WASHINGTON – One hundred and two members and associates of transnational organized criminal groups operating in the United States have been charged in indictments unsealed today in Los Angeles; Santa Ana, Calif.; Miami and Denver. Today, teams of federal, state and local authorities have arrested more than 80 of the 102 charged defendants, with arrests expected to continue throughout the day.
The charges were announced by Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division; U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr. for the Central District of California; U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer for the Southern District of Florida; Executive Assistant Director Shawn Henry of the FBI; members of the Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force in Los Angeles; and other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
“Today’s indictments allege literally hundreds of criminal acts in three states – from extortion and kidnapping to firearms trafficking and health care fraud,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division. “The common denominator among these defendants and their criminal enterprises is the use of violence and intimidation to commit crimes for profit. But we are determined to fight back. In less than one month, the Justice Department has announced the largest one-day takedown against La Cosa Nostra, coordinated a nationwide gang takedown and, today, arrested more than 80 Armenian Power members, associates and others with ties to organized crime. These groups bring fear into our communities, defraud innocent victims, and put the safety and security of our neighborhoods at risk. We are taking an aggressive stand against these organized criminal groups and will continue our efforts to put them out of business.”
“The Southern California indictments that target the Armenian Power organized crime enterprise provide a window into a group that appears willing to do anything and everything illegal to make a profit. These types of criminal organizations – through the use of extortions, kidnappings and other violent acts – have a demonstrated willingness to prey upon members of their own community,” U.S. Attorney Birotte. “As we have seen in Los Angeles and elsewhere, these groups also engaged in various fraud schemes that clearly have had a significant impact on financial institutions and their customers who have lost millions of dollars and lost their sense of security through identity theft and credit card fraud.”
“Organized crime relies on extortion and the intimidation of victims through violence and fear,” said U.S. Attorney Ferrer. “Today’s takedown has removed 100 members and associates of organized crime groups from the streets of Miami, Los Angeles and Denver. We stand firm in our resolve to help eliminate organized criminal activity, be it domestic or transnational.”
“We have seen organized crime spread from shakedowns on street corners to complex cyber schemes, human trafficking and other crimes perpetrated across international borders,” said Executive Assistant Director Shawn Henry of the FBI. “Transnational enterprises are siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from our economy to perpetuate their cycle of greed.”
In Los Angeles, two indictments charge 88 defendants with a wide variety of violent and fraud-related crimes. The alleged crimes include kidnapping, extortion, assault, witness intimidation, bank fraud, credit card fraud and drug distribution. Numerous defendants are alleged to be members and associates of Armenian Power (AP), a racketeering enterprise with a significant presence in Los Angeles.
According to the indictments, AP’s membership consists primarily of individuals whose heritage goes back to Armenia and other Eastern Bloc countries. AP is an international organized crime group that started as a street gang in East Hollywood, Calif., in the 1980s.
A 134-count indictment (U.S. v. Darbinyan, et al) charges 29 of its 70 defendants with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, and alleges a host of illegal activities, including fraud schemes involving identify theft, credit card skimming and manufacturing of counterfeit checks. The financial fraud crimes allegedly committed on behalf of AP were highly sophisticated, targeting thousands of victims and resulting in millions of dollars of actual and intended losses to banks and individual victims.
Among the schemes charged in the Darbinyan indictment is a bank fraud and counterfeit credit card scheme that victimized hundreds of customers of 99 Cents Only Stores throughout Southern California when AP members and associates allegedly installed sophisticated “skimming” devices to steal customer account information. According to the Darbinyan indictment, these devices gave the AP members information, which they used to create counterfeit debit cards and credit cards, and steal thousands of dollars from the accounts.
In addition, AP members allegedly engaged in a large-scale check fraud scheme using a wide network of associations in which they unlawfully obtained customer information for high-value bank accounts, impersonated the bank customers to acquire checks, and then cashed and deposited checks in an effort to deplete the accounts. At times, members of the conspiracy allegedly went to victims’ residences to steal bank checks that had been mailed to them.
In addition to the RICO count that includes nearly 450 alleged overt acts, the indictment charges AP members with kidnapping, extortion, bank fraud, aggravated identity theft, credit card fraud, marijuana distribution, conducting an illegal gambling business and numerous firearms offenses. In one kidnapping scheme, several AP members allegedly seized a victim and forced him to pay ransom by taking him to an auto body shop belonging to an AP member and threatening him with violence. Several defendants allegedly targeted another victim in an extortion scheme lasting several months, in which they threatened the victim and his family in order to extract repeated payments from the victim. The indictment alleges that the defendants repeatedly possessed and distributed drugs and firearms. During the course of the investigation, law enforcement made numerous seizures of marijuana grows, firearms, ammunition and skimming devices.
The second California indictment (U.S. v. Sharopetrosian, et al) was returned by a federal grand jury in Santa Ana and charges 20 defendants, two of whom are also charged in the Darbinyan indictment. In addition to alleging schemes similar to those alleged in the Darbinyan indictment, the Sharopetrosian indictment alleges that AP members engaged in a bank fraud scheme that targeted elderly and vulnerable victims. Members of AP allegedly joined with members of other gangs and allegedly obtained confidential information about bank accounts. The conspirators paid bank insiders for the confidential information, which included social security numbers and passwords used to access the accounts. According to the indictment, the conspirators then used that information to take control of the bank accounts and stole at least $10 million from hundreds of accounts.
