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Armenian Power, often shortened to AP, is the name of an Armenian gang in Los Angeles, California. Originally formed in the hi-crime period of the 1980s as a street gang to protect new Armenian immigrants, AP has morphed over the years into more of a mafia, committing extortion and white collar organized crimes.
For many years, right in Runyon Canyon, a partially finished imposing mansion has sat at 2450 Solar Drive, Los Angeles, CA, sitting high on a ridge in the Hollywood Hills with incredible views of downtown LA, the famous Hollywood sign, and surrounding canyon. According to a New York Times article, at one time the Armenian Power gang used the home as their clubhouse and tagged the home with graffiti.
Taking Down Armenian Power, California's Modern Mafia
By Hayley Fox Thursday, Jul 3 2014 Source: LA Weekly
The whole thing started with a scene straight out of a mobster movie. It was around 6 p.m. when more than a dozen men from two organized crime groups opened fire on each other in a North Hollywood parking lot. Witnesses say nearly everyone was armed, and the shootout quickly went mobile. The men took off in cars, exchanging fire as they weaved through the Whitsett Avenue traffic.
More than 50 shots were fired, and two people were killed; one was shot in the back and the other died from shrapnel from an AK-47. Only one person was charged in connection with the shootout.
This was six years ago. It was thought to be over a fraud scheme gone wrong, but law enforcement still doesn't know exactly what happened.
"It was basically mayhem on a busy street corner," FBI special agent Jeremy Stebbins says.
The FBI learned that the 2008 firefight was dominated by Armenian Power, an international, organized-crime group, which functions more like the mob than like gangsters who flash their signs in the grittier stretches of Los Angeles and its suburbs. Although the FBI has been aware of Armenian Power for years, it was after this very public spectacle that the agency doubled down on its investigation into the group, whose documented population in Southern California is about 250.
The FBI's operations were just part of a massive task force targeting Armenian Power (AP), which also included the Los Angeles, Glendale and Burbank police departments, as well as the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, the U.S. Secret Service and other federal groups.
In 2011, after years of surveillance, wiretaps and the testimony of a kidnapping and extortion victim who put his own life at risk, 90 Armenian Power members and associates were federally indicted, and dozens more were arrested. The list of their aliases is long, and includes such names as Thick Neck, Guilty, Stomper, Gunner, Lucky, Menace and Casper. One of the few females involved answers to Sugar.
Despite the mobsters' 1940s film noir nicknames, these gun-toting defendants drove flashy BMWs and Porsches and were connected to elaborate schemes in bank fraud, identity theft and other highly sophisticated white-collar crimes. As a whole, the syndicate is estimated to have cost victims at least $20 million.
"They were like old-school Mafia, in that they go to Armenian businesses, Russian businesses, try to extort them," Assistant U.S. Attorney E. Martin Estrada says. "Go after people in the community who they thought wouldn't go to the police. Make them pay money — even though they had zero gang ties."
In April, after many of the 90 indicted men and women were convicted in plea deals that avoided trial, an AP kingpin took his chances with a federal jury. Mher Darbinyan, also known as Capone, along with two associates, appeared at the U.S. District Court House downtown, where the jury heard weeks of testimony and was presented with legions of evidence. The jury convicted Capone, aka Hollywood Mike, of 57 criminal counts, including racketeering conspiracy, extortion, bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Darbinyan, one of the founders and leaders of Armenian Power, faces years in prison when he is sentenced soon — among the last of the 90 mobsters and their associates to be sent away. But his reach exceeds his freedom, especially for "Victim M.M.," a husband and father and the top informant who testified against the mob, and who now lives watching his back.
Lead prosecutor Estrada's office walls are covered with mug shots of the crime syndicate members. As each one was convicted, Estrada crossed out his or her face. (He didn't allow L.A. Weekly to take a picture of his display because it includes people who cooperated with authorities.)
Estrada's victory is a rarity in federal prosecutions. In most federal trials involving the U.S. Attorney, the defendants plead guilty because they may be able to get a more favorable deal and can't afford private attorneys to wage a full trial, which they may lose. In AP's case, however, some of the key defendants had substantial resources.
Both sides had their reasons for going to trial, Estrada says: "Part of that was because of how little these types of defendants accept responsibility, and also part of it was because we wanted to make sure we could get the highest sentences possible on some of the worst targets."
