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Possible Hit-Man Ring No Surprise

Glendale police who discovered an alleged murder-for-hire scheme believe foreign criminals are behind worsening Armenian gang activity.

June 01, 2004|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

It started as an investigation into an Armenian crime ring suspected of running credit card scams out of a Glendale pickle factory.

But thanks to a stroke of luck -- the help of an informant -- authorities believe they stumbled upon a lethal page in the group's business plan: hiring hit men to eliminate seven members of a rival criminal organization.

The arrests that followed constituted one of the largest murder-for-hire cases ever uncovered by the Glendale Police Department, which conducted the investigation with the FBI.

But neither the scope nor the viciousness of the plan surprised authorities. The alleged scheme, they say, is part of a recent surge in violence among the Armenian crime rings that have already transformed Glendale into a hotbed of insurance, medical and credit card fraud.

According to court documents filed by Glendale police, the unnamed group connected to the pickle factory was "heavily involved in credit card fraud, medical and Medicare fraud, check fraud, drug trafficking, [and] extortion."

But police allege that the men also were involved in "numerous shootings, assaults and other violent felony crimes" -- an expansion of the typical Glendale swindler's portfolio that has authorities increasingly concerned.

Four suspects in the murder-for-hire case, including former pickle factory owner Edvard Gyulnazaryan, are awaiting trial on conspiracy charges. Lawyers tried unsuccessfully last week to have the case dismissed. The trial is expected to begin in the fall. Each defendant faces 25 years to life in prison.

In October, two members of the group, Gagik Galoyan and Gayk Tadevosyan, pleaded guilty to solicitation of murder for their part in the alleged scheme, which was planned between 2001 and 2003, according to prosecutors and court documents.

Trouble from Armenian fraud groups has been a problem for this Southern California suburb since the late 1980s, when immigrants from the dissolving Soviet Union began settling in the city en masse. And although criminals constitute a tiny fraction of Glendale's 53,000 residents of Armenian descent, they have placed a heavy burden on police.

Sgt. Steve Davey, who heads the city's multi-agency Eurasian Organized Crime Group, said the criminal element has been responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and a citywide fraud rate that is nearly six times higher than the state average.

Police have a few ideas on what's behind the heightened violence, which they began noticing about four years ago.

Davey believes some of it is carried out by hardened criminals who came to the U.S. to carry out specific crimes, then decided to settle permanently in Glendale.

Police also believe that members of the Armenian Power street gang may be graduating into the fraud rings and pushing them into more violent pursuits.

Davey would not comment on possible connections between Armenian Power and the groups involved in the murder-for-hire case. But in a separate court case pending against one of the plan's intended victims, Armen Sharopetrosian, Los Angeles County prosecutors accuse him of attempted murder "in association with a criminal street gang."

Authorities acknowledge that discovering the murder-for-hire plot probably helped save the lives of criminals. But Davey said the arrests may have also prevented the kind of retaliatory, extrajudicial violence that is increasing on the streets of Glendale.

"This is one that we got lucky and heard about," Davey said. "But there's been so much extortion and kidnapping and other crimes that have gone unreported. We've found cars full of bullet holes, and there's no report on it."

In this case, Davey said, "When you look at who the victims are, they probably wouldn't have reported anything. And that's where it really becomes dangerous. They were going to take matters into their own hands."

The alleged plot first came to light when Gyulnazaryan, 40, asked the informant -- a non-Armenian -- if he knew anyone who would conduct a killing for hire, court records show. Gyulnazaryan apparently met the informant when he hired him to stage fake auto accidents, records show. Eventually they asked the informant to make the hit.

One of their first discussions of a hit took place Feb. 21, 2001, when Gyulnazaryan and Tadevosyan met the informant at the pickle factory, a small brick storefront on an industrial stretch of San Fernando Road, according to court documents.

That day, the men drove to Pasadena, showing the informant a store called the Washington Smoke Shop. Gyulnazaryan told the would-be killer he would be paid $5,000 if he shot a worker at the smoke shop twice in the head, the documents show.

More slayings were discussed in other meetings, which at various times included Galoyan as well as two other suspects: Andranik Safaryan, 24, a surgical technician, and Edgar Hatamian, 21, who was unemployed, documents show.

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