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Pet Shop Murder

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.

“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.”

 

Tumanyan said she was frustrated that Burbank law enforcement hadn’t done more to solve the crime: “The police won‘t touch it. They are afraid of the gang members, and they won’t do anything.” She said she was convinced that the Burbank detectives knew the identity of the killer, that she had supplied the leads herself and put her life in danger. “That person said they would come and kill me,” Tumanyan said.

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.

According to several sources, the FBI opened an investigation into recycling fraud in 1998, but the probe was stalled until the Antonyan murder jolted officials into action. What they found was an industry rife with suspicion, accusation and fear. Complained Joe Massey, head of the L.A.-based Coalition of Independent Recyclers, ”We are all guilty by association.“ Added a recycling-center operator who asked not to be named, ”This is a gigantic issue that remains smoldering and never ignites.“

Sarkis Antonyan got into THE business in 1996 with the purchase of High Tech Recycling in Eagle Rock. As became his pattern, he kept his own name out of the picture; state records show the business was registered to his mother.

Antonyan cut a memorable figure in the recycling business, an industry marked by close regulation and narrow profit margins. ”He was flashy,“ said one source. ”He flashed his money around and tried to impress people with it.“

Another source recalled meeting Antonyan at his recycling center. ”He arrived in a black Mercedes. Four weeks later, he showed up in an old Datsun. He just wanted to make an impression. He probably just borrowed the car from a friend.“

One source from the recycling industry said he took the time to get to know Antonyan, and said he came to like him. ”Sam always had a smile on his face. He was a sharp kid and could argue his point.“ But the source said Antonyan’s scams caught up with him. ”His downfall was that he was overtly weaselly. He took ripping people off way too far and way too many times.“

These sources are among several quoted in this story who agreed to discuss Antonyan and his business activities only on condition they not be named. They had good reasons to request anonymity: They feared loss of business if other recyclers or state officials knew they had divulged knowledge of illegal activity, and they feared retribution, possibly by Antonyan‘s killer, who is still at large. We present their comments because of their inside knowledge of the industry, and because they had direct contact with him.

These sources say Antonyan was the leader of a fistful of Armenians in the L.A. area who moved into recycling during the middle 1990s and promptly generated suspicion on the part of established recyclers. ”The Armenians got into the business several years ago and bilked the state out of hundreds of thousands of dollars,“ said one recycler. The fraud spurred increased scrutiny by the state and unfair pricing practices, he said. ”They’re ruining the business for the rest of us.“

Members of Antonyan‘s family dispute that account, asserting that he never engaged in illegal activity, but simply had trouble keeping the detailed forms required to ensure that state dollars were spent solely on California containers. Massey agrees that honest operators often have trouble keeping complete records, and said he believes officials have overstated the amount of graft involved. ”In a program that is $450 million a year, there are bound to be some questionable activities, but whether it’s organized or not is a different story.“

Asked if he believed Armenians were responsible for widespread fraud in the recycling business, Massey said, ”I‘ve heard allegations to that effect. But I think it’s inappropriate to accuse an entire ethnic group because of all the allegations and convictions the Department of Conservation has had.

“Too many times I have heard comments by people in the recycling industry to division inspectors that are unsubstantiated,” Massey said. “Investigations are run all the time, and they can go on forever, and that doesn‘t mean they will find anything.”

 

But the industry veterans who spoke to the Weekly said they know the truth of the matter firsthand. “Until his death, Sarkis denied he was involved in fraud,” said a former associate who befriended Antonyan. “He kept saying that he was the victim, that he wasn’t up to anything, that he made mistakes but wasn‘t doing anything suspicious. But I know for sure he was bringing in out-of-state cans.”

Moreover, the arrival of Antonyan and his cohorts transformed the recycling industry, introducing cons and schemes -- and outright intimidation -- on a scale unseen before.

“I don’t know about organized crime, but they‘re working together,” said one source. “The Armenians came in, and they found a system they thought they could beat. They offer my guys money all the time” as bribes for accepting bogus mater-ials. Refusal to do business will sometimes result in personal threats, this recycler said. “Everybody knows about it,” he said. “All the recyclers in L.A. know it. The police know it. The FBI knows.”

According to state records, Antonyan operated three sites under the High Tech license over the course of several years, and bought into and then sold two other recycling centers -- Tiger Recycling, on Pico Boulevard, and Eagle Recycling, three blocks down from High Tech. Those two were registered to Sarkis’ sister Yelena, who is a schoolteacher in Glendale. A fourth, Lucky Recycling, was registered to Sarkis‘ wife. The licenses for all four centers were revoked by the state at various times for failure to document the sources of the cans and bottles that were being recycled. No charges were ever filed against Antonyan or members of his family, but they were assessed $10,000 in fines.

That is the extent of the official record, but industry sources say Antonyan was active on a much broader scale. He told associates he ran at least a dozen recycling centers and, through various fronts, may have controlled as many as 30. “He would show up at recycling centers and push people to sell the place,” said one recycler who knew Antonyan. “He told us how we were out of step with the market. He’d show up with tens of thousands of dollars in a briefcase. ‘Look what I’ve got here.‘ He got a number of takers.”

That’s not overly surprising. Most recycling centers are low-overhead, low-profit businesses -- grimy, grungy places that generate revenues in the neighborhood of $25,000 a year. But where most prospective buyers would expect slim returns on their investments, sources said Antonyan and his clique learned to wring profits out of his recycling centers in two ways.

