A former Fresno man who went from being an aspiring artist to an international arms dealer has been charged with illegally brokering the sale of military-grade arms, money laundering and conspiracy, U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott announced Monday.
Ara Dolarian, 58, was arrested Wednesday at his mother’s home in Fresno by agents with Homeland Security Investigations. Dolarian, who federal officials say lives in Sofia, Bulgaria, was visiting when federal authorities found him. He remains in custody.
For years, Dolarian quietly operated his Fresno-based company, Dolarian Capital Inc., out of a West Shaw Avenue office. His business neighbors thought for a while that he was importing and exporting tea.
But a BuzzFeed article in 2014 shined the spotlight on Dolarian’s lucrative international arms dealing, selling everything from Soviet T-72 tanks to rocket launchers.
Dolarian is accused of trying to broker an illegal arms deal in 2013 and 2014 with the Nigerian government. Court documents show Dolarian, through his company Dolarian Capital Inc., was trying to sell high‑explosive bombs, rockets, military-grade firearms and aircraft-mounted cannons from Eastern Europe and South Africa to Nigerian officials.
The problem with the $8.4 million deal, prosecutors allege, is that Dolarian’s company did not have permission from the State Department to do so. Despite a lack of authorization, Dolarian is accused of pursuing the transaction, working with Societe D’Equipments Internationaux (SEI), a French arms brokering company acting on behalf of Nigeria, for the purchase of the weapons and explosives.
Dolarian’s attorney George Newhouse has denied his client is a licensed arms dealer and has done nothing wrong.
“Mr. Dolarian is firmly committed to fighting this,” Newhouse said Monday during a detention hearing.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said in a news release that the money paid to Dolarian was funneled by Nigeria through a purported furniture company in Hong Kong. The money was then routed through numerous shell accounts held by Dolarian, and others.
He is accused of using the money to pay off personal expenses, such as federal and state tax debts, and to buy a BMW SUV. But by February 2015, the federal government had seized over $6 million that remained in Dolarian’s accounts.
“Illegal arms brokering represents a threat, not only to U.S. national security, but to the security of the international community,” said Ryan L. Spradlin, HSI Special Agent in Charge.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Grant Rabenn said in court Monday that even while Dolarian knew he was under investigation he continued to try to make unauthorized deals.
Court records show Dolarian was trying to broker a deal with the government of Cameroon for 1,000 M-4 rifles and 4,000 magazines. And he was also trying to broker arms to Paul Malong, a South Sudanese warlord in Kenya.
About a dozen of his supporters showed up in federal court Monday where he appeared for a detention hearing. They included his mother, relatives and a business associate.
Rabenn said “a million members of his family can show” to vouch that he isn’t a flight risk, but his conduct shows otherwise.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila K. Oberto ordered that Dolarian remain in custody, saying it was warranted because of his international contacts, foreign bank accounts and severity of the charges.
Dolarian faces a total of 45 years in prison if found guilty on all charges: 20 years and a $1 million fine for unlicensed arms brokering; 20 years and up to a $500,000 fine for money laundering and five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for conspiracy.
Dolarian’s exploits in arms dealing is a far cry from his humble beginnings in his hometown of Fresno. His mother, Rose Dolarian, was a peace activist and his father, Ara, was at one time chairman of the Art Department at Fresno State.
The younger Dolarian initially followed his father into the art world. He studied sculpture at the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.
“I have tried other things, but this is all that interests me,” Dolarian, then 23, said in a 1984 story in The Bee. “I don’t want to ‘be an artist.’ I just want to make sculptures.”
Dolarian’s preliminary hearing is May 30.