Couple Convicted of Covid Relief Fraud Is on the Run, FBI Says
A couple convicted of stealing Covid funds is on the run, the F.B.I. says.
By Maria Cramer
- Nov. 17, 2021Updated 4:20 p.m. ET
When the Covid-19 pandemic began last year, a Southern California man recruited his brother, his wife and many others to use the identities of older people, foreign exchange students who had left the country and dead relatives to apply for $20 million in federal relief funds, the authorities said.
The man, Richard Ayvazyan, 43, bought a $3.25 million mansion and filled it with gold coins, luxury watches and imported furniture using the stolen Covid-19 disaster-relief funds, federal prosecutors in California said.
In June, Mr. Ayvazyan; his wife, Marietta Terabelian, 37; and Artur Ayvazyan, Mr. Ayvazyan’s brother, were convicted of scheming to fraudulently obtain funding that was meant for people and businesses that had sustained economic losses as a result of the pandemic.
In August, as they awaited sentencing at their home in the San Fernando Valley, Mr. Ayvazyan and Ms. Terabelian removed their bracelet monitors and fled, according to the F.B.I. They left their children behind, according to federal prosecutors.
On Monday, they were both sentenced in absentia. Mr. Ayvazyan received 17 years in prison and his wife received six. Artur Ayvazyan, 41, was sentenced to five years.
During the hearing on Monday, Judge Stephen V. Wilson of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California said he could not recall a fraud case done in such a “callous, intentional way without any regard for the law” and described Mr. Ayvazyan as “an endemic, coldhearted fraudster.”
Mr. Ayvazyan’s lawyer, Ashwin J. Ram, said that his client’s family believed the couple was kidnapped but that the authorities had made no serious effort to investigate the claim.
“There are dozens of people who potentially have exposure,” Mr. Ram said. “My fear was that someone wanted to silence my client.”
Mr. Ram said a one-sided picture of Mr. Ayvazyan was presented at sentencing.
“The entire point of sentencing is not whether a crime occurred,” he said. “The point of sentencing is what is just punishment in this case.”
Mr. Ayvazyan’s background as a churchgoer, a father and a prominent member of the Armenian community in Southern California who invested in small start-ups did not come up at the hearing.
“That story didn’t get told at sentencing because he wasn’t there,” the lawyer said. According to Mr. Ram, the couple has three children, ages 13, 15 and 16, who are living with their grandparents.
Prosecutors said in court filings that Mr. Ayvazyan left a typed letter for their children explaining they had to flee because he has brought “danger and fear” to their lives.
“We will be together again,” he wrote, according to a copy of the letter. “I will find a way, that’s a promise.”
Mr. Ayvazyan had a history of loan fraud, according to a sentencing memorandum filed by prosectors.
He pleaded guilty to conspiring with Ms. Terabelian to fraudulently obtaining a line of credit and was charged with conspiring to use stolen identities to secure mortgage loans and green loans for environmentally friendly home projects, the memo stated.
Ms. Terabelian used to work at a children’s hair salon, according to the F.B.I.
Ryan Fraser, a lawyer for Ms. Terabelian, described her as a “loving mother and devoted wife who has tirelessly supported not only her three children, but also her parents, mother-in-law and sister-.”
Mr. Fraser noted that Judge Wilson sentenced Ms. Terabelian to “less than one-third the time” that prosecutors had sought. They asked for 21 years in prison.
Mr. Ayvazyan began stealing disaster-relief funds as soon as they became available in March 2020, according to the prosecutors’ memo.
In messages to his co-conspirators, he joked that the federal government would run out of money and told them to move quickly to get the funds.
“This program is over by end of the month so get as much as you can,” he wrote, according to the memo.
Mr. Ram said the court sentenced Mr. Ayvazyan on guidelines based on the theft of about $1.5 million from the government. He added that he did not believe that prosecutors proved that Mr. Ayvazyan himself stole anyone’s identity.
The government “was handing out money with no checks and a lot of people took advantage of that,” Mr. Ram said.
“It’s a honey trap,” he added. “Richard Ayvazyan fell into that trap.”
The F.B.I. said it was offering a $20,000 reward for anyone with information that could lead to the couple’s arrest.