AP wasn't always this belligerent and strong. It formed fairly innocently in the 1980s as a way to protect Armenian high school students — many of them newcomers to America — from aggressive Latino gangs in North Hollywood and Hollywood, where Armenian immigrants settled in the early 1970s in what is now Little Armenia.
AP, mimicking the Latino gangs it once feared, spread through Hollywood and into suburban areas, including North Hollywood, Burbank and Glendale, now home to one of the largest populations of Armenian people in the United States.
AP doesn't fight over "turf" in these communities. Instead, it maintains "hangouts" where the gangsters gather, plan and commit crimes, FBI agent Stebbins says. Using this network, in the early 2000s, just as a notable drop in serious crime began in Los Angeles, AP went the other direction: A new wave of leadership ushered the gang into prominence.
The rise of the AP mob can largely be credited to Hollywood Mike and Paramaz Bilezikchyan, aka P or Parik.
These two men forged a strategic relationship with the notoriously violent Mexican Mafia, also known as La Eme. Darbinyan became one of the first people "validated" as a Mexican Mafia member without being Latino, Stebbins says.
The executive branch of AP began paying taxes to La Eme. In return, AP received protection within California's state prisons from La Eme, the state's most powerful prison gang, which orchestrates drug deals, arms deals and even murders on the outside.
The two gangs have become so closely knit that AP often is known as AP-13, the number "13" referring to the 13th letter of the alphabet, "M," which stands for Mexico. By forging this relationship, Armenian Power now "had the gang component, because in Los Angeles, to have power, you have to have ties to gangs and the Mexican Mafia and prisons and things like that," Estrada says. "But in terms of what they did, it was an umbrella used to commit every crime you can imagine."
Mostly, however, Armenian Power is about money. Mob boss Darbinyan, 38, stood trial for helping to orchestrate a skimming operation in which he and his associates tried to steal almost $6 million from 99 Cents Only Stores customers across the Southland; they nabbed about $2 million.
Darbinyan was joined in court by 35-year-old Arman Sharopetrosian, aka Horse, who faced extortion and racketeering conspiracy charges, and 29-year-old Rafael Parsadanyan, aka Raffi or Raffo, an AP associate also charged in the 99 Cents store operation.
Parsadanyan, Darbinyan and nine others were charged with creating a "sophisticated scheme" in which they stole debit card numbers through innocent-looking point-of-sale (POS) systems.
The caper actually was pretty simple. Darbinyan and his crew bought the same POS keypads used in the 99 Cents Only Stores (you can find them on Amazon or eBay, starting used at around $20). The schemers inserted a skimming device inside their POS, which would record customers' debit and credit information at checkout, then used it to create fraudulent cards and tap customers' bank accounts.
Video evidence showed defendants in 99 Cents Only Stores using distraction techniques — coupled with quick hands — to swap out legitimate POS keypads for altered ones. Sometimes a "customer" would go through checkout with oversized items such as paper towels and baking pans, obstructing the teller's view of the keypad while the criminals made the switch.
As in many expertly overseen money schemes, the AP mob set up a tiered system of operation. While Darbinyan oversaw the process, Parsadanyan was on the ground floor, collecting cash and distributing debit cards to the lower-downs as he worked at his day job — running the AT&T Mobility store not far from Glendale's Americana at Brand.
When the three appeared in court, they didn't exactly fit the image of ruthless gangsters.
Darbinyan sat with his hands in his lap, wearing a pastel V-neck sweater and hair combed back under a thick sheen of gel. Seated next to him was Sharopetrosian — Horse — quiet and subdued with dark circles under his eyes. At a table behind them was Parsadanyan — Raffo — wearing a suit that looked a bit too big for his diminutive frame.
But their fairly polished looks belied their dirty hands. Armenian Power maintains control through violence and the targeting of "civilians" — Armenians who are not involved in gang enterprises.
"These guys aren't drive-by–ing, hitting other gangs," Estrada says. "When they commit violence, it's against other members of the Armenian community."
The victims often are chosen because they are committing less serious illegal activities of their own, such as mortgage fraud or health care fraud, and they don't have the gang ties to protect them, Estrada says. When AP chooses a target to lean on, the victim is hesitant to go to the police for fear of getting busted himself. And even though this is California, even some innocent Armenian residents are distrustful of or reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement.
You might think elected officials who are seen as leaders in the Armenian community would be clamoring to discuss the FBI's and U.S. Attorney's success in decimating the local wing of Armenian Power — but many shy away instead. The office of L.A. City Councilman Paul Krekorian, for example, said it had no comment and referred L.A. Weekly to a local LAPD station. Krekorian held elected office in Burbank for years, and his Council District 2 in L.A. encompasses portions of AP's stronghold.
