After a five week trial, four defendants have been convicted for their roles in one of the largest bank fraud and identity theft schemes in California history, one that left dozens of victims across four states and millions of dollars in losses.
Arman Sharopetrosian, (aka”Horse” or “Dzi”) a key member of Armenian Power, and three associates, Karen Markosian, (aka “Kar” and “Garen”), Artush Margaryan and Kristine Ogandzhanyan were convicted of conspiring to commit bank fraud, attempted bank fraud and various counts of aggravated identity theft. Sharopetrosian, Markosian and Ogandzhanyan waived their right to a trial by jury, and consented to trial by the judge. The fourth defendant, Margaryan, was tried by jury.
Sharopetrosian apparently masterminded the large scale fraud scheme from behind bars at Avenal State Prison. Along with codefendant Angus Brown he ran the op via cellphone. The group was able to obtain confidential information about individuals and, with names, social security numbers and dates of birth on hand, impersonated their victims when calling banks, transferring money between accounts and ordering checks. They would then use the victim’s signatures found on public documents to forge the checks. The group usually targeted high-value bank accounts. Over six years, the group stole more than $10 million from victims in Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas.
“These defendants, including two individuals who were operating from a prison cell, perpetrated a massive fraudulent scheme on behalf of a dangerous criminal enterprise,” said Lanny Breuer, the Assistant Attorney General. He added that “We are doing everything possible to shut down dangerous gangs like ArmenianPower.”
Formed in East Hollywood in the 1980s, Armenian Power members are mostly Armenians and immigrants from former Soviet-bloc countries. The gang formed in response to other ethnic street gangs in the area. From early on, Armenian Power was involved in murders, attempted murders, kidnappings, robberies, extortions, witness intimidation, drug trafficking and fraud, prosecutors say.
Today, Armenian Power is believed to have over 200 documented members and hundreds of associates across Los Angeles County. A younger generation of Eastern European gangster who speaks Russian and Armenian and maintains ties to his parents’ homeland brings a new level of sophistication to their criminal enterprises.
“The younger generation has helped to advance the organization’s technological abilities to commit fraud and to facilitate Internet crimes,” according to a report by the Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force, comprising local, state and federal officers in Southern California. “This technical savvy, coupled with their language capabilities and ability to interface with their countries of origin, makes them difficult to detect.”
The gang’s impact on youth in the area seems to have faded. Years ago, Armenian youths emulated Hispanic gangsters with shaved heads, tattoos, muscle shirts, and khaki pants. L.A. gang interventionists say they haven’t seen much activity by Armenian Power, a big change from years ago when police officers, teachers and school counselors would brace for fights that used to break out between Hispanic gangs and Armenian Power in and around some Glendale and Los Angeles schools, said William “Blinky” Rodriguez, the executive director of Communities in Schools, a gang intervention and prevention program. “AP has been pretty quiet for some time now.”
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Opferman, who leads the Los Angeles County Health Authority Law Enforcement Task Force that combats health care fraud in Southern California, also noted a downtick in activity by Armenian Power.
“They’re not as highly visible. They’ve established themselves. They’ve gone a bit more underground.” Not surprising really as credit and debit card fraud and identity theft are now among their most lucrative schemes.
The four defendants just sentenced are among 20 people charged with running the bank fraud and identity theft scam. The indictments were unsealed on Feb. 16, 2011.
Sharopetrosian, Margaryan, Markosian and Ogandzhanyan face sentences of up to 30 years for each count of bank fraud, 30 years for each count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, as well as an additional mandatory two year sentences for each count of aggravated identity theft. Their sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 6, 2012.