COVID swindlers extradited from Montenegro to US in $18M scam
Los Angeles Times November 17, 2022
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LOS ANGELES (Tribune News Service) — A pair of Los Angeles convicts who escaped to a European life of luxury under fake names after running a pandemic fraud ring were extradited Thursday from Montenegro to the United States, Montenegrin authorities said.
Agents from the U.S. Marshals Service took custody of fugitives Richard Ayvazyan and Marietta Terabelian at the airport in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, local police said.
The couple, who abandoned their three teenage children at the Tarzana mansion they bought in part with stolen COVID-19 relief funds, were captured in February in the small mountainous nation just up the Adriatic coast from Greece.
They had flown there in a private jet using forged Mexican passports and were living under false identities in a seaside villa with a pool on the scenic Bay of Kotor.
Ayvazyan and Terabelian were convicted in June 2021 of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and related federal crimes for stealing rescue loans meant for small businesses struggling to survive at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
With six accomplices, they applied for 151 loans to mainly sham businesses in the San Fernando Valley, using fictitious payrolls and forged tax returns to secure loans in a scam that yielded $18 million.
Ayvazyan was sentenced in absentia last year to 17 years in prison, and Terabelian to six years.
Their scam was one of the most lurid by swindlers who took advantage of the government’s rush to give businesses trillions of dollars in pandemic relief. The Justice Department has charged more than 1,500 people in COVID-19 fraud cases that total more than $1.1 billion.
After slicing off their ankle monitoring bracelets and fleeing in August 2021, Ayvazyan and Terabelian lived quietly for nearly six months as Roberto Niko De Leon and Nataly Rose Perez Garcia in Tivat, a Montenegrin village known for its luxury shops and superyacht harbor.
The FBI discovered they were in Montenegro when Ayvazyan tried to withdraw funds from one of the bank accounts he had set up for a fake business in the COVID-19 scam.
Montenegrin police arrested Terabelian in a Tivat salon while she was getting hair extensions, then found Ayvazyan hours later at a hotel in Budva, a nightlife hub nearby.
They also arrested Tamara Dadyan, a third fugitive in the COVID-19 swindle, who was at the hotel with Ayvazyan, her brother-in-law. Montenegrin police said they had no information to release on the pending U.S. request for Dadyan’s extradition.
U.S. authorities did not immediately respond to requests for confirmation of the extradition of Ayvazyan and Terabelian.
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