Authorities say cultural stigma and the community's silence have allowed AP to thrive. Which is exactly how a witness who helped the feds target Armenian Power — Victim M.M. — got himself into the mob's grip. The gangsters targeted him with an extortion gambit, squeezing him so hard that he ultimately broke — and went to the feds.
Victim M.M. got in deep with AP when he took out a "business loan" from Sharopetrosian's sister-in-law, according to court documents. But her brother-in-law soon assumed responsibility for Victim M.M.'s repayment, and the "vig" demanded by the mobster reeled out of control: Victim M.M.'s initial loan of about $95,000 snowballed into an arbitrarily fluctuating debt that at one point reached more than $160,000.
Horse turned Victim M.M. into his personal piggy bank, extracting money from him to pay off drug debts or people in prison, Estrada says. Sharopetrosian ultimately ordered the kidnapping of Victim M.M. in a Porsche Cayenne, orchestrating the abduction from his cell in Avenal State Prison in Kings County, where he was serving time for assault with a deadly weapon.
Horse used smuggled cellphones to communicate with AP members on the outside. Authorities believe that corrupt prison guards and family members are the key cellphone supply chains; in 2011 Governor Jerry Brown signed a law making it a criminal misdemeanor to smuggle a cellphone into prison.
But Sharopetrosian wasn't as cunning as he thought. Many of his prison calls were being recorded by the FBI and were played during the mobster's trial.
The recordings made clear that Darbinyan and Sharopetrosian spoke often about holding Victim M.M. for ransom, threatening M.M. with disfigurement and other bodily harm, according to the indictment. In the exchanges, the men speak Russian or Armenian — the two countries to which AP is deeply tied.
The FBI says they often speak their native languages to confuse law enforcement. But Darbinyan's meaning comes through loud and clear in the transcripts:
"You are lying. I'll jerk off on the liar's mother's head," Darbinyan tells Victim M.M. one day.
"If you get the brother upset on the inside, you make our dicks stand up on you and we are going to chase after you and it won't be good for you," the AP leader says in another threatening call.
The defense argued that this language was merely a form of Armenian "trash talk" — meant as a jab, not a threat — and that certain words or phrases have multiple meanings, so the translation was open to interpretation.
But in many of the taped calls, the AP's message is pretty clear.
"I will skin you ... if that deposit does not happen by 6 o'clock," Sharopetrosian says. "I will not give a fuck. Good luck to you."
Everything changed for Victim M.M. as he stood outside a Blockbuster Video in Hollywood one day, and a guy asked him for a cigarette. M.M. turned to find Emil Airapetian, aka Clever, standing there with a gun — "one of the most violent, dangerous Armenian Power guys there is," Stebbins says.
Victim M.M. says Clever motioned for him to get inside a waiting Porsche Cayenne, within which were more AP members. One held a cellphone — on the other end was Sharopetrosian, delivering Victim M.M. a heightened new threat from inside Avenal State Prison. Horse said he'd see to it that Victim M.M.'s wife and young child were kidnapped and murdered.
After months of living in fear and under the mob's thumb, struggling to pay mounting extortion demands, Victim M.M., accompanied by his father, walked into the FBI's office to tell his story.
Little did he know that the FBI was already building a case against Armenian Power and had been hearing about his ordeal over wiretaps — for months.
Victim M.M. became a collaborator with the U.S. justice system. In return, the FBI protected him while it gathered evidence to crush Armenian Power's upper tiers. Law enforcement beefed up surveillance on key AP players and began providing cash for Victim M.M to pay Sharopetrosian in small installments, enough to buy time and keep him out of harm's way.
"We couldn't have kept that up for a long period of time," Stebbins says. "Every day they wanted money, every day they threatened his life."
Then one day, out of the blue, someone called from Armenia and offered to take responsibility for Victim M.M.'s debt. The FBI has a pretty good idea who it was but won't discuss it. For Victim M.M., his debt got paid and the unbearable pressure was off.
Meanwhile, on Feb. 16, 2011, more than 1,000 officers from federal and local agencies conducted a massive sweep, arresting more than 90 Armenian Power members and associates, Stebbins says. Most were taken to a secret airport hangar for interrogation and processing, and then bused to a U.S. Marshals facility.