The investigation of AP also revealed that its members took great efforts to conceal their criminal activities from law enforcement, and some continued to be involved in various schemes even after they were incarcerated. Two of the defendants are accused of using smuggled mobile phones to coordinate bank fraud schemes while in state prison, and one of those incarcerated defendants allegedly helped organize a scheme to threaten and extort another person while still in prison.
According to the Darbinyan indictment, AP is closely allied with the Mexican Mafia, a prison gang that controls much of the narcotics distribution and other criminal activities within California correctional facilities. In addition to its connections to criminal groups operating in California, such as the Mexican Mafia, AP leadership is alleged to maintain ties to Armenia and Russia and to deal directly with high-level Armenian/Russian organized crime figures, both within the United States and abroad. Among those high-level crime figures are traditional “Thieves-in-Law,” who are used to resolve disputes and address criminal activity. According to the indictment, because of its large network of members and associates, its demonstrated ability to carry out acts of violence, and its strong relationship with the Mexican Mafia, Armenian Power leaders interact with traditional Thieves-in-Laws as equals. At times, AP members and associates confront and commit acts of violence against associates of traditional Thieves-in-Law in a demonstration of the authority of AP leadership.
In addition to the federal indictments, the Los Angeles County District Attorney has charged 11 defendants in California state court, bringing the total number of AP members charged with crimes to 99.
Also today, in a related case, 13 defendants were charged in three indictments unsealed in Miami with extortion conspiracy, credit card fraud, money laundering, smuggling of firearms and health care fraud, among other crimes. According to the Miami court documents, several of the defendants maintain associations with members and associates of AP as well as with a “thief-in-law” who was arrested in the Southern District of New York in October 2010. According to court documents, Aram Khranyan, 41, of Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., was the “overseer” of the extortion conspiracies and maintains strong ties to Armenia and Russia.
In addition, according to court documents, Khranyan entered into a false marriage with Mira Shatkhin, 35, of Sunny Isles Beach, in order to obtain permanent legal status in the United States. Three defendants (Andranik Itchmelyan, 48, of Davie, Fla.; Gegam Kalashyan, 41, of Hallandale Beach, Fla.; and Vladimir Okun, 44, of Davie) also are charged with transporting numerous firearms in 2009 from the United States to Yerevan, Armenia, without obtaining the appropriate license to do so.
Two indictments unsealed today in Miami allege health care fraud schemes running from 2007 to the present. The first health care fraud indictment charges three defendants (Andranik Itchmelyan, 48; Anahit Karapetyan, 40 of Davie; and Frank Rodriguez, 52, of North Miami Beach, Fla.) with conspiracy to commit health care fraud and substantive counts of health care fraud in connection with their ownership and operation of Hallandale Medical Associates Inc. The second health care fraud indictment charges another three defendants (Vladimir Okun; Andrey Schegolev, 49, of Hollywood, Fla; Harvey Lerfelt, 51 of North Miami Beach) with conspiracy to commit health care fraud and substantive counts of health care fraud in connection with their ownership and operation of Family Chiropractic Center Inc. Both of these clinics allegedly paid individuals to refer “patients” of staged accidents. The clinics billed private insurance carriers for treatments that were either not medically necessary or were not provided.
Finally, in an indictment unsealed today in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, Nadezda Nikitina, 24, of Denver, was charged with conspiring with others to make false statements to the United States on credit and loan applications. The indictment charges that Nikitina, acting under the control of a transnational criminal group, established a shell company and then used that shell company to apply for business and personal credit cards, car loans and leases, consumer loans and a home equity loan. In those credit applications, Nikitina allegedly claimed that she was the owner or an employee of the company. The indictment charges that Nikitina and her co-conspirators would conduct little activity on the credit card accounts and then go on a spending splurge, or “bust out” the lines of credit up to and over the credit limits on her various accounts. The indictment also charges Nikitina with 10 counts of false statements on credit and loan applications, bank fraud and wire fraud.
An indictment is merely an accusation and defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Copies of court documents can be found at www.justice.gov/opa/ioc.htm.
The two-year investigation of Armenian Power in Los Angeles – known as Operation Power Outage – was conducted by the Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force, which is made up of investigators from federal and local law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Internal Revenue Service (IRS) – Criminal Investigation, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Glendale Police Department and the Burbank Police Department. The mission of the Task Force is to investigate and disrupt or dismantle Eurasian organized crime groups operating within the Los Angeles area, and elsewhere.
The Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force Task Force worked with several other law enforcement agencies that provided substantial assistance during this morning’s takedown, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, Bureau of Investigation; the U.S. Marshals Service; and investigators with the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
The Miami cases were investigated by the FBI, IRS, ICE, Customs and Border Patrol and the Sunny Isles Beach Police Department. Valuable assistance was also provided by the International Organized Crime Intelligence and Operations Center (IOC-2); Miami-Dade Police Department; North Miami Beach Police Department; Hallandale Beach Police Department; U.S. Secret Service; HHS – Office of the Inspector General, Florida Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud; the National Insurance Crime Bureau and the Serious Organised Crime Agency of the United Kingdom.
These cases are being prosecuted separately and independently of each other. The Los Angeles cases are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys E. Martin Estrada, Sarah Levitt, Stephen G. Wolfe and Joseph McNally, as well as Trial Attorney Cristina Moreno of the Criminal Division’s Organized Crime and Racketeering Section (OCRS). The Miami cases are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Joseph Huynh and Cynthia Stone, as well as OCRS Trial Attorney Margaret Honrath and Trial Attorney Constantine Lizas of the Criminal Division’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section. The Denver case is being prosecuted by OCRS Trial Attorneys Robert S. Tully and Joe Wheatley.