Federal authorities allege that two cells of Bulgarian organized criminals defrauded Las Vegas and Phoenix area car dealers out of $1.6 million and stole at least $700,000 from bank ATMs around the valley.
In all, 11 people were charged in three separate indictments unsealed last week in federal court after a two-year FBI investigation that involved the use of court-approved wiretaps. The FBI declined to comment Monday as agents continued to search for some of the defendants.
At a hearing Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Bliss said the FBI had obtained information from authorities in Bulgaria that one of the alleged ringleaders, 58-year-old Dimitar Dimitrov, was an associate of organized crime figures in that country.
Dimitrov, a U.S. citizen who lives in Las Vegas, was charged in all three indictments, including one that accuses him and his wife, Viarka Dimitrova, of unlawfully obtaining a 9 mm pistol during the criminal investigation.
Bliss said FBI wiretaps show Dimitrov boasting that he knew how to keep a witness against him in line. He allegedly told associates he would tie the witness to a tree with wire, pour gasoline over him and stand next to him with a lighter and a pack of cigarettes.
"I'm going to turn him into barbecue," Bliss quoted Dimitrov as allegedly saying on the wiretaps.
Another indictment charges Dimitrov and five other men with conspiracy, wire fraud and transportation of stolen property in a scheme to unlawfully acquire vehicles from car dealers and ship them coast to coast and to Eastern Europe. The others named in the indictment are Dragomir Taskov, Boyan Gueorguiev, Rossen Daskalov, Yuliyan Milushe and Nikolay Mladenov.
The ring would send in straw buyers claiming to be employed by phony companies at lucrative salaries in an effort to obtain financing for the vehicles, the indictment charges.
The buyers sought to take possession of the cars before the dealers and their loan companies had fully verified the financial information.
The straw buyers also would take advantage of the time delay that occurs when someone gets approved for a loan and the loan is posted to the buyer's credit report, the indictment says. The buyers would be able to get multiple car loans at different dealers within a short period of time without the finance companies knowing about the other loans.
At least 12 car dealers, some of them luxury dealers, in Southern Nevada and two in the Phoenix area were swindled out of vehicles, the indictment alleges. Some of the stolen cars wound up in New York, Illinois, California and Georgia.
Bliss estimated in court that the dealers lost a combined $1.6 million in the spring of 2008.
In another indictment, Dimitrov and four other men are charged with trafficking in counterfeit access devices and aggravated identity theft in a scheme in spring 2009 to steal bank account numbers and PIN numbers from customers.
Bliss said in court that the defendants would then unlawfully withdraw at least $700,000 from ATMs with that information.
The four others named in the indictment are Angel Iordanov, Danail Tchanev, Brian Johnson and Stefan Georgiev.
The ring stole the information with the help of a scanning device or a small camera secretly installed at an ATM, where customers withdraw money, the indictment alleges.
After obtaining the bank information, ring members allegedly encoded it onto a blank plastic card with a magnetic strip, allowing them to withdraw the cash from the ATMs.
In recent years, authorities in the United States have seen a rise in this kind of "skimming" scheme, particularly from organized crime groups out of Eastern Europe.
During Monday's federal court hearing, Bliss pushed hard to keep Dimitrov behind bars as he fights the federal charges.
Bliss said FBI wiretaps show that Dimitrov, a convicted felon in Bulgaria and the United States, would be a flight risk and a danger to the community if released from federal custody.
Bliss said Dimitrov, who was overheard saying he never keeps property in his name, bragged about fleeing if he was ever charged and about having associates all over the world, including in Bulgaria and several South American countries.
Bliss also told U.S. Magistrate Robert Johnston that Bulgarian authorities want to prosecute Dimitrov on charges of raping two Russian women there in 1998.
But Bliss could not provide Johnston with any formal U.S. State Department records showing that Bulgarian authorities want to extradite Dimitrov.
And Dimitrov's attorney, Todd Leventhal, questioned the credibility of the information Bliss presented from the wiretaps, some of which he said could have been lost in translation from Bulgarian to English.
"There's no hard evidence that he's a violent person," Leventhal said.
As a result, Johnston ordered Dimitrov released on $100,000 bail. Dimitrov also must stay overnight at a halfway house and submit to electronic monitoring, the judge said.
Contact Jeff German at email@example.com or 702-380-8135.