Victim M.M. was relocated to an undisclosed location before trial, but eventually faced, in court, the very men he helped indict. But not before he suffered two heart attacks, flatlining once for more than a minute. Estrada points to the immense stress M.M. was under.
Although the FBI was operating wiretaps prior to Victim M.M.'s cooperation, investigators said he helped to fill in holes in the overarching Armenian Power narrative, allowing the FBI to lengthen the list of criminals it indicted.
Darbinyan — Hollywood Mike — was convicted of 57 counts, including extortion, bank fraud, identity theft and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Sharopetrosian was convicted of three counts, but that sentence is merely icing on the cake since he faces a 25-year prison sentence for a bank fraud scheme. Parsadanyan was convicted of 14 counts of bank fraud, with each count carrying a maximum of 30 years.
Parsadanyan's lawyer, Andrew Flier, maintains his client's innocence. He says Raffo has no gang ties, and is merely a small-business owner who was railroaded through to trial based on "guilt by association."
"When the fisherman are fishing for profit and collecting tuna, unfortunately, sometimes they get a dolphin in a net," Flier says of the investigators.
While these three face sentencing sometime this summer, Victim M.M. is trying to cope with his uneasy status as a known "snitch."
"Every day we're concerned, and he lives his life in a completely fearful manner," Stebbins says. "He's always careful about where he goes, who he goes with, what he tells people."
Despite being on the wrong side of an organized crime syndicate, it was Victim M.M.'s choice not to go into the federal witness protection program, where he would have been "disappeared" by the FBI. He decided not to leave behind his life as he knows it.
But the alternative is pretty bleak. He remains in danger, and among his daily safety precautions, Victim M.M. drives with at least 1½ car lengths in front of him so he has maneuvering room to evade pursuers if need be.
"This is a guy who was kidnapped at gunpoint — he's going to be scared for a long time, if not forever," Stebbins says.
Victim M.M. is right to be afraid. Throughout the FBI's investigation of Armenian Power, the mob and its associates committed kidnappings, extortions and murders, Stebbins says.
In 2009, through existing wiretaps, the FBI learned of a kidnapping in progress by Armenian Power associates, Estrada says. The target was Sandro Karmryan. It was the second harrowing time AP had kidnapped Karmryan, whose business is shipping cars to Russia, where he also owns a café.
During Karmryan's first abduction, his family in the L.A. area quietly paid $50,000 for his return.
"Then they decided they could kidnap him again, since he was sort of a 'patsy,' " Estrada says. "[He] couldn't do anything against them, didn't have ties to Armenian Power, wasn't a gang member, had no way to sort of protect himself."
One early morning in July 2009, Karmryan was again snatched, this time from a parking garage in Van Nuys. When his captors approached him, he took off running — only to be accidentally shot by a friend who was with him. The defendants grabbed the severely injured Karmryan, threw him in a van and took off, Estrada says.
For nearly five days, he was moved from stash house to stash house as the kidnappers used his debit card to withdraw money from ATMs across Southern California. His ransom was set at $1 million, a fee they hoped his family in Russia would pay, Estrada says. But his friend's gunshots had torn through Karmryan's abdomen, causing his intestines to rupture and leak fluid into his body. He was vomiting stool and bleeding severely internally, Estrada says, when the FBI tracked Karmryan to a marijuana grow house in Mira Loma. They found him in agony, blindfolded on an air mattress, with a pit bull standing guard over him.
Karmryan was rushed to surgery. What happened next was like something out of a horror movie.
"The [trauma] surgeon actually testified at trial," Estrada says. "He said everyone was in shock, had never seen what they saw, which was basically a fountain of liquid stool erupt from his stomach because of all the pressure that was building up for the five days."
Karmryan was hospitalized for nearly a month, undergoing multiple surgeries. His kidnappers each got 15 to 30 years in prison.
Vagan Adzhemyan, a reported Armenian Power associate and former wrestling champion in Armenia, received the steepest sentence and showed "no conscience or remorse," according to a statement from the judge.
If it appears that Armenian Power has a lot of "associates," it's because it does. In addition to kidnapping and extortion, Armenian Power dabbles in whatever makes money, from buying and growing high-end marijuana to bank fraud, Estrada says. AP looks for people with expertise in certain areas and cozies up to them — no matter what their allegiance.
"If Darbinyan wanted guns, he'd find a source of guns. ... He'd befriend him, get involved with him, and suddenly he's got a source of guns coming in," Estrada explains. "Their reach was really wide, much wider than you'd ever see with a traditional gang."
