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School rallies behind the mother of two missing boys

Westchester Lutheran, where her sons are students, is helping raise money and spur public awareness.

September 21, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

Zarouhi Meguerian's older son started first grade at Westchester Lutheran School in 2002 and since then, she's never missed the first day of class.

On Sept. 8, Meguerian continued her ritual, visiting the classrooms of sons Alex and Zaven Silah. But the industrial engineer walked alone, holding hands with other mothers instead of her boys.

Authorities say Alex, 12, and Zaven, 8, were abducted in July by Meguerian's former husband, George Silah, 46, an Armenian Syrian. The same day, Silah's brother John left town with his 8-year-old son Greg.

Parental abductions are not unheard of in Los Angeles, where freeway signs often advertise amber alerts for the missing. But the Silah boys' case has had a profound effect on students, teachers and parents at Westchester Lutheran, a 58-year-old private school of 400 students on busy Sepulveda Boulevard. The school has rallied around Meguerian with fundraisers, Internet postings -- and comfort.

Meguerian, 36, grew up in Philadelphia as a naturalized U.S. citizen. She had an arranged marriage in Syria at age 16, then returned to Philadelphia, Three years later, they had another wedding ceremony in Philadelphia and her husband, who graduated from medical school in Armenia but was not licensed to practice in the U.S., moved here to live with her. His brother later joined them and married in 1996; the two men worked for chiropractors, Meguerian said.

In 2000, the Silahs moved to Los Angeles, and George and John started a consulting business in Marina del Rey. John Silah and his wife, Christine Jeanbart, divorced in 2003, and Meguerian and George Silah divorced in 2006.

After the divorces, George and John Silah had limited custody of their sons. This summer, they initially agreed to take the boys to George's time share at the WorldMark Resort in Big Bear for the July 4 weekend, Meguerian said. George Silah was then supposed to take his sons to South Florida, the start of a weeklong Disney cruise in the Caribbean. John and Greg Silah were due to return July 6.

Soon after the boys left, their mothers say, they stopped answering their cellphones. After fathers and sons failed to show up at the resort or board the cruise July 5, police declared the boys missing.

On July 23, a Superior Court judge found that George and John Silah had violated conditions of their custody orders and the district attorney issued warrants for their arrest on three felony counts of child abduction. Los Angeles police are working with agents at the local FBI field office but have yet to find the group.

Meguerian has appeared on Fox News and MSNBC and was interviewed for an episode of "America's Most Wanted," set to air soon. Detectives hope the publicity will help them find the missing boys.

Los Angeles police do not keep statistics on parental abductions, but Det. Lonya Britton, who handles many of the cases, said that 98% of the time, she can return a missing child within a week -- if she finds the child within 48 hours.

"Each day makes it harder and harder," Britton said of the Silah boys. "That's why we keep putting it out on TV, hoping somebody has seen them."

George and John Silah's parents, with whom the sons had shared a rented house in Playa del Rey, moved back to Aleppo, Syria, shortly before the men disappeared, Meguerian said. Britton said police have checked the U.S. borders, flagged the fathers' passports and identification and found some evidence they may have gone overseas, although there is no sign they fled to Syria.

Shortly after Alex and Zaven disappeared, Westchester Lutheran Principal Sandra Masted sent e-mails and letters alerting parents and the 300 families at Westchester Lutheran church, where her husband is pastor. Masted also posted fliers with the boys' photos in the school office and invited Meguerian to speak to her sons' classmates.

At the start of school, Meguerian watched other mothers at the school snap pictures of children in the same new blue-and-white uniforms she had at home, waiting for her sons. Near the back of what would have been Zaven's third-grade classroom, she found his wooden desk, stacked with workbooks, school supplies and his paper name card.

Students filed into the room, including one of Zaven's best friends, Nico Villalobos, who wore a blue-and-white plastic bracelet reading "Find Alex and Zaven Silah." Nico and other classmates spent a Saturday afternoon with their parents selling the bracelets for $20 each outside a nearby supermarket. They raised $2,000 for the Assn. for the Recovery of Children, a Redondo Beach-based nonprofit that is trying to find Alex and Zaven.

Parents at the school also met with leaders of the local Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce about upcoming fundraisers at the school to raise $20,000 for the two mothers and the nonprofit. As of this week, they have raised about half the money. They also contacted the Los Angeles City Council, which in August voted to offer a $25,000 reward for information leading to the Silah boys' return.

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