By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Fawrup said the state responded to the prospect of widespread fraud by convening a task force. ”When we realized we were dealing with a fairly organized group of individuals, we felt it would be of interest to other law-enforcement agencies,“ he said.
Fawrup declined to specifically name the FBI, and a spokesman for the bureau refused to comment, but other sources confirm that the bureau opened an a investigation as early as 1998. ”The FBI started its investigation because recycling people went to them,“ said Joe Massey, of the Independent Recyclers. Massey said legitimate operators welcomed the inquiry. ”We would love to get anyone who is committing fraud out of the program.“
The prospect of federal gumshoes prompted excitement throughout the industry, but when no indictments were issued and no public action was taken, that excitement turned to annoyance. ”The frustration from the legitimate recycler’s viewpoint is that we provide information and still we get hit for being the bad guys,“ Massey complained.
That frustration only mounted in 1999 when the industry was racked by escalating violence. On June 27, two former partners in a recycling center were shot and killed on a residential street in Glendale.
The victims, Rafael Aibouchev and Gevork Petrosyan, were cousins. The center they operated together had been decertified by the state, but Aibouchev disputed Petrosyan‘s decision to dissolve their partnership. Not long after dark the night of the shootings, Aibouchev took a 9 mm handgun and drove over to his cousin’s house. As it happened, he arrived in the middle of a Petrosyan family get-together.
Gevork Petrosyan was standing on the front lawn with his brother Tigran and Rafik Petrosyan, 67, an uncle to both Gevork and Rafael. The trio crossed the street to speak with Aibouchev, and an argument broke out. Still seated in his car, Aibouchev shot Gevork and Rafik. In the confusion that followed, Tigran Petrosyan wrestled the gun from Aibouchev and shot him twice. Aibouchev sped off but crashed into parked cars about a block away. The gunfire left both Aibouchev, 36, and Gevork, 37, fatally wounded. Rafik Petrosyan sustained a bullet wound to his leg.
Three months later, Sarkis Antonyan was murdered in Burbank. Recyclers across Southern California assumed the successive shootings were business-related, a sign that organized crime had arrived in their industry. ”I look both ways before I cross the street now,“ said one recycling-center operator. ”I shared some of these stories with my wife, and she insisted that we move.“
Officials with the state Department of Justice made the same assumption. In its Annual Report on Organized Crime, issued in March 2000, the department made public for the first time its knowledge of ”a Russian-Armenian organized-crime group operating primarily in Los Angeles County“ that ”is involved in defrauding the California recycling fund controlled by the California Department of Conservation . . .
“The violence potential of this group is demonstrated by three murders connected to this investigation,” the report stated -- clear references to the shootings of Aibouchev, Petrosyan and Antonyan.
The report went into a surprising level of detail. “The group,” it read, “is made up of approximately 25 to 50 individuals of Armenian descent . . . The hierarchy appears to be a loose association of family members and close friends . . . Several recycling businesses have been infiltrated.”
The report also described the state recycling task force, listing agents from the Los Angeles regional office of the California Bureau of Investigation, the FBI, the U.S. Postal Service, the Los Angeles Sheriff‘s Department and the LAPD. “More than five individuals and 25 businesses have been identified, and it is anticipated the individuals will be prosecuted in Federal District Court on charges of mail fraud and money laundering.”
This sounds like the “non-traditional organized crime” described by Deputy District Attorney Sally Thomas, but the reference to industry-related “violence potential” appears to be misplaced. Aibouchev and Petrosyan, after all, were relatives, and the shootings the product of a family feud, not rival gangsters pushing competitors out of business.
Sarkis Antonyan, the young Armenian who liked to be called “Little Al Capone,” seemed a more likely victim of recycling-racket violence. As one former associate in the industry noted, “More than one [recycler] said to me they would kill him if they saw him again.” Others in the recycling business believed Antonyan was slain for fear he would cooperate with the federal investigation. “We think he knew too much, and the feds were putting pressure on him and he might spill the beans,” one recycler speculated.
But the Burbank police investigating the murder aren’t ready to buy it. “To say that those people took action and had him killed I think is presumptive,” said Burbank Detective Miranda. Asked about the state Department of Justice report, Miranda said, “That investigator was involved in one window of Sarkis‘ life. I looked into several, and nothing I investigated was able to point me in a definite direction.”
While the Burbank detectives are not ready to file charges in the case, their deep probe into Antonyan’s life has revealed a far more likely scenario for murder. As Lieutenant Brown put it, “You wouldn‘t believe how much you can learn about someone once they’re dead.”
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