The organization even made friends in federal court, in what Estrada calls an "unprecedented" breach.
In 2012, a female employee of the federal district court clerk's office in L.A. and her husband were arrested for disclosing confidential information to members and associates of Armenian Power. The couple was accused of accessing sealed federal court documents and tipping off defendants before they were to be arrested. The wife, Nune Gevorkyan, was sentenced to six months; the husband, Oganes Koshkaryan, got almost five years.
With nearly all 90 of the indicted AP members now either serving time or awaiting sentencing this summer, the prosecution feels confident that it took out the "biggest, baddest" criminals and put a serious kink in Armenian Power's ability to operate.
But they can't arrest everyone. And there's always a squad of up-and-comers waiting in the wings to take control of all that illegal income.
"Somebody else will rise to leadership positions, and they'll create new, better ways to do fraud schemes," Stebbins says. "And we'll have to catch up and find those people and figure out who they are and how to prosecute them again."
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Raids targeting Armenian gang net 74 fraud suspects
Scams by Armenian Power took $20 million from discount store shoppers and the elderly, authorities say.
By Andrew Blankstein and Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
February 17, 2011
U.S. prosecutors accused an Armenian organized crime gang of bilking victims out of an estimated $20 million in an audacious series of financial scams that included replacing the credit-card machines at more than a dozen 99 Cent-Only stores with their own scanners designed to steal customers' banking information.
The charges filed Wednesday against alleged members and associates of the Armenian Power gang included allegations of two kidnappings, theft of money from elderly bank customers, the smuggling of cellphones into state prisons, and trafficking in drugs and weapons. Seventy-four suspects were arrested in early-morning raids at about 90 locations throughout Southern California in an operation that involved nearly 1,000 local, state and federal law enforcement officials. Additional arrests were made in Miami and Denver.
The charges, detailed in two lengthy indictments, are the most sweeping in what has been a campaign by law enforcement agencies to crack down on white-collar crime involving Armenian and Eurasian gangs in Glendale, Hollywood and other areas. In October, authorities arrested 52 members of an alleged Armenian crime group, charging them in a $160-million nationwide Medicare fraud.
A 134-count indictment in the current case was returned under seal three weeks ago by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles, charging 70 defendants. A second 102-count indictment by a federal grand jury in Orange County charged 20 defendants.
Authorities said the credit-card swapping scam was detected last year when the manager of a 99 Cent Only store in Huntington Beach noticed that a cash register was not processing credit and debit cards properly. The manager informed police, who caught two suspects as they were removing one of the credit card skimmers from a store, federal officials told The Times.
Officials later determined that the gang had a system for leaving the number-skimming machines in place for about a week, gathering banking information, then replacing the store's own machines.
The information was used to create phony credit and debit cards. Gang members and associates allegedly sold the credit card information to other criminals and used the forged debit cards to drain the bank accounts of victims.
After being contacted by store officials, Huntington Beach police informed federal authorities, who determined the scam was taking place across the region — one of several types of banking fraud allegedly perpetrated by the gang.
Prosecutors also accused Armenian Power of teaming up with several African American gangs to target elderly bank customers in Orange County. The gang "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," netting $10 million, according to the Orange County indictment.
Gang members allegedly impersonated customers and ordered new checks from banks, which they stole out of the victims' mailboxes. Two suspects allegedly smuggled cellphones into an unidentified state prison to help with coordinating bank fraud schemes.
The indictment alleged strong ties between Armenian Power and the Mexican Mafia, which federal authorities allege controls the narcotics trade and other crimes in state and federal prisons. According to the court filing, the Mexican Mafia provides "protection and status" to imprisoned Armenian Power members and their associates. In return, Armenian Power "assists Mexican Mafia members … with collecting money or 'taxes' within prison and outside of prison."
Authorities allege the two gangs also exchange "high-value gifts, including vehicles and weapons." The indictment also alleges that Armenian Power leaders had strong ties to organized crime in Armenia, Georgia and Russia.
Officials said Armenian Power allegedly kidnapped a Glendale auto body shop owner and held him for a $500,000 ransom. The indictment details a phone conversation in which suspects said they showed the man a hole in the ground, prompting him to start crying. The two then speculated that the man "might die of a heart attack" because he was so scared.
Authorities said at a news conference that Armenian Power was able to connect with other gangs because of its technological sophistication in white-collar crime. The gang had a cadre of younger members who were highly computer savvy, officials said.
