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Second jury hears violent kidnap case

Former wrestler says he abducted a man to get evidence of a contract killing, but prosecutors say it was a $1-million kidnapping gone wrong.

May 03, 2010|Scott Glover, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

As a young wrestling champion in Soviet-era Armenia, Vagan Adzhemyan was accustomed to head-on confrontations with his foes.

Twenty-five years later, he says, a business dispute in Southern California resulted in the hiring of a hit man to kill him, and Adzhemyan reverted to the mano-a-mano ways of his past.

He and at least one cohort accosted the man whom he believed hired the hit man in an underground parking garage in the San Fernando Valley. They beat him, zapped him with a Taser and hustled him into the back of a van. Over the next five days, with the help of a South Los Angeles sandwich shop owner and part-time marijuana cultivator, they shuttled the bound and blindfolded man from place to place to avoid detection. Adzhemyan also secretly recorded interrogations in which he attempted to get the man, Sandro Karmryan, to implicate himself in the supposed murder for hire.

"They put me in a corner," Adzhemyan, who speaks with a heavy Armenian accent, said in a recent interview from the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles. "I had two choices: Either kill this guy or record him."

Federal prosecutors see it differently.

They contend that Adzhemyan, 42, is nothing more than a common criminal who kidnapped Karmryan and demanded a $1-million ransom. They said Karmryan was bleeding from an untreated bullet wound and on the verge of death when he was rescued during a raid by Los Angeles Police Department SWAT officers. Adzhemyan later concocted the story about being in fear for his life in an attempt to justify his actions, they said.

"What he says — and what he did — just doesn't make any sense," Assistant U.S. Atty. Robert E. Dugdale said.

After hearing Adzhemyan's account on the witness stand at his trial last year, U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Nguyen told jurors that even if everything he said were true, there was still no legal justification for his actions.

Adzhemyan's attorney, Harland Braun, interpreted it as a not-so-subtle hint to find his client guilty.

Nonetheless, after four days of deliberations, the jury was deadlocked. Half of the 12-member panel accepted Adzhemyan's argument that he had no choice but to do what he did.

Prosecutors get another chance at the case in a retrial that began last week. This time, the judge has barred any evidence related to why Adzhemyan committed the crime, ruling that it is irrelevant to his guilt or innocence.

So-called justification defenses are rarely allowed. They can be presented only if a judge determines, among other factors, that the defendant was facing imminent danger of serious harm or death and that there was no reasonable legal alternative to the defendant's action.

So, much of what follows is a story that jurors will probably not hear:

Born in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1968, Adzhemyan began wrestling as a boy. At age 17, he says, he was European champion in his weight class in freestyle wrestling. He says he was invited to the United States to pursue wrestling by the then-coach of the U.S. Olympic team.

As an adult in the U.S., Adzhemyan had long since stopped wrestling competitively, but his life continued to revolve around the sport, he said. He runs a wrestling school in North Hollywood, he says, and organizes international tournaments. He is still recognizable in the Russian Armenian community based on past success in the sport.

His recent troubles began when a friend, Suren Garibyan, asked if he could help arrange financing for a woman who wanted to buy a house. Adzhemyan said he approached Karmryan, an acquaintance who worked at a friend's trucking company and dabbled in mortgages on the side.

Adzhemyan said Karmryan agreed to secure a $500,000 loan for which Adzhemyan and Garibyan would each receive 5% finders' fees.

But as months passed and the loan did not go through, Adzhemyan said, he became suspicious. After spending $25,000 of his own money to help the would-be borrower clean up her credit, Adzhemyan says, he ultimately discovered that the $500,000 loan had already been funded and that Karmryan and others were planning to keep the money.

Adzhemyan said he made some of these discoveries on a wrestling tournament trip to Armenia and Russia last year, which is also when he learned that Karmryan had supposedly taken out a contract on his life.

Unsure what to do, Adzhemyan said, he hid out in Moscow for three months because he did not want to return to Los Angeles and place his wife and children in jeopardy. He said he believed the police would do nothing because he had no proof that his life was in danger. So he decided to get some proof, he said.

Adzhemyan and Garibyan tracked Karmryan to his parents' apartment in Van Nuys, where he was visiting. With him was Arshok Rogoyan, whom Adzhemyan accused of being the hired killer.

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