LOS ANGELES — A couple from Los Angeles who were convicted of trying to steal $20 million in COVID-19 relief funds have been sentenced to federal prison, although they remain fugitives.
The couple cut off their electronic tracking bracelets back in August while waiting for their sentencing and fled their California home, leaving their three teenage kids behind with only a letter, CNN reports.
"We will be together again one day," it read, according to Ayvazyan's attorney. "This is not a goodbye but a brief break from each other."
According to the Associated Press, the FBI is offering a reward of up to $20,000 for any information that leads to their arrests.
On Monday, a judge sentenced Richard Ayvazyan, 43, to 17 years in prison while his wife, Marietta Terabelian, 37, got six years, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney's office.
Prosecutors say the couple, along with others, used dozens of phony or stolen identities to submit applications for federal COVID-19 relief funds that were intended to help struggling businesses during the pandemic.
Instead, authorities say they received millions that were spent on luxury items, including gold and down payments on homes.
"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.
Ayvazyan began stealing disaster-relief funds right when they became available in March 2020, The New York Times reports.
He joked with partners and reportedly "told them the federal government would run out of money and told them to move quickly to get the funds."
“This program is over by end of the month so get as much as you can,” he wrote, according to a memo obtained by the New York Times.
Ayvazyan's attorney Ashwin J. Ram, who has not talked to him since August, said prosecutors were painting an "exaggerated picture of his client's involvement," CNN reports.
"It should be noted that the government repeatedly touted this to be an $18 million or $20 million case, depending on the day and who was speaking," Ram told CNN. "At the sentencing hearing, however, the court found that Richard Ayvazyan is only responsible for a loss amount in the range of $1.5 million. That is a far cry from the government's theory of the case."
According to CNN, the three children are being taken care of by their grandparents and a court-appointed guardian. The guardians hoped to be able to send the kids to Armenia, where they have family members, to avoid the news surrounding their parents' sentencing.