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Restaurant Family's Tragedy

Cancer and stress may be why the operator of Zankou Chicken killed his sister and mother.

January 16, 2003|Andrew Blankstein and Michael Krikorian | Times Staff Writers

Family tensions and serious illness may have led the 56-year-old operator of the Zankou Chicken chain to fatally shoot his mother and sister in an upscale Glendale home before turning the gun on himself, police, family and friends said Wednesday.

Glendale police said Mardiros Iskenderian drove to his sister's home in the hills above the Oakmont Country Club on Tuesday afternoon, where the two got into a loud argument before he pulled out a handgun and shot her.

As Dzovig Marjik, 45, lay dying, their mother, Margueritte Iskenderian, 75, bolted for the door before she was hit by gunfire and collapsed in the entryway, said Glendale police spokesman Sgt. Kirk Palmer. All three died at the scene.

The Iskenderian family, which now owns five restaurants, opened a hole-in-the-wall shop in Beirut in the 1960s, a place so small that Margueritte cleaned chickens in the alley, said Krikor Shenian, publisher of the weekly Armenian-English newspaper Nor Gyank, who met the family in 1985.

The Iskenderian family fled war-torn Lebanon and arrived in Los Angeles around 1980.

With her husband, Vartkes, Margueritte Iskenderian founded the popular Zankou Chicken restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood in 1982. With the help of their son and two daughters, the couple opened four more stores.

For a few years, Mardiros had dreams of expanding the business.

"He wanted to open a branch in Paris and ... one in Detroit," Shenian said.

Although the probe is continuing, Palmer said investigators were looking at a combination of factors, including illness and family infighting, that might have motivated Mardiros to take his relatives' lives as well as his own.

Relatives and police said Mardiros had been diagnosed with cancer of the colon and brain and was scheduled to have a medical procedure Wednesday.

Whatever his motive, his anger boiled over at the home in the 3400 block of Ayars Canyon Drive, a hillside cul-de-sac cut into the Verdugo Mountains with commanding views that stretch from downtown to the San Gabriel Mountains.

Police said they received a shots-fired call at 2:23 p.m. Tuesday from Marjik's son. The son and a housekeeper heard but did not see the shooting, police said.

On Wednesday, workers at some of the family's restaurants recalled their employers with fondness.

Cashier Miriam Melkonyan in Van Nuys said of Mardiros Iskenderian: "He's the best boss I see in my life." Describing him as a "kind person," Melkonyan said Iskenderian, his mother, sister and son often came by the restaurant.

"They're a very good family. I like them," she said. "You work for someone 10 years -- he's like one of my family."

Sharky Klian, who has known Mardiros Iskenderian since he arrived from Beirut, described him as a "strong family man very involved in the Armenian community."

"Any time an Armenian organization needed a donation, he would be there for them," said Klian, owner of Sharky's Bail Bonds downtown. "He was a very nice guy. Always helping people. I was just shocked he did something like this."

Tigran Iskenderian, one of Mardiros' four sons, recently began taking over some of the day-to-day operations of the restaurant chain, employees said.

The chain is known for its hefty portions of chicken, hummus, falafel and pita bread. The Zagat restaurant guide rated Zankou's food as excellent, and referred to the rotisserie chicken with the chain's signature garlic spread as perhaps "the single best take-out dish in town."

The popularity of the original restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, where the line often snakes out the door until its midnight closing, has even drawn the attention of rock stars. Singer-songwriter Beck refers to Zankou in the song "Debra." A relative who asked not to be identified said family and friends were shocked by the tragedy.

"Margueritte was the nicest lady I ever knew, and she was the hardest-working lady. She would put in 12-, 14-hour days [at the restaurant]. She wanted her kids to be good, too, but [Mardiros] ... didn't work like his mother," he said.

"Always, always we say if I would have known, maybe I could have done something," he said. "But he shouldn't have done it.

"In my opinion it was the most stupid act."

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Times staff writers Kristina Sauerwein, Massie Ritsch and Steve Hymon contributed to this report.

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