A co-leader of the Armenian Power gang pleaded guilty Monday to multiple federal racketeering crimes, including bank fraud, identity theft and operating a debit card skimming operation that siphoned more than $1 million from thousands of customers at 99 Cents Only stores across Southern California.
Mher "Mike" Darbinyan, 43, formerly of Valencia, faces a possible sentence of decades in federal prison when he's sentenced on Oct. 7.
Darbinyan 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.
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Darbinyan showed no reaction as Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Yang read aloud the 30 counts to which he entered guilty pleas.
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 also 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."
Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles indicted 90 people eight years ago for a range of criminal activities associated with the Armenian Power gang.
Nearly all have been convicted.
According to court documents, the gang formed in East Hollywood in the 1980s.