By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Burbank Police Detective Matt Miranda sympathizes with Tumanyan, but firmly parried her accusation. “She lost her son, and I don‘t want to call her a liar, but I don’t know who killed her son.”
Not that police lack leads in the case. They believe Sarkis Antonyan was active in L.A.‘s Armenian crime syndicate, and that he was slain because of it. “He knew the murderer,” said former Burbank Police Lieutenant Don Brown, Detective Miranda’s supervisor. “The store was open. There was no robbery. The guy pumped two bullets into his head. The intent was to hit him and leave.
”His murder was over a business venture gone sour or money that was owed. And he was involved in different businesses; we‘ve uncovered people involved in medical fraud, in recycling-scrap-yard activity . . . in ripping the government off.“
Organized crime got its notoriety -- and its Hollywood cachet -- from the Italian crime families that grew from turn-of-the-century ethnic communities fed by waves of immigration. And while La Cosa Nostra has withered through years of assimilation and the focused attention of federal law enforcement, new immigrants have brought crime syndicates of their own.
In Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley, that means Asian gangs, and in West Hollywood it translates into Russian organized crime. In those cases, as with the Italian Mafia, the crime organizations were already entrenched in the home countries, and were imported virtually intact, along with some key players.
In Burbank and Glendale, the pattern is more recent, and more fluid. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, those sleepy communities became home to tens of thousands of new immigrants from Armenia, so that Glendale can now claim the largest concentration of Armen-ians outside the capital city of Yerevan. The Armenian National Committee of America has its regional headquarters in Glendale, and in November, the Armenian Music Awards were filmed there and broadcast to an audience of millions around the globe.
Isolated by language and custom, the tide of Armenian immigration was marked by the proliferation of cafes, delis and shish-kebab joints, as well as its own crime scene. Officials with Armenian Solidarity say their crime problem is little different than in other immigrant communities, but a member of Antonyan’s family, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said that crime shadows the life of her people. This family member attributes the lawlessness primarily to Russian immigrants. ”We were all new in this country. This was the time of the fall of communism, and a lot of bad people came in from Russia. They would terrorize the Armenian community. There were a lot of cases of people robbing homes, of people terrorizing businesses. That is how they would make money.“
Local police dispute one key point of that story: They say Armenians engage in crime as well. Or as Burbank‘s retired Lieutenant Brown put it, ”In the Armenian community, there’s a small percentage that gear their lives to illegal activities.“
State authorities estimate that, of 60,000 Armenians living in Burbank and Glendale, 450 are engaged full time in activities ranging from extortion and auto theft to insurance and credit-card fraud. L.A. County D.A. Steve Cooley terms Russian and Armenian organized crime ”one of our fastest-growing problems.“
According to Sally Thomas, head deputy of Cooley‘s newly formed Organized Crime Division, the ethnic crime scene is less tightly controlled than more ”traditional“ underworld families like the Mafia or the Chinese Triads. There’s no single boss, and there‘s a lot of freelancing, but this new breed of criminal is ”equally effective in committing crimes,“ Thomas said.
The biggest Armenian crime operation identified to date was a black-market network known as the Mikaelian Organ-ization, which commandeered state and federal taxes due from millions of gallons of diesel fuel sold through scores of gas stations and truck stops throughout Southern California. That racket was shut down by 13 arrests in September 1995, but the underworld continues to thrive. ”Clearly they are operating in organized groups,“ Thomas said, ”and they use violence to keep people in line.“
In Burbank, Lieutenant Brown said, investigating Antonyan’s slaying gave his officers an education in the scope and extent of the ethnic underworld. ”His murder led us to uncover a lot of illegal activity in the city of Burbank. It‘s an interwoven, intriguing type of situation.“
In particular, Antonyan’s murder a shed new light on corruption in California‘s recycling program, the statewide effort to recover cans and bottles returned by consumers to more than 2,000 centers. In 1986, California became one of just 10 states with buy-back recycling. Problems arose immediately, as the 5-cent bounty on bottles and cans soon spawned a black market for out-of-state containers.
The racket is fairly simple: Middlemen truck in bottles and cans from neighboring states and Mexico, process them through the California system, and collect the refunds, worth about double their scrap value. Because the illicit containers are shipped across state lines, the racket involves violations of federal as well as state law. Authorities estimate that such fraud costs the recycling program millions of dollars each year; the state Department of Justice pegs the figure as high as $40 million.