The Armenian Power organization began as a street gang based in Glendale and Burbank two decades ago to protect new Armenian immigrants, according to officials. Since then, it has morphed into a formidable financial crime syndicate with about 200 members, according to the FBI.
At the 99 Cent Only store in Silver Lake on Wednesday, customers were stunned to learn about the scam and questioned how the suspects could have accessed the store's machines.
"They should make sure that nobody can get access to the machine," said shopper Billy Prasom, adding that he hoped the store had beefed up customer protections.
Officials with 99 Cent Only stores said that they have installed new security measures to protect against potential future scams.
In addition to the federal indictments, the Los Angeles County district attorney has charged 11 defendants in seven cases filed in L.A. County Superior Court.
Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times
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Violent Gang Is a Stain on a Proud Ethnic Community
By MICHAEL KRIKORIAN, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 17, 1997
Dictionary Metro, Page 1
Thesaurus Type of Material: Series
Series: SPECIAL REPORT * The rise of a small street gang, Armenian Power,; is causing a tragic cycle of fear and death. To those who fled warfare; elsewhere . . .; FIRST OF TWO PARTS
SEE CORRECTION APPENDED
In the summer of 1991, two dozen gang members took over the parking lot of a mini-mall in East Hollywood and turned it into their headquarters. They intimidated patrons of the mall's restaurants and clothing stores, forcing the shop owners to hire two off-duty LAPD officers for security.
They wore the classic uniform of the barrio street gang: baggy khaki pants, pressed white T-shirts, hair nets and navy blue ski caps. Tattooed and armed with Berettas and Glocks and Kalashnikovs, they spoke in Spanish street jargon.
But a Latino gang they were not.
The teenagers and young men wrecking havoc on these businesses were members of Armenian Power, a new street gang in the heavily Armenian areas of East Hollywood and Glendale. With only 120 members, the gang is now blamed by authorities for a dozen murders--almost exclusively of rival gang members--and more than 100 shootings.
To thousands of Armenian Americans whose parents and grandparents came here after escaping the horrors of World War I and genocide, the existence of an Armenian gang is a stain on the tight ethnic community that has achieved success beyond its small numbers in politics, art, business and farming.
To thousands of recent Armenian immigrants who fled the war-ravaged streets of Beirut, the political upheavals of Iran and the Armenian homeland itself, the gang is a painful reminder of the lawlessness they sought to leave behind.
To most residents of Los Angeles, the young gang is unknown, even though it was powerful enough to have been included in peace talks called several years ago by the Mexican Mafia prison gang to ban drive-by shootings among Latino gangs.
To themselves, the members of Armenian Power are guardians of young Armenian Americans, who have often come under attack from older, larger gangs. They consider themselves noble, like the immigrant Italian, Jewish and Irish gangs of New York's Lower East Side did at the turn of the century, banding together to defend their own from a hostile world.
"Most of the fights I got into, I got into for Armenians that other guys were picking on," said 19-year-old Hando, who, like most gang members, is Armenian-born.
Had one watched the birth of Los Angeles' Latino gangs in the 1940s, or the birth of the first Crips in the early '70s, or the first Salvadoran immigrant gangs in the '80s, one would not have been alarmed. It was only a handful of wayward boys set against a huge metropolis, only a handful of violent episodes. No one sees the first signs of cancer.
There is no guarantee that Armenian Power--or AP, as the gang is known on the street--will metastasize the same way. After all, in a county with 150,000 gang members and 1,200 gangs, how much harm can 120 Armenian American guys do? How much pain can they possibly cause?
Watch, first, the way Nishan Kazanchyan, who happened to be an Armenian American but not a gang member, died in Hollywood in March.
He was 18 years old and driving a Latino girl home at 2:25 a.m. According to police sources, a member of Mara Salvatrucha, the huge, primarily El Salvadoran gang known as MS that for years has been the archenemy of AP, lurked in the girl's driveway, apparently offended by the cross-cultural date.
When Kazanchyan pulled into the driveway, four bullets squashed out his life.
Police believe that Kazanchyan was mistaken for an AP member merely because of his ethnicity.
The shooting appeared to be in retaliation for an incident the week before when, in front of a Western Avenue ice cream parlor, Armenian Power members drove a car over a member of the Salvadoran gang, severely injuring him.
Hundreds of Armenian Americans gathered at the Old North Church at Forest Lawn Cemetery in the Hollywood Hills to bury Kazanchyan.
