping off defendants before they were to be arrested. The wife, Nune Gevorkyan, was sentenced to six months; the husband, Oganes Koshkaryan, got almost five years.
With nearly all 90 of the indicted AP members now either serving time or awaiting sentencing this summer, the prosecution feels confident that it took out the "biggest, baddest" criminals and put a serious kink in Armenian Power's ability to operate.
But they can't arrest everyone. And there's always a squad of up-and-comers waiting in the wings to take control of all that illegal income.
"Somebody else will rise to leadership positions, and they'll create new, better ways to do fraud schemes," Stebbins says. "And we'll have to catch up and find those people and figure out who they are and how to prosecute them again."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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