By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
One intriguing fact investigators learned about Sarkis Antonyan was a trip abroad he made in the latter part of 1998. Taking his wife, Araksiya Muradyan, he headed back to Armenia. He stayed roughly six months in Yerevan, the place of his birth and his home until he was 16, a city of 1.2 million that boasts Soviet-era monuments and crowded sidewalk cafes.
Antonyan‘s colleagues in the recycling industry believe he made his sojourn out of fear for his safety. As the story went, word got out that Antonyan had begun speaking with the FBI, and he went to Yerevan to avoid retaliation. One source said he learned from mutual friends that Antonyan was assaulted while he was there and had his legs broken. “He was told he had to come back and retract his comments.”
A member of Antonyan’s family confirmed the trip in an interview, but disputed the story that he was on the lam. “He went there with his wife on vacation,” this source said. “He didn‘t tell me he was scared. To my understanding, that is the time he went to the Bahamas, too.” The family member denied that Antonyan was injured on the trip.
Burbank police also said the report that he had his legs broken was a new one to them. But they turned up another factor that might explain his timely return to the city where he grew up.
The story dates back to the first business Antonyan operated in the U.S., a store in the downtown L.A. jewelry district that he opened in 1992, when he was 20 years old. He called it Hi-Tech Jewelry, and, police discovered, he used it for yet another scam.
In 1995, as he later told investigators, Antonyan was approached by Maher (Mike) Darbinyan, whose father operated a store in the same building as Hi-Tech. Antonyan said Darbinyan owed him $8,000, but rather than pay him off, Darbinyan proposed a scheme that would profit both of them. With Antonyan’s cooperation, Darbinyan would stage a mock robbery of Hi-Tech. Antonyan had gold bullion in his inventory worth an estimated $750,000; after the heist, Darbinyan would sell it and they would split the proceeds.
The robbery took place on the afternoon of December 21, 1995. Antonyan and a security guard named Craig Kusaba were inside the store when Darbinyan arrived with an accomplice. The two visitors entered the store, pulled out handguns and announced it was a robbery. They led Antonyan and Kusaba into an office, cuffed their hands behind them and duct-taped their feet. They also taped Kusaba‘s mouth shut, but not Antonyan’s. The robbers found the gold in a safe and took it, along with Kusaba‘s gun.
Kusaba, who was a reserve LAPD officer, was immediately suspicious of the ruse. He told police the next day that, in the weeks before the robbery, he’d noticed Antonyan huddled in a series of meetings with a stranger. The discussions were in Armenian, which Kusaba didn‘t understand, but just before the robbery, he walked in on one of the meetings and the word police came up, in English. As LAPD Detective Bill Speer explained it later in court testimony, “He turned to look, because he heard the word police, and they were both looking at him.”
But if the detectives were skeptical, they made no move against Antonyan. Promptly after the “robbery,” he filed a crime report that described the robber as “Hispanic.” He also filed a claim with his insurance company, and records show he got out of the jewelry business later that month. He met with Darbinyan weeks after the robbery, but he later told police he had to settle for just $30,000 -- a tenth of what he’d been hoping for. By then it may have occurred to Antonyan that he had been played as a victim all along. He told police he attempted to contact Darbinyan several more times, but the calls were not returned. He also let on that he was afraid of Darbinyan.
He had good reason to be. If Antonyan at times seemed to be a wannabe gangster, Maher Darbinyan looked like the real thing. Police named Darbinyan as the leader of a team that committed a string of takeover robberies in the jewelry district and elsewhere. In three of those crimes, witnesses said Darbinyan was armed and, on two occasions, pistol-whipped victims who failed to cooperate promptly. On another occasion, a store owner said he opened fire on Darbinyan and his cohorts during the course of a robbery; They returned fire before leaving with a van full of loot. Police sources say Darbinyan also on occasion drafted members of the Temple Street Gang to act as sluggers, a surprising mix of underworld muscle that investigators say serves as a measure of his clout.
When Darbinyan turned up as a suspect in one of those robberies, it triggered police to look again at the Hi-Tech Jewelry heist. Detective Speer promptly contacted Antonyan in August to ask about Kusaba‘s hunch. Perhaps still angry that he’d failed to collect from Darbinyan, Antonyan came clean, telling Speer, “The robbery was a setup.”