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Woman Found Guilty of Extortion

Court: She is the fifth in an Armenian crime ring convicted in a plot against a businessman.

April 26, 2002|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal jury on Thursday convicted the last of five Armenian organized crime figures accused of carrying out a kidnap-extortion plot against a prominent Armenian businessman who arrived in the United States seeking political asylum.

Sousanna Ounousian, 38, of Van Nuys was found guilty of extortion, conspiracy to commit extortion, and receiving the proceeds of extortion, after a 10-day trial in Los Angeles federal court.

U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian set a July 22 sentencing date for Ounousian, who faces up to 45 years in prison.

The target of the plot was Armen Karakhanyan, a once well-to-do businessman in Armenia who fled to the United States two years ago after being imprisoned for speaking out against the government there.

Arriving in Los Angeles, Karakhanyan was introduced to Ounousian and the others, who volunteered to help him in settling.

But early last year, authorities said, the businessman's new friends turned on him, demanding that he help them in a bogus check-cashing scheme.

The ring members knew where the rest of his family was living in Moscow, and warned that he would face the same kind of trouble he encountered in Armenia unless he cooperated.

Over a six-week period, Karakhanyan cashed a number of bad checks at his bank, giving the proceeds to Ounousian, according to Assistant U.S. Attys. James Aquilina and Brian Hoffstadt. Ordered next to cash a large, fraudulent check drawn on a Spanish bank, Karakhanyan instead went into hiding in Northern California.

The extortionists suspected that he had fled to Moscow, where his wife, Elmira, was living. Investigators said the ring arranged for associates in Russia to kidnap Karakhanyan and force him to return to the United States.

A few days later, several unidentified men invaded his wife's apartment and abducted a man they thought was Karakhanyan. It was a cousin. In several phone calls to Karakhanyan's wife, the kidnappers threatened to kill the cousin unless their demands were met.

At that point, Karakhanyan contacted the FBI. Under the agency's protection, he returned to Los Angeles and resumed his dealings with members of the ring, who now claimed he owed them $144,000. Despite repeated threats, authorities said, Karakhanyan continued to meet with the suspects until the FBI gathered enough evidence to obtain an indictment.

Ounousian was the only one to go to trial. The four others pleaded guilty to charges ranging from extortion to hostage-taking conspiracy and await sentencing.

They are: Ounousian's husband, Pogos Ketchedjian, 39, of Van Nuys; Ashot Manukyan, 48, of Los Feliz; Hovannes Igarian, 38, of Los Feliz; and Hovsep Keshishian, 36, of Glendale.

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