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Gang leader who oversaw card skimming scheme at 99 Cents Only Stores, including in H.B., sentenced to prison

Armenian Power tattoo
Mher “Mike” Darbinyan, 44, a leader in the Armenian Power gang, has been sentenced to nearly 18 years behind bars for multiple federal racketeering crimes, according to authorities. This photo shows an Armenian Power gang tattoo.
(File Photo / Los Angeles Times)

The co-leader of an Armenian street gang was sentenced Monday to nearly 18 years behind bars for multiple federal racketeering crimes — among them a debit card skimming operation that siphoned more than $1 million from customers of 99 Cents Only Stores across the Southland, including in Huntington Beach.

Mher “Mike” Darbinyan, 44, formerly of Valencia also was ordered by U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner to pay $170,000 in fines and restitution to the victimized financial institutions.

According to court papers, Darbinyan faces deportation to his native Armenia once he is released from prison.

Five years ago, Darbinyan was found guilty in Los Angeles federal court 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.

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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.

Darbinyan declined to make a statement to the court before his sentence was imposed, but defense attorney Michael V. Severo said his client “admits that he did wrong” and that “it was never his intention to hurt anyone in particular.”

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 installing skimmers in 99 Cents Only Stores in Huntington Beach, Riverside, Whittier, San Diego and elsewhere that were used to steal customers’ debit card numbers and PIN codes, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

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On two occasions, he also was found to be in possession 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, 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, in court papers, noted the “astonishing breadth of his criminal conduct, and the scale of the damage he has inflicted on countless innocent victims.”

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.

The gang’s other co-leader — Arman “Horse” Sharopetrosian, 41, formerly of Burbank — was previously 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 in 2014 for participating in the card skimming operation.

Armenian Power reportedly formed in East Hollywood in the 1980s. Prosecutors said 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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