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A California couple vanished after stealing millions in Covid-19 relief funds. They left a goodbye note for their three kids

(CNN) Richard Ayvazyan and his wife, Marietta Terabelian, were facing prison for their role in a massive covid relief fraud scheme when they cut off their electronic tracking bracelets and fled their California home, abandoning their three teenage children.

They left a typewritten note for the kids, ages 13, 15 and 16.

"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."

This was late August. Almost three months later -- and five months after their convictions in June -- the couple still have not been found. The FBI is searching for them.

That didn't stop a judge this week from sentencing Ayvazyan, 43, and Terabelian, 37, in absentia to 17 and six years in prison, respectively. Prosecutors said they and others carried out a scheme to steal more than $20 million in relief funds intended for small businesses during the pandemic.

"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," said US Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison.

Another federal prosecutor said their case was the first of its kind in the nation to go to trial.

The stolen money fueled a lavish lifestyle

The couple and Ayvazyan's brother, Artur Ayvazyan, 41, were found guilty of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, wire fraud and money laundering at a trial in June. Richard Ayvazyan and his brother were also convicted of aggravated identity theft.

According to court documents and evidence presented at trial, they used fake or stolen identities -- including the names of dead people and foreign exchange students who briefly visited the US years ago -- to submit fraudulent applications for approximately 150 federal pandemic relief loans for sham businesses in San Fernando Valley.

To support the fraudulent loan applications, they submitted fake identity documents along with falsified tax forms and payroll records to lenders and the Small Business Administration, federal prosecutors said.

The couple, along with Ayvazyan's brother and five co-conspirators, used the money to buy mansions in three Southern California cities -- Tarzana, Glendale and Palm Desert -- along with gold coins, diamonds, furniture, luxury watches and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, prosecutors said.

Richard Ayvazyan of Tarzana, California, seen outside the courthouse at his trial in June. He was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison for fraudulent applications for emergency government loans during the pandemic.

When they were convicted they had to forfeit three houses and the luxury items, along with bank accounts and approximately $450,000 in cash.

"When our nation was at its most vulnerable, these individuals thought only about lining their own pockets," said Ryan L. Korner, a special agent in the IRS's Criminal Investigation Office, after this week's sentencing. "These sentences reflect the seriousness of these crimes."

It's unclear whether Richard Ayvazyan masterminded the scheme, but of the eight people convicted so far, he was handed by far the longest sentence -- 17 years. Nobody else was sentenced to more than six years. His brother, Artur Ayvazyan, got five years.

At sentencing on Monday, US District Judge Stephen V. Wilson called Richard Ayvazyan "an endemic, cold-hearted fraudster with no regard for the law" and someone who "views fraud as an achievement."

The couple's three children were in the courtroom to witness their parents and uncle being sentenced.

Ayvazyan's lawyer says there's more to the story

The whereabouts of Richard Ayvazyan and Marietta Terabelian remain unknown. The FBI is offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to their arrest.

Ashwin J. Ram, an attorney for the elder Ayvazyan, said prosecutors painted an exaggerated picture of his client's involvement.

"It should be noted that the government repeatedly touted this to be a $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."

Ram said he has not talked to Ayvazyan since he fled in August. He believes if his client had been in court, he'd have explained his side of the story.

"It was unfortunate that Mr. Ayvazyan was not present to complete the picture for the court," he said. "That would have shed light on his background and experience, including his role a community leader, angel investor, and father and husband."

Marietta Terabelian, right, seen in June, was sentenced to six years in prison for conspiracy to commit fraud and other federal crimes.

Ram also said the couple's family believes they may have been abducted by other co-conspirators.

"He (Ayvazyan) has been accused of conspiring with dozens of people, and only a few have been charged. So if he is really the ringleader, somebody out there may want to silence him."

Ram added that in addition to the message to their kids, the couple's farewell note also made a reference to threats they are facing -- "something about they're leaving to avoid the danger being posed to the family."

He called on the government to investigate.

Terabelian's attorney, Ryan Fraser, described her to CNN as "a loving mother and devoted wife who has tirelessly supported not only her three children, but also her parents, mother-in-law, and sister." He added that "Judge Wilson recognized this in his sentence, imposing significantly less than one-third the time the prosecutors sought in their memorandum."

Fraser declined to answer further questions about his client or the fraudulent loan scheme.

Information on Artur Ayvazyan's lawyer was not immediately available.

The kids' guardians had hoped to send them to Armenia

The couple's three children are under the care of their grandmothers and a court-appointed guardian, Ram said.

He said their caregivers recently filed an emergency application for passports for them to travel to Armenia, where they have relatives.

The guardians had hoped to send the kids to Armenia to avoid the media circus surrounding their parents' sentencing, but the passports weren't approved, he said.

Ram also said he'd objected to the court sentencing Richard Ayvazyan and Terabelian in absentia, adding he wanted the hearing delayed until if and when they resurfaced.

Five other Southern Californians, including Artur Ayvazyan's wife, have pleaded guilty to various charges in the case. Four of them have been sentenced, to terms ranging from probation to six years in prison.

Artur Ayvazyan's wife is scheduled to be sentenced on December 6, but the judge has not yet ruled on a motion to withdraw her guilty plea.