Pet Shop Murder 

It looked like a simple shooting, but the Pets R Us killing exposed an organized-crime network running credit-card and recycling fraud. And one of its leaders, Sarkis Antonyan, a.k.a. Little Al Capone, had two bullets in his head.

Wednesday, Feb 20 2002

It was closing time, and Sarkis Antonyan sat behind the front counter of his Pets R Us store on Victory Boulevard in Burbank. As ever, he was sharply dressed: black shoes, black Italian slacks, a black belt, and a gleaming yellow short-sleeved turtleneck that set off swarthy skin and a thick crop of heavily oiled hair, combed straight back.

Five feet, 7 inches tall and 27 years old, Antonyan weighed a comfortable 180 pounds and had a paunch to show it. It was just 11 years since he’d emigrated to the U.S. from Armenia with his parents and sister. During that span he‘d picked up the American nickname Sam, married and started a family, and learned to run with the fast crowd in the ethnic underworld that thrives in the Valley-fringe suburbs of Glendale and Burbank.

By some measures, he was still feeling his way in the new world. He lived at home, his parents and his wife sharing a cozy white house with a garage in the back on a leafy residential street north of Glenoaks Boulevard in Glendale. But he never let limited English and rudimentary education hold him back: Within just two years of arriving in Los Angeles, he operated a store in the jewelry district downtown, and in the years that followed he launched, sold and swapped a string of businesses. He was loud and sardonic, quick to smile from behind his long, broad nose.

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“He was called ’Little Al Capone‘ by his fellow Armenians,” one former associate said. “He wore a lot of gold. He was a thick little kid in a nice jacket, fancy shoes and a Calvin Klein T-shirt. He looked like the ’Fat Tony‘ character from The Simpsons.”

And he always looked for an angle. It might be a stretch to call Sarkis Antonyan a gangster -- he was never accused of violent crime, and if any organization dominated his life it was his family -- but according to police and several former associates, most of his businesses were scams. Like so many ambitious immigrants before him, he shunned the prospect of menial work for low wages, choosing instead to slip underground, moving easily in the Armenian enclaves of polyglot L.A., living by his wits on the far side of the law.

Following that path led him deep into the California recycling program, the $450 million state buy-back financed by all those nickel deposits on bottles and cans. The program was launched for environmental reasons, but to him it presented an opportunity for graft and larceny.

In 1999, he followed that same path to Pets R Us. Sarkis Antonyan bought the place early that summer, along with two other small storefront pet shops, one in Glendale and another in Tujunga. He never showed much interest in small-animal husbandry; according to Burbank police, he was using the stores as fronts to carry out credit-card fraud.

It was September 14, 1999, and the place was a mess at the end of a long, sweaty day. The bird cages stank, and the water in the fish tanks was dingy, but Antonyan didn’t seem to mind. He took a moment to relax while somebody he referred to as his cousin closed up shop in a rear supply room. The man wasn‘t actually his cousin, but that was how he and the friends he grew up with in Armenia liked to identify each other to outsiders.

Around 7:15 p.m., another man, later described simply as “Armenian-looking,” strolled into the pet store and up to the counter where Antonyan was seated.

There may have been a conversation, but nothing so heated as to alert Antonyan’s “cousin” in the backroom. The first thing the shop assistant heard was a “pop, pop, pop”; believing it was an electrical problem, he headed out front to find Antonyan still seated on his stool, his head resting on the front counter in a pool of blood. Antonyan had been shot four times, twice in the head, the dual bullet holes forming a fatal figure eight in the top of his scalp.

The shop assistant never saw Antonyan‘s killer, who left the day’s receipts untouched in the register drawer. The assistant spoke little English and did not know to call 911. Instead, he ran out into the street and flagged down a motorist and asked for help.

He also placed a call to the Antonyan family home, about a mile away. Sarkis‘ mother, Margarit Tumanyan, was already at the store by the time police arrived. She was always close to her son, and is devastated by his demise. “We lost a hundred-percent good man,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “I took my kids here because it is not good in my country. I have lived here for 11 years. I worked everywhere with my kids. We worked together as a team.”

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