Fresno native Ara Dolarian goes from artist to arms dealer
|By John Ellis and Pablo Lopez, The Fresno Bee|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
It wasn't until a military-grade ammunition shipment showed up in the
His neighbors, it turned out, were international arms dealers.
"I thought they were doing tea," Zylka said. "I was freaked out, totally freaked out, by the entire situation."
That day, Zylka started trying to learn more about his office neighbor. But he never discovered that much about the company and its owner,
For years, it seems that Dolarian operated below the radar in
That changed late last month when the website Buzzfeed ran a lengthy profile on Dolarian and the world of international arms dealing. The story detailed several Dolarian weapons and ammunition deals, specifically focusing on his dealings with a Bulgarian arms-manufacturing operation.
Now, a Bee investigation has traced Dolarian's life from aspiring artist to struggling financier to international arms dealer with a million-dollar home and a company website that advertises Soviet T-72 tanks, rocket launchers, assault and infantry rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and used Russian pistols.
Court records state Dolarian has been dealing arms for most likely a decade. His company found enough success to buy a
"Arms dealing can be very lucrative, depending on how it is structured,"
Smith said in an interview this month "the deals that (Dolarian) did were profitable. He did deals. The company made money."
There have been challenges, too. Dolarian has sued -- and been sued -- over arms deals allegedly gone bad. One of those cases still is pending in
The executive director of a Bulgarian arms manufacturing company told Buzzfeed that he no longer will deal with Dolarian.
"I don't speak to him," Hristo Ibouchev, executive director of the arms manufacturer
Farah wrote that arms dealing "is a fairly vicious and ruthless world ... it can be a very risky business, with betrayal often at hand."
Dolarian also is under federal criminal investigation for violating arms trafficking laws, according to court documents and federal law enforcement sources. The investigation is ongoing. No charges have been filed.
The risk can go beyond financial and legal issues. "Moving in on other people's turf is a good way to get killed," Farah said.
It's all a long way from Dolarian's beginnings as a
The elder Dolarian died in
At the height of the Vietnam War,
"I don't think his mother would be too happy about that," Bluestein said of
"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."
One of his big influences was
"He was a friendly, jovial guy and decent artist," Bottini said of Dolarian in an telephone interview.
Like Bluestein, Bottini didn't know Dolarian had become an arms dealer, but said it didn't surprise him. As an artist, Dolarian went against the grain, choosing to shy away from conceptual art, which was in vogue at the time.
"He was always willing to take a risk," said Bottini, 69.
At some point, Dolarian gave up sculpting.
"It's hard to make a living as an artist," Bottini said. "If you create something outstanding, there's little cultural support in
Dolarian eventually became a financier. Along with the new occupation came a string of legal entanglements, including a pig deal in the early 2000s.
Selling 'junk pigs'
The pig deal dates to
In court documents, Yosemite Meat says that it paid
"At the start of the contract, the quality of the pigs shipped was good, but quality began to decline," the documents say. "Many of the pigs were overweight and blemished. Some arrived dead; others were condemned upon arrival as unfit for human consumption."
In a meeting that year, Dolarian assured Yosemite Meat officials that he had purchased pigs at auction to supply the contract.
Auction pigs are lower-quality pigs, known in the business as "junk pigs." Because the junk pigs were unacceptable, Yosemite Meat rescinded the contract in
More deals gone bad
In another court case, Dolarian in 2001 offered friends and acquaintances opportunities to invest in several ventures, including his
Dolarian didn't repay his investors as promised, Judge
That included Dolarian saying investors' money was protected by collateral,
The final judgment was made in
"I don't think he doesn't want to pay his debt," Bergstrom said this month. "I think he is unable to pay it."
Bergstrom said he has met Dolarian in court and finds him to be friendly and cordial. He said Dolarian is a businessman who "is trying to succeed" but like many others, he has taken risks that hurt him financially.
In court papers, Dolarian's attorney Smith disputed that his client committed fraud.
In still another lawsuit, Dolarian owes an investor from a failed scheme more than a decade ago.
By 2005, the state
New venture: arms
A Dolarian deposition in a federal lawsuit indicates it was in 2007, the same year the company got out of the financing business.
But in a deposition within Dunlap's lawsuit, Dolarian says he had been selling military weapons before
"I don't think you understand what I do," Dolarian tells Dunlap's attorney,
"I get a contract, a
When Levin asks which government Dolarian is talking about, Dolarian says: "
It was a deal that was headed south that convinced Dolarian to move from financing businesses to brokering arms deals.
