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Fugitive California couple convicted in COVID loan fraud scheme sentenced to federal prison in absentia

Small businesses trying to survive pandemic
Small businesses trying to survive pandemic 06:59

A Los Angeles couple who were convicted of trying to steal $20 million in COVID-19 relief funds were sentenced to years in federal prison, although they remain fugitives. CBS Los Angeles reports Richard Ayvazyan, 43, and his wife and co-defendant, 37-year-old Marietta Terabelian, remain at large after the FBI says they removed their electronic tracking bracelets in August. 

Ayvazyan was sentenced Monday in absentia to 17 years and his wife got six years, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney's office.

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Richard Ayvazyan, 43, and his wife and co-defendant, 37-year-old Marietta Terabelian. CBS Los Angeles

Ayvazyan's brother, Artur Ayvazyan, 41, was sentenced to five years.

Prosecutors said the three Encino residents and others used dozens of phony or stolen identities - including those of elderly or dead people and foreign exchange students who briefly visited the United States - to submit applications for some 150 federal COVID-19 business relief funds.

They backed up the applications with false tax documents, and payroll records, officials said.

The Justice Department says this is the first case of pandemic relief fraud in the country to go to trial, CBS Los Angeles reported.

"The defendants used the COVID-19 crisis to steal millions of dollars in much-needed government aid intended for people and businesses suffering from the economic effects of the worst pandemic in a century," U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison said in a statement.

Instead of going to struggling businesses during the pandemic, the millions received were used for down payments on luxury homes and to buy "gold coins, diamonds, jewelry, luxury watches, fine imported furnishings, designer handbags, clothing, and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle," the U.S. attorney's office said.

During the sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson said he couldn't recall a fraud case conducted in such a "callous, intentional way without any regard for the law," the U.S. attorney's office said.

In June, Richard Ayvazyan, Terabelian, and Artur Ayvazyan were convicted of conspiracy, bank and wire fraud.

However, Richard Ayvazyan and Terabelian cut their tracking bracelets in August while awaiting sentencing and went on the run, authorities said. 

Four other people have pleaded guilty to various charges in the case. A fifth person awaits sentencing but has asked to withdraw her guilty plea.

The FBI is offering a $20,000 reward offered for information about their whereabouts that might lead to an arrest. However, the couple's family says they believe they were kidnapped, according to court documents. A judge has rejected the theory, writing in an order that there was no evidence to suggest they were taken by force.   

Editor's Note: The headline on this story has been updated to correct the amount of money involved.

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