Cooperative Law Enforcement Effort Was Key
In May 2008, a massive shootout between Armenian Power and another California gang on the streets of North Hollywood ended with the deaths of two rival gang members. And while local law enforcement and the FBI already had Armenian Power on their radar, this deadly firefight on the streets of a major American city raised the group’s profile-and resulted in efforts by the FBI and its partners to go after Armenian Power and its leadership through federal racketeering statutes.
The investigation revealed that this street gang was actually an international organized criminal enterprise whose illegal activities ranged from bank fraud and identity theft to violent extortion and kidnappings. It also revealed that this enterprise victimized its own Armenian community in California. By 2011, there was enough evidence to charge 90 Armenian Power leaders, members, and associates in two separate indictments. Of those 90 charged, 87 have been convicted, including one of the enterprise’s primary leaders-Mher Darbinyan-who was recently sentenced to 32 years in prison. (Of the three remaining indicted individuals, prosecutors dropped the charges against one, and the other two are currently fugitives.)
According to Agent Jeremy Stebbins, who worked the case out of the Los Angeles Office, “With the arrests and convictions of nearly all senior leadership of Armenian Power, we dealt a serious blow to their ability to continue to operate in the manner they were accustomed. We also sent a message to the Eurasian organized crime community that they are being targeted and watched.”
Armenian Power leadership was based in California, but the group’s operations-particularly its fraud schemes-involved the use of phony businesses located in cities throughout the United States. And Armenian Power leaders had dealings with organized crime figures in places like Armenia and Russia.
During the multi-agency investigation into the Armenian Power criminal enterprise, law enforcement was also able to identify the source of an information leak within the federal district court clerk’s office in Los Angeles. A clerk’s office employee and her husband were charged and later convicted for their roles in a scheme to access and disclose information contained in sealed court documents to tip off organized crime figures and gang members prior to their arrests. Some of those compromised records concerned individuals who were members or associates of the Armenian Power criminal enterprise and subjects of pending federal arrest warrants.
This kind of criminal activity often threatens the safety of law enforcement agents and officers-particularly during large-scale takedowns of violent criminal enterprises and their members.
Law enforcement was also able to uncover ties between Armenian Power and the Mexican Mafia, the prison gang that controls much of the narcotics distribution and other criminal activity within California’s correctional facilities. The Mexican Mafia would protect Armenian Power members and associates who were behind bars, while Armenian Power members and associates on the outside would help facilitate Mexican Mafia criminal activities.
During the course of the investigation, law enforcement rescued a kidnapped victim and was able to charge several additional subjects with kidnapping, extortion, and other violent crimes. They also seized more than $3 million in fraudulently obtained luxury automobiles. And they interfered in several violent confrontations between rival groups, arresting more gang members and seizing firearms.
Court-authorized wiretaps on 25 different phone numbers were a key part of the case. Through these conversations, law enforcement was able to obtain a wealth of incriminating evidence as defendants spoke about targeting wealthy Armenians for robbery, planning check fraud activity, making illegal firearms deals, installing skimmers on ATMs, watering illegal marijuana plants in a warehouse, mailing illegal narcotics to customers, planning kidnappings, and extorting money from victims using threats of violence.
This complicated and multi-subject case was investigated by the Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force, led by the Bureau’s Los Angeles Division and the Glendale Police Department. Other vital task force members include several local California police and sheriff’s departments and a number of federal agencies.