At the time, one of Dolarian's clients was a
A deposition Dolarian gave in a 2011 federal lawsuit involving
"What training did you have in 2007 to prepare you for the arms brokering business?" an attorney asks Dolarian.
"Since there is no school, none," Dolarian replies.
"Did you apprentice with anybody?"
"I don't believe those types of programs are available in the industry."
"Did you attend any seminar or instructional program?"
"On how to be in the arms trade?"
"No. Good idea, but no."
"So is it fair to say you're self-taught?"
"Fair to say."
But Farah -- the national security consultant, who also co-authored a book on famed Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout -- said there are some necessities to enter the arms trade: connections and, usually, cash.
It also appears that Dolarian's entry into the arms-dealing world couldn't have come at a more opportune time -- right when the U.S. was fighting wars in
Smith, Dolarian's attorney, said in an interview that he doesn't know how many deals Dolarian has cut, but said the arms industry was in overdrive during the height of the
Smith said Dolarian has done both direct government contracting and also acted as a supplier to others that had government contracts.
Dolarian's arms dealing is, Smith said, "to the best of my knowledge, 100% legal."
The way Smith sees it, Dolarian is "small potatoes" in the arms dealer world. Farah, the national security consultant, doesn't agree.
"I have not heard of Dolarian, but if he is handling deals worth hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars and traveling abroad, he is not mom and pop," Farah said in an email. "He is in the big leagues."
To move past the small retail level, Farah said, an arms dealer has to have "contacts in the market and some protection. ... Dolarian appears to have had significant U.S. protection, so he was likely dealing in areas where he had U.S.-provided contacts for his purchases."
Setting up shop
At some point after getting into the arms business, Dolarian moved into the nondescript office complex on
Zylka, the neighboring tenant, noticed that a fenced area inside the Dolarian office soon appeared. Then a gun safe. The walls were adorned with giant maps of different parts of the world. Television sets were everywhere.
To Zylka, it seemed like the people inside just sat around a lot.
Then, about six months after
When Zylka inquired about the shipment, people inside the
Not long after, another 150 cases of ammunition showed up, and the Dolarian workers lugged them into the office.
"It was kind of a surreal thing," Zylka said. "You felt like you were in the middle of 'Breaking Bad.' "
Then one day,
"When they left," Zylka said, "they just walked out the door."
But Dolarian wasn't out of business.
The business address, according to state records, is an office building farther west on
Over the years, Dolarian has closed several arms deals, Smith said. Many have been lucrative. One of those cited in the Buzzfeed article was with
According to the Buzzfeed article, in
The Buzzfeed story then says that "several months after signing the Afghan deal,"
Dolarian is not only the owner of
That is why Smith is unhappy about what he feels is a suggestion in the Buzzfeed article that Dolarian misused money from the
"Did he perform the contract and make money?" Smith asked of the
As with Dolarian's previous financing business, his arms dealing company has found itself caught up in court -- both state and federal.
Dolarian says it agreed to sell SOC guns and ammunition, which it bought from manufacturers in
SOC made a partial payment of close to
In 2013, SOC countersued, seeking its money and claiming that
The countersuit went even further, claiming
This month, Dolarian and SOC settled. Terms of the agreement are confidential, Smith said, but court documents say each side will pay its own legal expenses.
Later in 2011, Dolarian sued
According to Dolarian's lawsuit, it was to purchase Bulgarian-made weapons from General Defense and have them sent to the
After Dolarian paid almost
General Defense countersued, saying
A year after being filed, Dolarian's lawsuit fell apart when its four attorneys -- two from
"They did not provide any of the goods and did not return the money,"
As for the attorney fees, Smith said they were "less than
The most recent case finds
Sterling alleges in its lawsuit -- filed in
Dolarian's attorney Smith wrote in a subsequent court document that Sterling had entered into a contract with
A few weeks ago, Dolarian countersued. Smith declined to comment because the lawsuit is still in its early stages, but in his countersuit he wrote that Sterling never provided the required documentation so that
The next hearing in the case is scheduled Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge
All of the legal challenges and now media profiles have combined to put Dolarian -- who toiled for decades in relative obscurity as artist, financier and international arms dealer -- into the spotlight.
Said Bottini, the
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