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Couple Nailed in $20M COVID Funds Scheme on the Run

Richard Ayvazyan, Marietta Terabelian left note for their kids before vanishing in August
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 19, 2021 12:48 PM CST
Fugitive Couple Who Stole COVID Funds Left Note for Kids
Richard Ayvazyan.   (FBI)

(Newser) – Earlier this year, Richard Ayvazyan and Marietta Terabelian faced the music in a scheme to steal upward of $20 million in COVID relief funds, after using the money to finance upscale homes, jewelry and watches, gold coins, and other luxury goods. The Southern California husband and wife pleaded guilty at a June trial of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, bank fraud, and money laundering and were fitted with electronic monitoring devices as they awaited sentencing, reports CNN. That day of reckoning finally came Monday, but it was a sentence given in absentia, as Ayvazyan, 43, and Terabelian, 37, disappeared at the end of August, leaving a note behind for their three teenagers.

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"We will be together again one day," read the typewritten missive to their three children, ages 13, 15, and 16, according to Ayvazyan's lawyer. "This is not a goodbye but a brief break from each other." Almost three months on, the Encino couple is still missing, and the FBI is now offering a $20,000 reward if info provided leads to the arrest of the pair. "When our nation was at its most vulnerable, these individuals thought only about lining their own pockets," Ryan L. Korner, the special agent in charge of the IRS Criminal Investigation division's Los Angeles field office, says in a release.

Ayvazyan—sentenced to 17 years behind bars after being called a "coldhearted fraudster" by Judge Stephen V. Wilson of the US District Court for the Central District of California, per the New York Times—was said to have roped in his wife, his brother, and five others in the scheme. Prosecutors say the group hijacked the identities of foreign exchange students, as well as elderly or deceased people, to apply for about 150 Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster loans meant to help small businesses recoup losses from COVID. "This program is over by end of the month so get as much as you can," Ayvazyan said in one message to co-conspirators, according to prosecutors.

Terabelian, meanwhile, has been sentenced to six years in a federal prison; 41-year-old Artur Ayvazyan, Richard Ayvazyan's younger brother, was hit with five. Ashwin J. Ram, the elder Ayvazyan's attorney, contends that his client's family thinks he and Terabelian were kidnapped by someone who "wanted to silence" them. Ram says his client was only responsible for taking about $1.5 million. As for the couple's kids, the three teens are being cared for by a court-appointed guardian and their grandparents, per Ram. (Read more fraud stories.)

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