The women, nearly 50 of them, clustered around his open casket before services began. Above the soft whimpering of several young girls, above the moans of wrinkled old ladies, the piercing scream of a mother rang out.
Outside the small, overflowing chapel, where the older men had gathered in groups of four and five, there were no tears. All were dressed completely in black. There was hardly any emotion displayed--except for bail bondsman Sharkey Klian, who had taught Nishan Kazanchyan martial arts when the boy was 6.
Without meaning to, Klian, a 235-pound former bounty hunter who has black belts in three martial arts, had passed on skills to the boys that they eventually used to help start the cycle of violence.
In the late 1980s, Klian was worried that too many young Armenian Americans were hanging out on the street doing nothing. So he decided to teach them self-defense as a diversion.
The plan backfired.
The older Armenian American boys, who as new kids in town had been coming under frequent attack from larger Salvadoran and Mexican American gangs, quickly started using those skills in fistfights at Hollywood, Marshall, Hoover and Glendale high schools.
"After I heard about all the fights, I stopped the lessons," said a sad-eyed Klian, whose downtown bail bond customers now include some of the youths he tried to help. It was too late.
The fighting eventually erupted into shootings and killings and retaliation shootings and killings, and a small gang coalesced around the violence.
At first, of course, it was more innocent. Sam Salazar, senior lead officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Northeast Division, which patrols much of Armenian Power's turf, remembers running into AP for the first time in 1990 when the owners of a now-defunct Hollywood carwash complained about the gang's graffiti.
Salazar met with the gang's leader, Vahag Hagopian, better known as Boxer, a powerfully built man Salazar remembers as "5 foot, 9 inches tall and as wide as an ox."
Boxer promised Salazar that his troops would be at the carwash to clean it up the next morning. Salazar doubted it. But Boxer and more than 50 homeboys showed up and painted over the vandalism with paint the police provided. It was the redemptive tale every warm-hearted cop wants to believe.
"Boxer was really nice and very polite. I really liked him," says Salazar, who said he often had hour long conversations with the gang leader.
Within a year, Boxer's gang took over that East Hollywood mini-mall on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Edgemont Avenue. Business plummeted. Eventually, after more negotiations with Boxer, the gang left.
"Boxer," said bail bondsman Klian as he puffed on a cigar and waited for another shot of Johnnie Walker Black at a downtown bar, "was the type of guy that would not bother you at all, unless you messed with him. But if you messed up once, that was it. No more chances. No three strikes with Boxer. You get one strike and then he'd be all over your ass like black on charred shish kebab."
According to police, and several AP members who proudly tell the story, in 1994 Boxer knelt on one knee on Hollywood Boulevard, aimed his .45 at a rival a half-block away and blew the back of his head off with one shot.
"It really bothered me," Salazar said.
Any hope Salazar had had disappeared when Boxer fled to Armenia after the killing; a warrant for his arrest on suspicion of murder is still active.
It is part of L.A. gang legacy that each generation indulges in cruder tactics. "The younger guys are out of control," moan older members of so many gangs. And so it was that with Boxer gone, AP lost any sense of discipline or respect.
Ever since Alexander the Great invaded Armenia in 331 BC, Armenians, at the crossroads of East and West, have fought against a long line of invaders.
They are hardened by battle. Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon's staff got a taste of that in April when it canvassed a North Hollywood neighborhood for signs of psychological damage after the notorious bank robbery and machine-gun shootout nearby.
Staffers discovered that many Armenian Americans were unimpressed by what everyone else in Los Angeles considered a horrifying show of firepower.
"Shootout? You call that a shootout?" said an Armenian American man who claimed to be a veteran of the vicious street battles between the Armenian militia and Christian Phalangists in the eastern Beirut suburb of Bourj Hammoud during the late 1970s.
Being a people so often besieged by violence, including the horrors of genocide at the hands of the Turks, makes the rise of Armenian Power all the more distressing to many in Southern California's Armenian community.
At a bakery in East Hollywood, an Armenian American woman in her 40s remembered the Armenian street fighters from her days in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war and sneered at AP.
"In Bourj Hammoud," she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, "the fedayeen [Arabic for commandos] would do things you were proud of. They protected the neighborhood. They stayed out all night to watch over us. And when one of the fedayeen fell, it was for something important, something sacred--it was not for something stupid, like a pack of cigarettes."
Businessman Harry Arzouman, who grew up near South Park in South-Central Los Angeles, recalled the 1940s, when Armenian Americans used to have picnics in Elysian Park. Every year, Arzouman said, Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz would visit the picnic.