The first was to immediately begin running out-of-state containers through the centers he owned. Records required by the state to track the sources of the containers were either falsified or ignored. When inspectors caught up with the scheme, they would move to revoke the center‘s certification, but bogus operators like Antonyan just moved on, either selling the center in question or simply switching ownership on paper. Observed one operator, “Decertifying is a minor inconvenience for recycling centers.”

Key to moving bogus cans was to locate a processor -- a licensed staging yard that receives scrap from the collection centers, bales it in bulk and delivers it to smelters or refabricators -- that would turn a blind eye. According to two sources in the industry, Antonyan and his cohorts found such a processor at Active Recycling, one of the oldest and largest of the 50 processors operating in L.A. County. “Active is the primary place where bad material is going through,” said one. Last year, several weeks after this interview took place, state officials charged Active Recycling with fraud and demanded payment of $1.6 million in restitution and penalties.

The second way Antonyan profited from recycling was through sales of the centers themselves. His former associate described the racket: “He would buy a place, then run a bunch of bad material through it to show the prospective buyer that the business was doing well. He would show the buyer his records, then sell it at an inflated price.” In one case the source detailed, Antonyan bought a center for less than $20,000 and sold it for $75,000. As the source described it, “He was probably doing it primarily to sell the place. Defrauding the state was just icing on the cake.”

The profits from the recycling were never spectacular -- they paled compared to, say, smuggling cocaine -- but for Antonyan and his friends, it was a bonanza. “It’s not per se a Mafia thing, but they travel in packs,” said one U.S.-born associate who got to know the crew. “All these guys from Eastern Europe who watched ‘50s gangster TV shows and styled themselves after them. Maybe a Three Stooges version of the Mafia.” During breaks from operating their rackets, Antonyan and his friends would settle in at one of the Armenian delis scattered around Glendale and feast on platters of roasted meat washed down with bottles of wine and vodka.

 

But they couldn’t settle in for long. Antonyan in particular left a trail of disgruntled business associates. One was Vahe Ibranyan, a lanky fellow Armenian who bought two recycling centers from Antonyan, whose poor reputation with state authorities created immediate problems, and both centers quickly had their licenses revoked. “When I bought the businesses, the state came in and closed them. They thought he had changed the business name but that he was still the owner.”

Ibranyan entered another venture with Antonyan in 1997, according to a claim Antonyan made in a civil lawsuit. That was V&S Auto Dismantling, in Sun Valley. Antonyan owned a second Sun Valley wrecking yard, according to state records, but according to Ibranyan, Antonyan‘s claim to the V&S operation was just another scam.

“I owned the auto-dismantling business,” Ibranyan said in a telephone interview. “I owned the business from the first day to the last.” Ibranyan said Antonyan’s legal claim was bogus, just another scheme to steal money. “He opened a lawsuit and said he was a partner with me. It had nothing to do with him. It never happened.

”He did the same thing with other people.“ Ibranyan said. ”Maybe that‘s why he died.“

The arrival of Sarkis Antonyan, Vahe Ibranyan and a clique of other Armenians in the recycling business set off widespread grumbling inside the industry, and soon caught the attention of state and federal authorities.

”The [state] Department of Conservation came to us with the request we look into fraud against their agency,“ said George Fawrup, supervising agent with the state Department of Justice. Fawrup said an initial investigation found the recycling fraud followed ”similar patterns“ to the Mikaelian gas-tax racket, but he was reluctant to call it organized crime. ”There are cells,“ Fawrup said. ”It might not be one whole group. There may be a spirit of cooperation among [several] groups.“

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.”

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.”

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.”

If Antonyan left a legacy of crime, his murder also energized the authorities regulating the recycling industry. In October 1999, a month after his slaying, agents from the state Department of Conservation and the FBI raided the Los Angeles offices of Active Recycling, the L.A. County processing center favored by Antonyan and his cohorts as a place to send bad materials.

State officials followed up the raid by filing a formal accusation against Active last April alleging “dishonesty, incompetence, negligence or fraud.” In addition, the state Department of Conservation initiated audits of close to a dozen of the recycling centers that relied on Active to process their bottles and cans. Four centers opted to drop out of the business; six more were decertified by the state.

 

Hal Wright, an attorney representing Active owner Errol Segal, noted that the state previously filed accusations against Segal in 1988 and 1992, and said that in both cases Segal won on appeal. In the current cases, Wright said of his client, “He believes he is not guilty.” Wright declined to discuss the cases in detail. “We believe that our position is strong, but we’d rather keep it low-key,” Wright said.

Since the raid on Active, the Department of Conservation has stepped up its enforcement efforts with beefed-up staff and random, unannounced inspections of recycler loads and shipping reports. Massey, of the Independent Recyclers, said he‘s glad to see the enforcement division in action, but termed the episode with Active “a slap in the face for the whole industry. In the eyes of the enforcement agency, we are all guilty. We are nothing but a bunch of crooks.”

Sarkis Antonyan’s survivors think he got a bad rap as well. “He was a really good person,” said one family member. “He lived to serve people. And he lived to protect his family.”

In September, a memorial service drew more than 200 people to the Armenian Community Center in Glendale. “You wouldn‘t believe how many people came up to talk to me,” said one of the Antonyan clan. “My family is very close to the community.”

Too close, in Antonyan’s case, to at least one member of that community. “You have a big Mafia,” said Margarit Tumanyan, Sarkis‘ mother. Tumanyan recounted her frustrations with the Burbank police, and lamented the course of her life in the new world of immigrant Los Angeles. “My husband had a heart attack. My son is dead. Everyone knows, but nobody can touch it.”


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