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Valley Suffers a Spate of Killings

September 09, 2002|MASSIE RITSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sunday was no day of rest for the detectives of the LAPD's North Hollywood Division, who have been handed a heavy caseload in the last 12 days: five homicides.

At the station, investigators waited for officers to haul in the only arrest among the cases, a gang member suspected of shooting another alleged gangster at a party early Sunday.

On the streets, one pair of detectives cruised a park near the apartment of a 35-year-old man, looking for information about who stuffed his dead body into a closet. Two more detectives chased down leads on a mysterious double homicide on Labor Day in which two men turned up dead in a burning SUV.

The homicide unit's supervising detective, Mike Coffey, sat at his desk while a pregnant widow described to a sketch artist the man she thinks shot her husband.

Coffey said his three investigators, plus two from North Hollywood's gang unit, were "running into each other. This is very unusual."

From the first of this year through the end of August, the Los Angeles Police Department recorded 446 homicides, a 23.5% increase over the same period last year. Fourteen of those killings took place in the North Hollywood Division, plus four since the tally.

Talking Sunday about the most recent of the slayings in his division, Coffey, a veteran detective, stumbled over his facts. "I'm kind of tired," he said by way of apology.

In that case, a small group of friends was apparently celebrating the 31st birthday Saturday night of Raul Gonzales at an apartment in the 11400 block of Albers Street.

About 1 a.m. Sunday, several men showed up uninvited. Gonzales argued with them on the porch and pushed one against a wall. That man, believed to be 19-year-old Jose Arevalos, pulled a handgun from his waistband and fired at least two shots into Gonzales' chest, Coffey said. Less than an hour later, Gonzales was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Arevalos was arrested Sunday at his home in East Los Angeles. He belongs to a gang, Coffey said; Gonzales allegedly belonged to a different gang.

The streak of North Hollywood homicides began Aug. 29 when neighbors at a North Hollywood apartment building noticed a foul odor and summoned police. Officers found the decomposing body of Kenneth Kitching, bound and stuffed into his bathroom closet.

Investigators believe Kitching, 35, was familiar with his killer and may have met the person in a nearby park.

The second and third homicides happened early Labor Day morning on a quiet street in Studio City. When firefighters rolled up to a burning Mercedes-Benz SUV, they found inside the bodies of Christopher Monson, 31, of Culver City, and Michael Tardio, 35, of Los Angeles. The friends--both motorcycle buffs--had been shot multiple times in their torsos. Investigators believe whoever killed the men set the fire to cover up the crime.

Tardio was a bouncer at the popular Garden of Eden nightclub in Hollywood and comes from a well-to-do family in New York. Coffey wonders why Tardio rented the black sport utility vehicle days before the slayings, since he had his own car. "If we could find the answer to that, we might find the motive," he said.

On Friday morning, after three homicide-free days in the North Hollywood Division, someone shot Artak Jragatsbanian in the head. Jragatsbanian, 26, had been living in a halfway house as part of his sentence for medical fraud, Coffey said. He was supposed to be at work, as the program allowed, but instead was visiting his wife at their home on Colfax Avenue. She is three months pregnant, Coffey said.

Around 9 a.m., a man came by to talk to Jragatsbanian, whose wife went out to get them food. When she returned 10 minutes later, she told police, her husband was dead. Coffey thinks the motive may have been extortion.

*

Detectives ask anyone with information about these homicides to call LAPD's North Hollywood Division at (818) 623-4045. On weekends and during off-hours, call the Detective Information Desk, (877) LAWFULL.

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