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74 arrested in federal Armenian gang sweep

February 16, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
A massive crackdown against Armenian organized crime Wednesday netted the arrest of scores of suspects. A law enforcement task force including 800 local, state and federal agents converged on 80 different locations in the Southland.

Federal agents swarmed an Encino home Wednesday seeking evidence of alleged racketeering by the organized crime gang Armenian Power. Eighty-eight suspects are named in two federal indictments that allege multiple crimes from extortion to kidnapping to identity theft.

One sophisticated operation targeted customers of 99 Cents Only store. Shoppers using credit cards there later found their bank accounts emptied. Skimming devices had been installed in select stores in five Southland counties.

"I don't understand these people. I don't understand it. I am convinced they don't have a conscience," said customer Kim Pawlowski.

"Members of this criminal organization obtained information to manufacture thousands of false credit cards and ATM cards," said U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte.

Investigators aren't saying how the scanners were accessed and tampered with, only that store management uncovered the fraud and asked for help.

Narcotics and weapons sales are also alleged. The federal Eurasian Task Force links suspect operations in Denver, Miami and around the world.

"Their top-echelon members maintain ties to their international counterparts, dealing with high-level Russian, Armenian and Georgian organized crime figures based outside the United States," said Steven M. Martinez, assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles.

Within hours, 74 suspects were arrested. They are accused of wide-ranging activities within the organization, from the runners on the street to shot callers in prison.

In prisons, Armenian Power allegedly joined forces with the Mexican Mafia to expand its network of crime.

It's estimated that $20 million has been illegally transferred in Orange and L.A. counties. Investigators call the arrests significant.

"I think we have made a big dent in really slowing down the criminal activity from this organization," said Birotte.