Money laundering, fraud suspects arrested

Fresno police announced arrests Tuesday of several members of what was described as an international financial-scam group that specialized in money laundering and bank and real estate fraud.

Members of the group consisted of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but Lt. Don Gross said police did not have evidence that the so-called Russian Mafia was involved in the endeavor. Instead, he described the group of 10 as a loose affiliation whose members cooperated to commit the crimes.

Two members of the group were arrested in Fresno. Peter Titar, 31, was booked on suspicion of money laundering and conspiracy to commit grand theft. Antony Sarkisov, 25, was booked on suspicion of conspiracy to commit grand theft and commercial burglary.

Four others are being held in other states, and four have fled the United States.

Gross said the group defrauded banks through accounts opened by group members and by purchasing big-ticket items with insufficient funds. In one case, a number of expensive bicycles were bought and shipped out of the country before the check bounced, he said.

Group members also were able to defraud lenders by obtaining a falsely high appraisal of a piece of real estate and then pocketing the difference between the appraisal and the sale price. Gross cited a $1 million loan on a property that actually sold for $200,000.

It was not clear why the group targeted the Central San Joaquin Valley. Gross said the scams likely originated in places where the Russian-speaking members tended to gather. Not all of the 10 were equally involved.

Gross said Vahe Arshakyan, 27, who is in custody in Florida on money-laundering charges, appeared to have sent money which allowed Titar and Sarkisov to set up an operation in Fresno.

Arman Sarkisian, 24, is in custody in Washington state on charges of grand theft, along with Ruvim Kotilevskiy, 21, who is being held on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit grand theft. Emina Jazvin, 24, is also being held in Washington state on charges of conspiracy to commit grand theft and commercial burglary.

Gross called the varied nature of the financial crimes "very interesting and very complex."

It was not immediately apparent that the members of the group were working together, he added.

Things began to be sorted out when financial crimes police detective George Imirian discussed cases with another detective and they realized two suspects were connected. Police were able to start unraveling the convoluted connections from that point, Gross said.

Three suspects left for Italy, Switzerland and the Central Asian Republic of Georgia before they could be arrested, Gross said.

They are Vardan Hovhannisyan, 44, sought on money laundering charges and conspiracy to commit grand theft; Nikolay Pukov, 21, sought on the same charges as well as for commercial burglary; and Olga Grebenkina, 20, also sought on commercial burglary charges.

A fourth, Hakob Topachikyan, 32, was criminally deported before police could charge him with criminal burglary.

Gross said police expect that they will return, as criminals often do.

If so, the charges will be waiting.