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Puerto Rico judge releases suspect in North Hollywood killing of text-messaging teen

Zareh Manjikian, suspected in the 2009 shooting of a teenager, had been tracked to Puerto Rico and taken into custody. A judge there ignored a request from Los Angeles and released him on a $50,000 bond. The suspect has disappeared again.

June 06, 2011|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • In the months after his son's death, Art Yepremyan, above left, with his wife, Ani Atajyan, lost hope that police would find a suspect. They did, but he has now vanished.
In the months after his son's death, Art Yepremyan, above left, with… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

After 18 months, the manhunt was drawing to a close: Police had tracked the man they believe shot and killed a teenager outside a North Hollywood department store thousands of miles away to a flat near Puerto Rico's capital city.

Federal marshals on the island surrounded Zareh Manjikian's apartment complex in Carolina, a beach town teeming with tourists and perfect for an outsider looking to keep a low profile.

The 23-year-old finally appeared, pulled out in his car and headed down the coast. Marshals followed him into a neighboring beach town and, when the opportunity came, swooped and boxed his vehicle in. He was hauled away in cuffs.

When the slain teenager's father took the call from a detective informing him of the arrest, his hands trembled so hard he had to pull off the 405 Freeway. At last, he felt some closure.

But that feeling was short-lived.

A judge in Puerto Rico ignored a request from authorities in L.A. to hold Manjikian without bail, releasing the murder suspect on May 13 on a $50,000 bond, officials said.

Manjikian hasn't been seen since.

Los Angeles Police Det. Thomas Townsend, who has been investigating the killing, was beside himself.

"How do you allow a murder suspect out on a no-bail warrant, how do you not honor that?" he said. "Where's the justice there?"

The November 2009 killing that Manjikian is accused of committing drew national attention after being detailed in The Times last year. The events that led to Mike Yepremyan's death began after he sent a text message to his girlfriend, calling her friend Kat Vardanian a bitch.

According to prosecutors, Vardanian saw the text message and, enraged, called her brother to beat up Yepremyan. Soon after, Yepremyan began receiving phone calls from a stranger who eventually told him to meet him at a Sears parking lot in North Hollywood, according to witnesses.

There, Yepremyan and several friends encountered two men. The conversation appeared to be coming to a peaceful conclusion when, suddenly, one man struck Yepremyan. Right after that, authorities said, Manjikian brandished a gun and shot the 19-year-old in the back of his head.

Manjikian and the other man, identified by prosecutors as Vahagn Jurian, sped off in a black BMW with no front license plate. Jurian's father told authorities that he had received a call from his son the day after the shooting in which he tearfully described involvement in a deadly dispute.

Jurian, who police believed had fled to Armenia, was initially charged with being an accessory after the killing. But authorities decided to drop that charge with the hope of persuading him the coast was clear for a return to the U.S., where they'd eventually build a case against him. The ruse appears to have worked, as Jurian did return to the San Fernando Valley sometime thereafter.

Last week, Jurian's Van Nuys home was being watched by police, who moved in and arrested the 23-year-old on suspicion of murder after Manjikian's arrest. He remains in custody.

For the Yepremyans, Manjikian's release from custody has been difficult to accept.

"This emotional roller coaster, it's just terrible," said John Nazarian, a private eye hired by the Yepremyans to help find the suspect. "It was … the worst-case scenario that could be imagined for the parents of a boy who was killed, to see their boy's killer caught, captured, only to be released."

Attempts to reach the judge who granted Manjikian bail were unsuccessful.

In the months after his son's death, Art Yepremyan lost hope that police would find a suspect. He hired Nazarian, and together they began identifying individuals they believed might have been involved based on relationships with Jurian, Vardanian and others. They created a list of hundreds using online social networking sites and other sources, then began honing that list.

Armenian Americans hail from all over world, but the construction of their last names can reflect their origins.

Art Yepremyan, an Armenian immigrant himself, said he isolated names that could be traced to Armenia, where he believed his son's killer was from. Using connections from that country, he further narrowed the names down to families that lived in a particular neighborhood there, where he believed the killer's family had lived.

In an interview in his backyard last year, he scrawled a haphazard web of links from one supposed suspect to another. As unconventional as his methods may have been, he identified Manjikian as the man he thought killed his son, the same man the LAPD eventually accused.

He said the news that Manjikian had been arrested brought him relief, not joy. The idea that he has slipped through the cracks yet again, he said, is crushing.

"I was OK finally, I thought justice will come soon," he said. "If somebody told me this was possible, I would not believe. It said no bail, it said no bail."

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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