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Monthlong Cobra Corps Investigation : Police Hold 4 in Auto-Theft ‘Sting’

Times Staff Writer

Police undercover officers, posing as criminals seeking to purchase stolen automobiles, have arrested four men suspected of operating a theft ring that took orders for expensive American cars, then delivered them to buyers.

The four suspects, whose operation police said could be responsible for stealing hundreds of cars in the last year, were arrested late Tuesday night in the parking lot of a North Hollywood shopping center after they tried to sell Los Angeles police officers a stolen 1985 Cadillac for $2,000, Sgt. Paul Mattson said.

In custody Wednesday at the Van Nuys Division Jail were Suren Brutyan, 23; Nerses Dishigrikyan, 20, and Harout Basmadjian, 20, all Soviet immigrants living in Hollywood, and a Mexican national, Omar Saballos, 23, of North Hollywood. All were being held in lieu of $25,000 bail, Detective Mike Miller said.

The arrests ended a monthlong investigation led by the Police Department’s Cobra Corps, a group of undercover officers that undertakes special projects. The corps was called in last month after a man arrested in Van Nuys for driving a stolen car told detectives he had “placed an order” for the car from Saballos, who works at an automobile parts store in Pacoima, Mattson said.

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Mattson said the suspect later told police he had bought at least six other stolen cars from the auto-theft ring, mainly late-model Cadillacs and Corvettes that he purchased for $1,200 to $1,500. Armed with that information, Mattson said, officers asked the suspect to place another order and use undercover officers as “mules” to take the car to him.

The arrests, however, did not come off as easily as planned. An attempted purchase last week in North Hollywood fell through when a ring member failed to deliver the car to a parking lot on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, police said.

“We think they got scared off for one reason or another, so we just staged it again for this week,” Miller said.

This time police were prepared when the car was delivered at about 10:45 p.m.

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An undercover officer, equipped with a hidden microphone that picked up the conversation with the suspects, handed over the money while the transaction was videotaped from a van parked about 100 feet away, police said.

‘Just the Car I Wanted’

When an officer gave a signal by saying, “That’s just the car I wanted,” about 15 other officers surrounding the parking lot swarmed in as the suspects attempted to flee, police said. Dishigrikyan was slightly injured when he ran into a parked motorcycle trying to escape, Mattson said.

Miller, who has worked for eight years as an auto theft detective, said the operation is one that is becoming increasingly common as more stolen cars each year are either shipped out of the country or taken to “chop shops,” where they are dismantled and sold in parts.

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“We’re starting to see more and more of these rings, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if these guys are responsible for hundreds of stolen cars,” Miller said. “They worked as one unit, with a guy who took orders for hot cars and a bunch of guys who swiped the cars that the middleman requested.”

Sometimes the cars were stolen to fill a specific order. In others, they were stored until a specific order was received, Miller said.

Charges of auto theft and several conspiracy counts are expected to be filed today in Van Nuys Municipal Court against the suspects, Miller said.


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