The co-leader of an Armenian street gang faces a lengthy prison term at sentencing Monday for multiple federal racketeering crimes, including a debit card skimming operation that siphoned more than $1 million from customers of 99 Cents Only stores across the Southland.
Mher “Mike” Darbinyan, 44, formerly of Valencia, was found guilty in Los Angeles federal court five years ago of more than four dozen criminal counts, including bank fraud, aggravated identity theft and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and was sentenced to a 32-year prison term. However, an appeals court overturned the convictions.
Rather than face a second trial, Darbinyan pleaded guilty in June to 30 counts, showing no reaction as Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Yang read aloud the long list of charges.
Prosecutors are asking that U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner impose a federal prison sentence of almost 20 years, while the defense recommends about 16 years. Darbinyan will also be ordered to pay over $167,000 in restitution and face deportation to Armenia once he is released from prison, according to court papers.
Darbinyan was an Armenian Power leader who operated a sophisticated bank fraud scheme that used middlemen and runners to deposit and cash hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent checks drawn on the accounts of elderly customers and jewelry businesses, according to federal prosecutors.
He also orchestrated a scheme that involved the installation of skimmers in 99 Cents Only stores in Riverside, Whittier, Huntington Beach, San Diego and elsewhere that were used to steal customers’ debit card numbers and PIN codes, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
He was found to be in possession, on two occasions, of firearms and ammunition after having previously been convicted of felony grand theft for his role in a 2004 debit card fraud scheme.
At a previous hearing, defense attorney Michael V. Severo told the judge that his client was “a family man, not a monster. He has never been shown to harm anyone physically.”
But prosecutors noted the “astonishing breadth of his criminal conduct, and the scale of the damage he has inflicted on countless innocent victims,” court papers show.
Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles indicted 90 people eight years ago for a range of criminal activities associated with Armenian Power. Nearly all have been convicted.
Previously, the gang’s other co-leader, Arman “Horse” Sharopetrosian, 41, formerly of Burbank, was sentenced to 16 years in federal prison — to run consecutively to a 25-year sentence in a separate case.
Gang associate Rafael Parsadanyan, 35, of Glendale, was sentenced to six years in federal prison for participating in the card-skimming operation.
The gang reportedly formed in East Hollywood in the 1980s. Prosecutors said that Darbinyan arrived in Los Angeles from Armenia when he was 14 and rose through the gang’s ranks until reaching the position of leader.
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