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Prominent Lawyers Defend Teen Suspects

Courts: Youths accused of killing Taft High student have attorneys such as Robert Shapiro and Jill Lansing representing them.

July 23, 1998|EVELYN LARRUBIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYLMAR — These are not the lawyers one typically sees in Juvenile Court. But then, neither are the defendants.

In their efforts to defeat murder charges, the parents of a half-dozen mostly private-school-educated teenagers have hired a gaggle of private attorneys, including high-powered celebrity lawyer Robert Shapiro, Death Row Records attorney David Kenner and well-known defense lawyer Jill Lansing, who represented Lyle Menendez during his first trial.

Shapiro and Kenner have been in Sylmar Juvenile Court all week, claiming that two of the teens who are charged with the May murder of a 17-year-old at a million-dollar Encino home were not involved in the slaying.

Kenner said the four other suspects implicate each other--but not these two--and that an eyewitness that police said identified his client said police put words in her mouth.

Shapiro and Kenner have been trying to get the charges against their clients, Michael Aintablian and Sayat Oruncakciel, dropped. That effort failed when Juvenile Court Judge Morton Rochman ruled that the state has a case against them.

They have also called friends, psychologists and a former principal to testify on the teens' behalf and submitted letters vouching for their character in a bid to get the teens released from Sylmar Juvenile Hall on bail. A hearing on the matter will continue today.

Abtin Tangestanifar, a popular Taft High School student, was stabbed 11 times in the stomach, back, side and arm during the May 31 attack at a "Sweet 16" birthday party in Encino, Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven R. Belis said in court. The boy's heart and spleen were slashed.

In the days following the attack, Los Angeles police arrested six teenagers on charges of assault and premeditated murder: Ari Tomasian, Dikran Tchakirian, Pete Makhdomian, Aram Oknaian, Aintablian and Oruncakciel. The district attorney's office is seeking to have them tried as adults. Police said Tomasian, Tchakirian and Makhdomian are associated with a street gang composed of Asian and some Armenian members.

Belis said the attack began after Tomasian, a known member of the Jef Rox street gang, told his friends that "some Persian guy"--a friend of Tangestanifar's--was causing problems during the party. Tomasian suggested they all wait for the trouble-maker to leave.

"Ari makes the statement: 'I'm going to kick some ass,' " Belis said. "They weren't just going to have words with him. They were lying in wait to commit violence."

Police said Tangestanifar and another teen were escorting a drunken friend out of the party when one of the defendants approached them, saying: "Where are you from? We're from Jef Rox." The defendants then started swinging.

Although there were dozens of witnesses, no one saw who stabbed Tangestanifar, police said.

As Belis recounted the killing, the slain teen's parents began to sob in court.

Paul Paladino, an investigator with Kenner's office, said one of the witnesses who told police Oruncakciel was involved in the fight could not later identify him in a photograph and that the other, the hostess of the party, now claims he was not there.

Kenner and Shapiro called two witnesses Wednesday, friends of the defendants who testified that the pair were not involved in the fight. Kenner said an outpouring of community support backs their contention that these two boys are not capable of what the police claim they did.

"We believe that neither Michael nor Sayat were involved," Paladino said. "I think we have one tragedy compounded by another."

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