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
The detective called a meeting to take a formal statement. On August 8, 1997, Antonyan presented himself in the company of two private attorneys at the offices of the Robbery Homicide Division on the third floor of Parker Center, the LAPD‘s downtown headquarters. Detective Speer agreed to two conditions: that Antonyan would not be charged for his participation in the robbery, and that he would not be charged for filing a false police report. Antonyan then made a detailed statement implicating Darbinyan.
It was a break in an ongoing case: Other detectives at the LAPD had already issued a warrant for Darbinyan’s arrest in connection with several other armed robberies. Speer went back to Kusaba, obtained his identification of Darbinyan as the man whom he‘d seen meeting with Antonyan, and added the Hi-Tech robbery to the charge sheet.
Once the case was filed, Antonyan’s statement to the police became available to Darbinyan and his attorney. And when Darbinyan was released, word of Antonyan‘s betrayal traveled quickly. In fact, according to some of Antonyan’s associates, someone made scores of copies of the taped confession and distributed them throughout the Armenian underground.
Antonyan‘s role in the prosecution of his former accomplice seems the best explanation for his decision to return to Armenia. Certainly, the timing fits. Prosecutors contacted him in March of 1998, as they prepared to file an 11-count indictment charging Darbinyan in three armed robberies. Antonyan, they said, would be called to testify.
Antonyan reacted with “outrage,” according to one of his attorneys, and then dropped from sight. His attorneys Daniel Behesnilian and Michael Levin did not return calls from the Weekly for comment, but Behesnilian outlined the events in a 1998 letter to the LAPD. Before Antonyan agreed to sit for a tape-recorded interview, “There had been discussions of witness protection and that Sarkis would be a ’last resort‘ witness who would not be required to testify at the preliminary hearing,” Behesnilian wrote.
When Antonyan learned he would in fact be called to appear, “He felt that Michael Levin did not adequately protect his interests,” Behesnilian wrote. At a meeting on April 2, Antonyan “seemed to acquiesce to appearing,” but when a subpoena for the hearing arrived, he was already out of the country.
In his absence, the district attorney agreed to drop the Hi-Tech Jewelry case, but Darbinyan pleaded guilty to one of the 11 counts alleged against him and received a three-year term in state prison. By the time Antonyan returned to Glendale, around May of 1999, Darbinyan was doing time.
While Antonyan was away, he had let the licenses to his recycling businesses lapse, and he never bothered renewing them. Instead, he filed suit against his former partner Vahe Ibranyan, claiming more than $100,000 for his share of their auto-wrecking business -- a claim Ibranyan said was baseless. “It had nothing to do with him.”
Otherwise, the loudmouthed young hustler with the easy smile laid low -- he bought into Pets R Us and never resumed contact with his friends in the recycling business. But Sarkis couldn’t escape the grumblings in the Armenian underworld over his taped testimony in the jewelry-mart heist.
Detective Miranda of Burbank heard of the damning tape two days after Antonyan was murdered. As he explained in a formal statement attached to a search warrant, Miranda was interviewing one of Antonyan‘s associates when the friend “mentioned that a tape had been made which may have led to the motive for other persons to murder Sarkis.” The source said, “A hundred copies of this tape were made and distributed among the Armenian community.”
Miranda made extensive efforts to get hold of a copy, but none of the tapes turned up. To this day, the detective says the story of its distribution may just be a rumor, but he has no doubt that word of Antonyan’s confession made the rounds of the underworld.
Darbinyan was serving his sentence at the state prison in Chino at the time of Antonyan‘s shooting and thus was never a suspect, but Miranda decided to canvas Darbinyan’s crew of friends. In the course of these interviews, Miranda said, another officer working on the case ran across Vahe Ibranyan, Antonyan‘s estranged partner, a coincidence the detective termed “interesting.”
Miranda obtained a warrant to search Ibranyan’s home, where he found a newspaper report of Antonyan‘s murder, but no copies of the tape and nothing incriminating. Ibranyan later went to the Burbank police station to answer a series of questions, but told the Weekly he was assured then that he was not a suspect.
Ibranyan said his experience with Antonyan drained his assets and ruined his future prospects. He filed for bankruptcy in February of 2000, retaining his $270,000 home and discharging $65,000 in credit-card debt. He now claims income of $920 a month and works as a limo driver. Asked his thoughts on Antonyan, Ibranyan said, “I had a big problem with him, and I don’t want to even remember his name.”
Antonyan‘s memory also evokes bitterness among his former associates in the recycling industry. The scams that he pioneered have become commonplace, they say, as has the Armenian presence in the Southern California market. At the time Antonyan left the industry, Armenians controlled about 50 recycling centers; now it’s more than 200. “It‘s worse than ever.”
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