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A Westside Story of Death, Denial

April 14, 2002|MICHAEL CIEPLY | Michael Cieply is a Los Angeles writer and the parent of a Santa Monica High School freshman.

It's been chilling, like a riff from Stephen King, to watch the comfortable Westside quietly bury a horror in its midst.

Not quite five months ago, a 15-year-old Santa Monica High School sophomore named Deanna Maran was stabbed in the heart--"shanked," as one participant put it--during a party at an upscale Westwood home. About a hundred kids had been in and out of the house that evening. A quarter of them were from Santa Monica High, the rest from some of the best private schools in Los Angeles. Kids at the party say alcohol flowed freely. And law enforcement officials say there wasn't a responsible adult in sight at the home of the Milken Community High School student who hosted the bash.

Maran reprimanded another 15-year-old for breaking some potted houseplants. The other girl left, returning with her 17-year-old half-sister, Katrina Sarkissian, who murdered a pleading Maran as a group of kids watched, screaming "Bitch fight!" and cheering them on. Nobody stopped the assault, nor, apparently, called 911 until after Maran briefly got up, staggered, and then died. The next morning, in a weird coda, Sarkissian herself collapsed in a West Los Angeles police station and died shortly after, having overdosed on an antidepressant.

And the process of forgetting soon began. After talking with 37 witnesses, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office moved against Sarkissian's sister two weeks ago, filing just one count of battery and another of making an unrelated "terrorist threat" against someone other than Maran on a separate occasion. So light were the charges, they didn't even get a line in The Times.

Rebecca Noblin, a deputy D.A. who's handling the case, says no further action is likely, unless significant new information comes to light. According to Noblin, an extensive investigation turned up no firm evidence that anyone had pinned Maran to the ground, despite reports to the contrary. Still, Maran's parents, apparently clear-thinking people who raised five children according to a strict code of personal responsibility, have been told by party-goers that at least one girl held Deanna in a chokehold while she was attacked and many others watched. "My daughter died as entertainment. It [was] a spectator sport," says Harriet Maran, Deanna's mother.

Police interviews, Noblin says, found nothing to support claims that several college-age boys formed a line to keep younger kids from breaking up the cat-fight. She dismisses as "rumors" persistent talk about a group of college students who supposedly scattered to the winds when Maran died.

As to questions about who supplied alcohol to the hundred or so privileged youngsters, Noblin says "that hasn't been the focus," though she supposes police could double back on the issue if they chose. For her even to identify the party's host-family, she says, would require a court order. The law's concern, first and foremost, is to protect and rehabilitate youth, even when they've crossed a hideous line.

"We're only supposed to prosecute people who are guilty. We're not supposed to prosecute people because something horrible has happened and people are frustrated," says Noblin, who points out that the greatest crime in all of this is the general lapse of parental responsibility. The Marans, who had taught their children to resist rather than avoid inevitable temptations, are considering litigation in connection with the incident, but aren't convinced it will really fix anything.

On the prep-school circuit, administrators appear less than eager to discuss how some of their meticulously tended young charges went so badly wrong. Sarkissian's death certificate lists her as a student at Harvard-Westlake, among the most rigorous and prestigious of these schools. To know what pushed this presumably bright young woman, said to be tattooed with the word "Princess" on her back, toward homicidal mania would seem to be of more than casual interest. Was it the drugs, or her parents' long-ago divorce, or maybe the pressures to conform or to perform on a very fast track that starts with the right preschool and runs through the nightmare of college admission? Had she really been thrown out of Harvard-Westlake and bounced around to other private schools as some kids say? Did she once slit the nose of a girl at the progressive Crossroads school, only to have the incident hushed up? It's difficult to know what's become of the social culture in these very private institutions. Harvard-Westlake's headmaster didn't return telephone calls, nor was anyone available to offer comment at Milken, a Jewish temple-affiliated school whose Web site carries a quote: "The world stands on three things: on Torah, Service of God, and Deeds of Loving Kindness." One can only hope these good educators are teaching lessons about the savagery of last November, rather than choosing to look away.

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