GLENDALE — An Armenian merchant described Monday how a confrontation with a group of men allegedly trying to extort $3,000 from him set off a late-night shootout in his clothing store, killing one of the assailants and an uninvolved teenage bystander.
Speaking publicly for the first time since the gun battle at his Mirage Clothing & Shoes store, Ara Karapetian testified at a preliminary hearing in Glendale Municipal Court.
The hearing was held to determine whether six men should stand trial on murder, robbery and conspiracy charges stemming from the Dec. 17 attack. The defendants have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Speaking through an interpreter, Karapetian said it was Artur Atayan, killed in the gun battle that night, who demanded cash and then became violent when Karapetian refused to pay.
"I said, 'I have my own expenses, I don't want to give any money,' " Karapetian said. "He [Atayan] told me, 'You have to give me money.' "
Karapetian said the defendants called earlier that night and asked him to meet them at a restaurant to discuss something, but he refused. The men called back several times, finally saying they were coming over. Karapetian said he then called his brother, who came to his aid.
According to police, the six defendants plus Atayan and another man, Samvel Krboyan, arrived at the store after 11 p.m. Karapetian testified that while he was speaking with several of the men in his office, Atayan and several others got into a shoving match with his brother elsewhere in the store.
Karapetian said he saw a gun in Atayan's hand and ran to call 911, just as Atayan began firing.
As shots rang out, Karapetian said, his 17-year-old nephew and a friend, Edmond Tokatlyan, 19, walked into the store on an unrelated visit.
"I heard my brother's voice," Karapetian said. "After the first [series of] gunshots he said, 'They hit my son.' After the second gunshots he said, 'They hit [Tokatlyan].' "
He said Atayan fired toward his office in the back of the store, trying to hit him. The merchant said he pulled his own gun from a desk drawer, fired one shot in the air, then "continued shooting straight ahead."
Tokatlyan was fatally wounded.
Although Karapetian did not explicitly say the defendants demanded protection money, police and prosecutors say the crime was a "shakedown," with the defendants threatening to force Karapetian out of business if he did not pay.
The case has intensified concerns by local and federal authorities about possible ethnically based extortion rings.
But defense lawyers said after Monday's hearing that their clients have nothing to do with organized crime or extortion. The defendants are Mger Tagvoryan, 23, of North Hollywood, Gagik Kazarian, 44, of Glendale, Karen Takvoryan, 22, and Hovanhes Takvoryan, 23, of Van Nuys, Khoren Broutian, 32, of Hollywood and Hovik Fiterz, 36, of North Hollywood.
The lawyers contended the men were friends of Karapetian and Atayan, and went to the store that night to intervene in a business dispute between the two men over a debt.
"Artur and Artur alone had a dispute with this guy," said Karen Takvoryan's attorney, Alex Kessel. "Unfortunately, Artur, in his poor judgment, brought out a gun and it escalated into violence."
The attorneys said Karapetian concocted the extortion scenario. They said the truth about what happened at the clothing store that night will be revealed as more evidence, including ballistics reports, becomes available.
In his testimony Monday, Karapetian said only Atayan demanded money from him that night, but Deputy Dist. Atty. Eleanor Hunter said the witness had earlier told police that two other defendants also pressured him for cash. Hunter said in court she may play portions of a recorded police interview with Karapetian when testimony resumes in court today.
The seventh suspect in the case, Krboyan, 42, of Van Nuys, is still being sought by police.