"I always remember him saying that no Armenian had ever spent a night in his jail," Arzouman said.
Armenian Americans are spending plenty of nights and days in jails these days.
In Glendale--where about 25% of the city's 195,000 residents are of Armenian descent, the highest proportion of any U.S. city--57 people with the same Armenian last name have been arrested over the last five years. A recent computerized readout of every inmate in the county jail system listed more than 200 Armenian surnames. This is only a tiny percentage of the more than 300,000 Armenian Americans living in Southern California, but too many for much of the Armenian community.
"When I think of the Armenians that came here, like my grandparents, what they took pride in more than anything else was hard work and being honest," said David Arzouman, a music composer.
Pride is a word that surfaces frequently in conversations with Armenian Americans. Pride in being the first country to make Christianity the national religion (301 AD). Pride in writer William Saroyan, in Russian MIG fighter designer Ardashes Migoyan, in former world chess champion Tigran Petrosian, in former California Gov. George Deukmejian, in college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, in former Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian, in financier Kirk Kerkorian.
Many recent Armenian immigrants, accustomed to living in countries where even a minor crime was punished with sledgehammer harshness, blame the rise of Armenian Power on a lenient criminal justice system.
"Many of them came from communist countries," said Rouben Zambakjian, 91, a survivor of the Armenian genocide. "It's so free here, they can do whatever they want." Several older members of St. James Armenian Church in Ladera Heights gasped when a reporter showed them a picture of an imprisoned gang leader with a large tattoo across his back reading "Armenian Power".
"Oh my god, that's awful," said one middle-age woman, her face contorted with disgust as she looked at the picture.
"When I see and hear that Armenians are associated with violence and theft, it's hard for me to accept," said a 73-year-old man.
The man said he had stormed the sands of Omaha Beach in the D-day invasion of France in 1944 but didn't want his name published because he feared retaliation by AP--feared being hunted down by the grandchildren of Armenian Americans his age.
"I wonder what the grandparents think of all this," he said.
Before AP blemished its culture's reputation, "we were considered to be a very nice, old-fashioned people," said an elderly Armenian American woman. "But now, oh, it makes me so sad."
Alec Petrossian, who migrated from Iran to Glendale with his wife, Juliet, in 1984, knows sad. For two years he has been going to his son's grave nearly every morning.
Tony Petrossian was not a gang member, police say, just a kid who had friends who belonged to AP. At 17 he was a promising poet. He could also bench-press 300 pounds. On May 31, 1995, some of those friends came to Tony's parents' house in Glendale. They came not for his prose, but for his muscles. They recruited Petrossian to go with them to Brand Park. There, another group of Armenian Americans--young men not affiliated with Armenian Power--waited, angry over a stereo that was supposed to have been fixed. A fight ensued.
"My Tony went there to fight," said Alec Petrossian. "But he went there to fight like a man with his fists, not with a weapon."
At the park, the expected argument erupted into a fight and escalated into murder, when another boy, who had brought a Rambo-style hunting knife, plunged it into Petrossian's heart.
"That day, time stopped for us," the father said. "From that day on, we don't live, we just exist. I could live in the worst place on earth, but as long as my Tony was beside me it would be all right. If it was raining, we were enjoying life. If there were hard times financially, we were happy."
He took out a handkerchief, dabbed tears from his eyes and tenderly rubbed a typewriter in a conference room of the Glendale real estate office where he recently returned to work after taking off 1 1/2 years to grieve. The fact that the killer was recently sentenced to nine years in prison changes nothing. The father told how Tony would come to the office and type poems he had written by hand. Often the younger Petrossian, frustrated by the flaws of his work, would snatch the paper out of the typewriter, ball it up and throw it into the trash can.
The father showed a poem by his son published in Rippling Waters, the annual book of poetry put out by the Library of Congress.
"If I would have known his life would be so short," he said, "I would have saved every scrap of paper from that trash can."
Next: The young gang becomes part of the social fabric.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 31, 1997
Metro, Page 4
Type of Material: Correction
Caption wrong--In the Aug. 17 edition of The Times, a caption underneath a photograph of murder victim Tony Petrossian incorrectly reported the circumstances of his death. According to police and his family, Petrossian was not a gang member and the killing was not gang-related.
Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times, 1997.
MICHAEL KRIKORIAN, Violent Gang Is a Stain on a Proud Ethnic Community; Home Edition., Los Angeles Times, 08-17-1997, pp B-1.