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He Stands Up in the Name of Armenians

Attorney's quest to collect insurance for genocide victims' heirs starts to pay off.

April 27, 2001|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a passage from a now-obscure 1918 memoir by Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador to Ottoman Turkey from 1913-1916, that in 1987 changed the focus of Vartkes Yeghiayan's life.

Yeghiayan, a Glendale immigration attorney whose ancestors were among the 1.5 million Armenians who perished at the hands of the Turks in the genocide starting in 1915, recalls, "All at once I came across this paragraph where the interior minister of Turkey asked Morgenthau for the list of Armenians who had purchased life insurance from American companies.

"I jumped out of bed. There was such a list!" Thus began Yeghiayan's 14-year crusade to find the beneficiaries of policies that had been issued by New York Life Insurance Co. to those who later were killed and to get the company to pay up.

Morgenthau, who'd been among the first to condemn the massacres, was infuriated by the minister's statement that, since the Armenians were "practically all dead now" and had no heirs, the money should go to the state: "You will get no such list from me," Morgenthau stormed.

Years later, it was Yeghiayan in pursuit of the list--for quite another purpose. He wrote immediately to then-Secretary of State George Shultz and was told that the list of American insurance companies selling to Armenians would be in the National Archives in Washington. They sent him microfilm of 600 pages documenting insurance companies that had done business there--but no list of policyholders. It was a small start. Now he needed to find the heirs.

Yeghiayan's Armenian friends and associates scoffed, telling him he was tilting at windmills, that the statute of limitations would have run out years earlier.

But earlier this month his determination paid off: New York Life, in a deal negotiated with lawyers brought in by Yeghiayan, William Shernoff of Claremont and Brian Kabateck of Century City, agreed to pay $7 million--10 times the face value of the policies--to an estimated 2,500 claimants and $3 million to Armenian civic organizations.

That, says Yeghiayan, 65, is hardly enough. "They kept this money for 87 years. They invested this money. They profited with this money. What would be fair would be for them to return the money with the profits."

He figures that, at a return of 7% a year for 87 years, "we're talking $657 million." Under the proposed settlement, he calculates, 2,500 claimants would each get $2,800. "That comes to $32.50 a year for 87 years."

Further, he says, his clients were "very disturbed" that Shernoff and Kabateck made a public announcement of a tentative settlement on April 11 before informing them of the deal, "contrary to their retainer agreement." Earlier this week, Yeghiayan brought in another attorney, Mark Geragos, to replace the two.

Shernoff said Thursday that questioning of the tentative settlement is "kind of a surprising development to me" as Yeghiayan was present at the final meeting negotiating it and voiced no objections. He said Geragos' firm has assured him they want him to remain on the case.

Dispute aside, Yeghiayan sees New York Life's overtures as both significant and symbolic. "For the first time [the Armenian community] has gone beyond lamentation and liturgy to litigation," from picketing and "going to church every April 24 [Armenian Day of Remembrance] and mourning" to taking legal action.

In January, the insurance company sent him computer printouts with the names of policyholders, taken from its index cards. At last he had the list which, he says, is "an important treasury," in no small part because for the first time it documents names of those who perished in the genocide.

That list, he adds, also shows that New York Life "admits they haven't paid and admits there was a massacre." But, he adds, "not a single client" of his among about 60, including 11 named plaintiffs, is happy with the proposed settlement.

New York Life spokesman William Werfelman said Thursday that the company is "disappointed that some question the fairness or adequacy of the settlement," which he terms "eminently fair and equitable."

*

Yeghiayan's quest for justice began in earnest in 1990, when he placed a newspaper notice seeking those who believed they were rightful heirs. Alice Asoian of Irvine responded and became a key player in the case. She had possession of her uncle's original policy, issued July 3, 1910, with a value of 3,000 French francs.

Her brother, Martin Marootian, 85, a retired pharmacist living in La Canada Flintridge who is now the lead plaintiff, recalls, "She looked at me and said, 'I was wondering why God kept me alive all these years.' "

From the early '20s, Marootian's mother, Yegsa, tried to collect from New York Life as beneficiary of her brother, Setrak Cheytanian, who was killed by the Turks. She continued her attempts in vain until her death in 1982.

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