The lead prosecutor in the case, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, said the Mirzoyan-Terdjanian organization -- which is named after its two alleged leaders, 35-year-old Davit Mirzoyan and 36-year-old Robert Terdjanian -- employed threats, intimidation, and violence and operated in a classical mafia style:
"The reach of this organization stretches clear across the country and well beyond our shores. And so in terms of profitability, geographic scope, and sheer ambition this emerging international organized crime syndicate would be the envy of any traditional mafia family," Bharara said.
Bharara said that the Armenian-American criminal group operated principally out of Los Angeles and New York but had offshoots in 25 states involved in extortion, credit card fraud, identity theft, immigration fraud, and even distribution of contraband cigarettes and stolen Viagra.
The indictment says most members of the organization were Armenian nationals or immigrants who maintained substantial ties to Armenia. In addition to regularly traveling there, they had criminal connections, transferred criminal proceeds to the country, and bought real estate and businesses with money from their illegal profits.
Armenian national Armen Kazarian, 46, is identified as the principal leader -- the so-called "godfather" of the Mirzoyan-Terdjanian organization. The indictment identifies him as "vor v zakone," or a thief in the law/code -- a powerful figure in the criminal underworld of the former Soviet Union.
Kazarian immigrated to the United States in 1996 and has received asylum status despite frequently traveling to Armenia and Azerbaijan.
"In important respects, though, this organization was a far cry from the classic Cosa Nostra. For one thing, when it comes to making money illegally, this Armenian-American group puts the traditional mafia to shame," Bharara said.
Vaycheslav Ivankov -- also known as "Yaponchik," which means "Little Japanese" -- a notorious Russian organized crime figure, was the first "vor v zakone." He was arrested by the FBI in 1995 on extortion charges. Ivankov was convicted and served nine years in a U.S. prison before being deported to Russia. He was gunned down in Moscow in October 2009.
Janice Fedarcyk, the assistant director in charge of the FBI office in New York, said that U.S. law enforcement authorities are always on the lookout for the next emerging criminal scheme, no matter where it's coming from.
"This particular scheme did originate from areas in the former Soviet [Union]. Certainly the vor, the thief in law, has grown of interest to us with the dissolution of the USSR particularly because more information is now available and we are starting to see with the availability of international travel the expansion of some of those criminal schemes over to Europe and the United States," Fedarcyk said.
In early October, U.S. law enforcement authorities announced the indictment of 73 individuals from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Belarus who they accuse of participating in a complex Internet fraud scheme that targeted the bank accounts of U.S. citizens, businesses, and cities.
Prosecutors in the Armenian case are investigating whether any of the arrested individuals were in the United States illegally.
Bharara said almost all of the indicted individuals are from Armenia but wouldn't say whether Armenian authorities are helping with the case, but said foreign authorities are usually willing to cooperate with the United States.
The indictment almost reads like a thriller, with lurid details of the criminal defrauding enterprise, the members' posh lifestyles, and their expensive cars:
"The indictments in this case talk about phantom doctors, fancy cars, money laundering through [Las] Vegas casino chips, threats to disembowel rivals and more," Bharara said.
"That's the kind of material that makes a great movie. But this is no movie. It is very real and we are using every resource at our disposal and every tool we can find to prosecute those alleged international gangsters."
New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the criminals conducted their business with remarkable efficiency.
"And even though it was a very lavish fraudulent scheme, it's amazing how they were able to maintain a low overhead. They actually did an awful lot of their operations out of a very small office over an auto-body shop on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn. And one woman, Galina Vovk was there from early morning to late at night [filling] out all of these [fraudulent claims]," Kelly said.
Galina Vovk is the wife of Robert Terdjanian, one of the principle leaders.
If convicted, the defendants face various sentences up to life imprisonment and up to $500,000 fine.